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Blanket Suppliers see Decent Start to Season

Blanket manufacturers are heading into the critical days of the highly seasonal selling cycle in a touchy retail environment.

General price compression is one factor hitting the category. So is the highly promotional holiday posture many retailers are taking to drive traffic. However, the season appears to have gotten off to a decent start, all things considered.

"It's not great out there, but it's not a disaster out there," said Biddeford Blankets president Mark Porter, who said sales of the company's electric heated products were going well despite a mild November.

For Berkshire Blankets, "We have seen some positive POS [point of sale] trends this season," said Tom Bowles, ceo. "There is a certain amount of loss leading. People have been using blankets as door busters." However, he said, items being used in such a fashion at one account doesn't seem to be impacting business at other accounts."

The downward pricing on commodity products has been a significant factor for the widely distributed microplush construction, said Tim Bynum, executive vp, Suntex, the U.S. fashion textiles division of longtime blanket and throw manufacturer Sun Yin.

"We know there is a life cycle. The wheel of the retailer turns. We know microplush is great and salable, but we've already seen price compression. I really think the blanket business is going to evolve over the next couple of seasons to the next fabrication, whatever it's going to be."

Downlite, which deals with moderate and upmarket channels, is seeing most of its business in the moderate price point range, said vp of sales and marketing, Chad Altbaier.

He sees business as "comparable to years past — but with more pressure on achieving lower retailers and driving more promotional opportunities."

Occupying an altogether different space in the market, Pendleton Woolen Mills actually saw dramatic price increase this year because of the escalation of wool pricing and the weakness of the dollar, said Bob Christnacht, division manager for home.

Pendleton does 50% of its business in the Native American market and sells through its own stores and catalogs as well as resorts.

By early December, Pendleton's business was improving over its performance in the early season.

"Retailers are exceeding plan," he said, "although their planning was very conservative."

Various manufacturers are addressing in market in different ways. For Pendleton, it's a matter of presenting blankets as "functional fashion" for the bed. Berkshire goes after the gift market with its Cozy Wrap program, now in its third year. Biddeford has spun off line extensions, such as electric headed bed pads and electric heated throws, aiming at consumers who want to turn down their thermostats to save money. Downlite is focused on developing value-added technologies. Sun-Tech is looking to create the next hot construction.

In terms of outlook for 2010, it's too early to tell, most suppliers said.

Downlite sees most retailers planning flat, said Altbaier.

Porter believes much of the planning will be based on how sales go this season. "The winter that you're in is the winter that they forecast for," he said.

Pendleton's Christnacht thinks that with leaner inventories bringing retailers some margin this season, "it's setting us up for a much better 2010."

Sun-Tech's Bynum offered: "At least we think we're prepping for a recovery."

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