Polyester Surge Causes Stitch in Textiles

Jill Rowen, December 21, 2010

Vendors Still Upbeat on Blankets, Warming Devices

NEW YORK - An unprecedented rise in the price of polyester sent suppliers into a tailspin just before the Thanksgiving holiday. All eyes were on China as prices rose about 49% in just a week.
     Though prices have begun to drop since that fateful week, blanket makers who play in polyester are faced with the decision to buy high or wait to buy, with no guarantee that prices will fall back to their lower numbers. On top of years-long complaints about cotton pricing as well as rising wool prices due to dry conditions in Australia and other regions, blanket makers are all working through significant raw materials cost. The bottom line: prices will go up at retail, with some vendors forecasting that consumers will see the results in the third quarter of 2011.
     Despite the volatile situation many find themselves in, most blanket supplies that HTT spoke with had a positive outlook. The season is starting well, with many reporting good sales coming off Black Friday. In addition, trends such as plusher fabrics and new developments in warming devices that increase function, comfort and fashion are all attracting customers.
     The Chinese proverb that wishes people a life in "interesting times" came true for Ross Auerbach, president and ceo, The Northwest Company, who found himself in Asia during the polyester blow up.
     "It was really something to be there for this debacle," he noted.
     Like others, Auerbach is anxious to see the fall out - "historically, prices have gone down before Chinese New Year in February," he noted - but Northwest is not sitting on its hands. "We are a market leader in throws and had to take a position," he noted. "We have an obligation to service our customers and are buying, not waiting."
     Auerbach sees positive signs in China's recent decision to put controls on food and cotton prices, hoping that will stabilize the economy more.
     Auerbach projects a rise in prices for staple home products in the second half of 2011, and has one other concern: younger retail buyers.
     "Buyers who haven't lived through inflationary times are going to have to be educated on rising prices by their executives. These buyers are used to seeing prices go down," he said. Despite the upheaval, Auerbach is optimistic. "We've had a good year, and Black Friday sales were great for us. I'm very optimistic," he said.
     Another polyester player, Berkshire Blanket felt the disruption in the marketplace, according to Thomas Bowles, ceo. "There are a lot questions about how to deal with bids and programs and how much it will dip and when," he said. While that plays out, he noted that the business of blankets continues, with retailers looking for "newer products that break new ground."
     Making waves for Berkshire are higher pile products, with piles as high as 35 millimeters, which have had good sell through and have been a "big hit in the market," he said.
     "The market has been on fire for us; we're very pleased," reported Robert Christnacht, division manager, home, Pendleton Woolen Mills.
     After an uptrend in blanket sales during last year's cold winter, Christnacht reported that many retailers realized the benefits of focusing on the blanket area.
     "They wanted to improve the quality of the blanket department to meet demand and stay on trend," he said. The resurgence of an "Americana" trend has also helped Pendleton's traditional designs see increased sales. The company is partnering with iconic brand Levi's and with trendy retailer Urban Outfitters, for instance, both of which have attracted a younger, hipper customer for the brand.
     "We face the same pressures as everyone: sourcing, quality and pricing," Christnacht said. "The currency devaluation of the U.S. dollar and draughts in Australia and New Zealand are impacting us. We've passed on price increases, but they have been minor due to our mill and operational efficiency."
     "Like everyone else, we're planning as well as we can and hoping for the best," noted Cheryl Morse, director, digital commerce, marketing, Ellery Homestyles.
     The company is expanding its place in blankets with new products in its ComfortTech line which features 3M's Thinsulate insulation technology. "There hasn't been anything like this in the market," Morse noted. Ellery is offering a good, better, best assortment, with "good" debuting this month at Bed, Bath and Beyond. According to Morse, Ellery will also produce ComfortTech throws.
     Warming devices are also attracting attention, with suppliers hawking the energy savings and newer technology.
     "The need for energy savings, particularly in this economy are more top-of-mind than ever before. These products provide a way to turn down your heat and lower your energy bill. So, this category has remained good in recent years," said Jeff Chilton, president, sales, marketing, Perfect Fit.
     According to Chilton, the market has responded to innovation: "No one wants ‘the old style construction' from the old days of electric blankets. We are definitely using better, prettier, plusher fabrics-not your ‘grandma's blanket'," he said.
     "We participate in the ‘best' category of this market with a patented ‘low voltage' product," Chilton explained. "We continue to hide our very thin wires for more comfort. There is one old electric brand in this category, so we see an opportunity with branding."
     Mike Fretwell, vp, personal care and wellness, Jarden Consumer Solutions (JCS), Sunbeam's parent, calls the company's approach to design for its collections "progressive."
     "Each season, we collaborate closely with our design team to infuse each of our lines with on-trend color palettes and unique, handcrafted prints and patterns that mirror the looks featured in Top of Bed," he noted. "This year, we introduced new design collections in our heated throw line, including new animal prints, contemporary damask patterns and classically inspired floral and plaid prints. Moving forward, we see design and color playing an even greater role in the 2011 heated bedding season." This year, the company also introduced its LoftTec fabric and reversible Sherpa/RoyalMink throws.
     According to Fretwell, Sunbeam Heated Bedding has also introduced a new merchandising/ packaging direction in 2010.
     "Through ongoing consumer research, we found fabric and softness are critical purchase drivers for heated bedding," he noted. With that in mind, the company reusable tote bags, open window boxes and trendy ribbon belly bands. "Our graphics reflect a fresh, new look for this mature category with simplified feature statements and fresh, contemporary visuals that draw the consumer to shelf to learn more," said Fretwell.
     For Fretwell, JCS is better prepared then most in the midst of economic upheavals.
     "JCS has a clear advantage over many of our competitors due to our size and sourcing expertise as well as favorable transportation rates from shipping companies," he noted. "The single biggest advantage JCS has over our competition is our factory in Waynesboro, Mississippi. We are able to avoid much of the increase cost of labor through automation and speed while ensuring we are able to meet our customers' demands in season."

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See the May 2017 issue of Home & Textiles Today. In this issue, we discuss our annual Market Basket survey, which finds higher prices and more polyester at leading retailers. See details!