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New Fibers, Fabrications Broaden Lines

Improved Technology Driving Many Alternative Down Offerings

Jill Rowen -- Home Textiles Today, December 4, 2006

Advances in fibers, fabrics, and production techniques have shifted the ground under down and down alternative products. Once a marketplace where 20% of bedding products were down-alternatives, many vendors report it's now a 50/50 split. Rising down costs are part of the reason, but it is really the improved technology that is driving many down alternative offerings, which mirror the loft and softness of down ever more expertly.

"Down alternatives have gained market share for several reasons. Yes, one of them is the rising cost of down. The other major reason is the increased offerings on down alternatives," said Scott Walters, director of product development, Louisville Bedding. "Better cluster fills, and 'gel' or cut-staple micro fibers have made it possible to manufacture better quality products — taking market share from naturals. The more these fibers evolve, the better the products will be."

As the products change, shoppers are also learning to expect more from down alternative products. "We're finding consumers trading up to better fabrics and improved constructions," said Jeff Hollander, principal of Hollander. "In the past, down alternatives were too stiff and bulky; now there's new comfort in how it feels and performs," added Andrew Schantz, vp of Hollander's Laura Ashley brand.

"We're making more comfortable down alternative products, and there is more diversity in the offerings in the marketplace," agreed Michael Guidry, vp, American Textiles. "More diversity means more points of differentiation for manufacturers and retailers."

At Hudson Industries, combining the selling points of down with the properties of memory foam allows the company to market the best of both. Lonnie Scheps, vp, pointed to the company's success with its Comfort Cloud pillow, which has a cotton cover filled with white down, and "self-molding, temperature-sensitive memory foam" on the inside.

Down Lite recently announced it will be the exclusive provider of PrimaLoft, a well known down alternative brand, to the marketplace. However, the company is also experimenting with various other fabrics, fibers and blends. According to Stefan Hunter, marketing director, the biggest push is in Tencel/Lyocell fabrics; he notes that Down Lite was the first to market with a Tencel/Bamboo blend fabric for top of bed items.

At the same time that technology and fabrication improves, margins continue to be tested, as in all home categories.

"We've seen some resistance to increased prices on opening price point natural fills," said Walters. "Retailers insist on protecting those opening price points. So this has pushed margins lower for both retailers and manufacturers."

Even Hollander's Laura Ashley brand has felt the pinch. According to Schantz, the price demands may be slightly less in the higher-end branded category, but rising costs still put pressures on their margins.

"We've taken our eyes off the ball to some extent," noted Fritz Kruger, senior vp, Pacific Coast Feather. "The market is very price-focused. The emphasis should be 'What does this product do; what does the consumer want it to do; what are they willing to pay for that?'"

As the choices for consumers widen, new issues are cropping up in the marketplace as well. One vendor likened the down alternative category to the Wild West. Once 'down alternative' meant a polyester-fill product, he said, but the advent of new production techniques and fibers has broadened the term to where it is not easily defined. With few controls over the term, he said, vendors are battling with some competitors that are quick to put a 'down alternative' label on a product that doesn't always deliver in terms of loft and softness.

On the other side of the coin, down itself has — mostly unjustly —suffered from bad press including misconceptions about allergens, and the scare of SARS and the avian flu. Still there are plenty of consumers avid for both down and down alternatives, and these consumer groups differ very little in what they expect from the products they buy.

"I think the customers are similar in what they are looking for," said Walters. "They want a light, lofty product that is soft and warm. It's proven that they know exactly what they want. A down customer wants "Down," and vice versa. I think we're trying to market them very similarly."

Down Lite has taken its case to the web with a new site called www.WhyBuyDown.com, which it launched to take advantage of the holiday buying season. Questions such as 'Can I wash my down comforter?' and 'How does something get to be called down?' help in clearing up some of the misconceptions, said Hunter. The company has also created a site for retail buyers, www.downbuyingguide.com, which includes a Down 101 primer.

Overall, while suppliers report a significant rise in down alternative sales, down itself remains an important player.

"Down will never go away. No alternative product is going to do what down can do in terms of its breathability and other natural properties," said Amy Webster, vp, basic bedding, Hollander.

Walters at Louisville concurs. "Feather-and-down is a major initiative for us," he said. "We have appointed a dedicated product manager to this category and see this as a major source of growth moving forward. We will be offering, for the first time, a full range of feather and down products under key national brands, as well as a new proprietary brand. New fabrics and fills will be offered with several different levels of price points that will be marketed to different levels of retail. It is very exciting. We will have all sectors of the basic bedding category covered."

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