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  • Cecile Corral

Bath Concentrates on Value, Sustainability and Technologies

In the cloudy economy’s bath business climate, the forecast calls for — no surprise — more value pricing, new technologies with a sustainable edge, and solid brands that can distance a product from the otherwise predictable basics.

That is what suppliers and manufacturers of bath products told HTT as they ready themselves for the next six to 12 months.

Still looking to lure wary consumers, suppliers have found that they must be flexible and ready to adjust their strategies in working with retailers’ new approaches to the business, and they must be willing to bend on price and product.

“There was 'open to listen’ [at September market] and [buyers] seemed they have managed their inventories with money for the right promotion,” said Bob Hamilton, director of marketing, New York-based Welspun USA.

With that “open to listen” more prevalent than “open to buy,” suppliers are seeing a slower start to new program roll outs, said Jeff Kaufman, president and coo, Moonachie, NJ-based Avanti.

“Clearly, there are less retailers and less space and less appetite for big risks. So they are doing more testing instead of diving in with both feet,” he explained. “Today, it takes longer to roll out a new fashion program. It has to prove itself before earning itself a more permanent slot on the selling floor.”

Even so, Avanti’s terry business — especially products featuring transitional and botanical looks — has been “very strong” in recent months as have metal and novelty looks in the accessory category, he said.

New York-based Ex-Cell Home Fashions is engaging its customers with different looks to meet pricing demands.

“Our strategy is to be sensitive to price challenges by coming up with alternatives,” said Ida Moran, vp, merchandising, fashion bath.

Such efforts include accessory collections that use new material combinations, such as ceramic with wicker or ceramic with sheet metal.

Also being creative to achieve target price brackets is Westgate, which recently added shower curtains. The New York-based company’s line comprises mostly stand-alone product, but because of Westgate’s extensive fabric production capabilities, the company said it is able to offer the option of matching shower curtains to bedding and other programs for fully coordinated looks.

Bellmawr, N.J.-based Ginsey described the emergence of affordable “stay-cations” — or staying at home for vacation — as helping, not hurting, its bath solutions business.

“Investments into home goods, once considered utility purchases, are now thought of as comfort or fashion purchases,” explained Jeff Cohen, svp, sales.

In response, Ginsey has created its “GelSpa” line of comfort tub pieces made of a cushioned open weave material that allows for both comfort and easy drainage of water. Components include a full cushioned bath mat with a gel chamber headrest, and “Gel” slippers “to complete the pampering experience,” Cohen said. GelSpa it set to hit retail shelves in early 2010.

Along with nesting-type products and looks, sustainability is a direction retailers increasingly want to travel, and one way to get there has been to demand environmentally sound products and practices from suppliers. Bath companies are part of the movement, but the effort doesn’t always pay off.

“We offered some organic programs a few years ago, but it just wasn’t really selling well,” explained Bob Weiss, vp, sales and marketing, New York-based Creative Bath Products. “I guess consumers don’t want to pay extra for it.”

Trident Group is finding a better consumer reception to its eco-friendly bath towels, such as hemp, in the West Coast region and less in the East Coast. “But I haven’t given up, especially on our hemp towel,” said Joanne Krakowski, U.S. sales and marketing manager, Trident.

Krakowski, who works from the company’s New York offices, noted that while its price is “a little higher,” hemp’s attributes are worth the cost — it performs 150 times better on shrink and absorbency than cotton.

She added that the “hurdle” in conveying hemp’s benefits lies at the consumer — not the retailer — level.

“It is not even about the buyers — they all love it,” Krakowski explained. “It’s the consumers. Those on the East coast are just starting to grasp this concept. By comparison, on the West coast they love it and would buy it in a heartbeat. The biggest hurdle has been getting people to understand the value of sustainable products. Hemp, for example, not only has a better hand than straight cotton, it is more resilient and more durable. You get what you pay for.”

Also offering added value but more within recession-proof price points are brands. Vouching for this are Loftex and Baltic Linen Co.

“I’ve almost protected myself by offering brands and licenses,” said Rick Lipton, director of bath coordinates, New York-based Baltic Linen Co. “Brands offer protection at many levels and a certain degree of leverage with the pricing. That’s because you have something the consumer recognizes — the consumer is very brand conscious — and that leverage of knowing there is consumer acceptance makes it easier for you to sell the product.”

Baltic Linen Co. is the bath coordinate licensee for the Echo brand. The company launched the first collection for the brand — which has expanded from designer accessories into home products in recent years — in March and launched the line then at the New York Home Fashions market.

Loftex’s high-end Natori designer collection, which also debuted in March, has been a highlight for the company this year despite the recession’s effects on higher-end retail, said Gretchen Dale, coo.

“I think our Natori line is doing well for two reasons,” Dale outlined. “First of all, it has a decorative end-hem, and secondly its color palette is different from anything out there.

“I might not have had the nerve to try it if Josie [Natori] didn’t want to try it. It was its over-the-edge colors that sold right out of the gate. It was the fuchsia, cinnabar, anthracite — those were the ones that started to check out immediately because they offered real excitement to the customer.”

The Natori bath towel retails for $29.99.

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