Sleep Pillow Makers Innovate to Win

Full-Featured Products Fight Price Crunch

Jill Rowen, October 16, 2006

Amid growing concern about pricing in the sleep pillow marketplace, manufacturers are focusing on new technology to better sell a good night’s sleep at retail. Overall, vendors report a climate where the basics and utility business is coping with increasingly aggressive promotional price points at retail, while new materials and innovative, “functional” constructions are proving to be the brighter spots — and commanding higher prices — in what Home Textiles Today estimates is a $750 million sleep pillow marketplace.

“Retailers believe that the answer to stagnant business is lower prices in a market where the prices are rising for everything: cotton, polyester, packaging,” said Bob Hickman, senior vp, sales and marketing, United Feather & Down. Hickman added, “The premium, better brands command more acceptable margins.”

“The discount stores are challenging traditional department stores,” agreed Tom Mendl, director of marketing, PrimaLoft. “But the real battle is in generic, where the prices keep going down and down. It is a very competitive marketplace and everyone is trying to create a point of difference for their products.”

“The market is moving up in terms of thread count and quality, but retailers are not moving up in their pricing,” concurred Dan Schecter, vp of sales and marketing, Carpenter.

Carpenter has focused on wellness and support benefits in its pillow lines, which Schecter notes has helped margins, but warns that many claims of better function in the marketplace go unsubstantiated. “All our claims go through a rigorous testing process,” he reported.

To compete effectively, manufacturers seem to each be looking for their specialty niche, and many are finding new ways to communicate their messages to retail buyers and consumers. Labels and packaging are getting ever more specific about the benefits and technological breakthroughs of constructions and fills, despite the fact that many Americans are admittedly still “pillow-huggers,” usually using that as the final, physical gauge of whether a pillow is coming home with them.

“Spa,” “Luxury,” and “Natural” continue to be the most-used words describing the current trends, but as consumers get more savvy about buying pillows, terms like “Anti-microbial” also become important.

“Consumers are more knowledgeable and know what they want, but some language may be confusing,” said Jyl Quaintance, creative manager, Down Lite, a leading supplier of private label pillows and bedding. “We work on friendly consumer language that will help them choose the right product. Do they sleep on their back, sides, stomach? What fill power do they want?”

According to Quaintance, natural and organic fills — like bamboo and cotton — are also a continuing trend.

Down Lite recently announced that it has signed an agreement to become the exclusive provider of PrimaLoft to the marketplace beginning in 2007. Commenting on the agreement, PrimaLoft’s Mendl noted, “We work well with Down Lite and this is a business decision which will allow us to focus on research and development and delivering everything our customers need.”

So what is a customer willing to pay for a feature-packed pillow?

At PrimaLoft, Mendl reports many of their pillows start at $29. According to Schecter, Carpenter’s Ambient Comfort pillows, which are designed to increase oxygen flow to the body, sell between $39 and $59.

“There is no ceiling for what a consumer will pay for pillow,” said Schecter. “A consumer will pay as much as she can as long as the desired benefit is there.” To help the consumer make that decision, Carpenter is launching a new website,, in mid November. The revamped site will explain to consumers how to buy a good sleep pillow, and will outline the various constructions and materials available.

“Honestly, what helped pricing is that brands like Tempur-Pedic pushed the envelope in pillow pricing,” according to Ralph Rossdeutscher, president, Natura World. And the reasons consumers are paying these prices is due to the widening range of features and functions. Natura World specialty pillows command from between $20 and $89 in standard sizes, Rossdeutscher said.

“You will always have an audience for the generic pillows, and they will be around for a long time,” said Hickman of United Feather & Down. “But you also have retailers like Bed, Bath and Beyond doing well with $40 to $50 synthetic pillows and even $100 and up for down pillows.”

At Sleep Studio, the success of memory foam pillows under the SleepJoy brand depends upon a savvy consumer. The typical Sleep Studio customer is a baby boomer female who wants lifestyle bedding, according to vp Chris Ernst. Among Sleep Studio’s newest products is a 'next gen’ memory foam pillow which features a cool, breathable base with activated charcoal that acts as a freshener. SleepJoy pillows are packaged in branded color boxes or in vinyl bags with rope handles, all part of the overall marketing and educational effort for the brand.

The latest introduction by United Feather & Down is the SleepEzzz pillow, a patented, FDA-approved pillow that claims to reduce snoring. The company’s Hickman reports a great response to the pillow — no doubt from buyers with noisy significant others. It features a tube construction encased in a conventional shape pillow, filled with polyester, or down or a blend at higher prices.

Rossdeutscher reports business at Natura World is growing well for its unique, high-end pillows. Leaders in the new offerings are the Ylang Ylang pillow of 100% cotton covering a soft wool fill; a Lavender pillow with a replaceable sachet of buckwheat and lavender; and a Secret Skin Saver pillow that is infused with aloe.

Natura World has also offered an organic line of pillows for the last 12 years. And, while the “nature” trend is helping its cause, it is still a relatively small part of its business, according to Rossdeutscher.

While it would seem natural to include down in the “natural” category, many consumers actually prefer down alternatives, if only for the perceived issue of allergens. “There is definitely a synthetic customer out there, especially with so much better technology,” said Fred Buonocore, vp, Blue Ridge Home Fashions.

“The customer ratio is about 50/50, feather to fiber. I think many thought it would fall more into the 30/70 range,” observed Buonocore. He agrees that the promotional pricing crunch has made it tough on manufacturers, but said Blue Ridge is doing well with its down and down alternative Royal Velvet line, licensed from Official Pillowtex.

Of course, fabulous new features are not for everyone.

PrimaLoft’s Mendl remarked, “There are going to be people who care and pay attention, and therefore will pay more for quality.” And, not.

“Pillows are a very personal thing,” observed Rossdeutscher. “You can never try to oversell it. Someone will always love it, and someone will always hate it.”

Both executives agree, however, that there are plenty of consumers who will remain content to buy generic, basic pillows — and the pricing challenges will go on.

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