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Bath Accessories Vendors Adjust to Challenges

Retail Demands, Materials Mix are Key Issues in Flat Market

Jill Rowen -- Home Textiles Today, October 2, 2006

New York —Steady as she goes. That's the consensus among leading vendors in the category of bath accessories. Business has been stable, they report, as most companies have found some way to continue balancing the challenges of rising raw material costs along with the whims of a demanding retail clientele looking for differentiation — all with ever shorter lead times.

The basic strategy still in play for most: mix materials to offset the high cost of raw goods, especially petroleum-based products like resins; give retailers a point of view through innovative styling and technique; and work the numbers so price points stay in check.

While retail sales for bath accessories declined overall last year — Home Textiles Today research showed $370 million in sales for 2005 vs. $407 million in 2004 — the leading vendors report their businesses are staying the course.

New home construction trends — which now showcase bathrooms with glass shower doors, or no doors at all — have shifted the way bath accessories are bought and merchandised at retail, further impacting the marketplace. It is no longer a race to match the shower curtain of the moment, but instead to create coordinates that set a mood and compliment various colorways.

At the August market, both traditional and novelty themes, and urban-influenced designs as well as ornate, embellished looks, took center stage — something for everyone.

“Our business is constant, and steadily growing,” reported David North, vp of marketing development, Ex-Cell Home Fashions, New York. “Retailers are demanding shorter lead times, but it's all relative to sourcing, and we have great sources.”

The proof is in the numbers for Ex-Cell, which had $17 million in category sales for 2005, about the same as the previous year.

North acknowledged a continuing greater use of mixed material in its product line: resin/wood, resin/metal, and resin/ceramic, as both a style trend and a technique aimed to keep prices in check — a remedy that seems to be helping. “Price points haven't changed much,” he said.

Gabrielle Colquitt, director of marketing and design at Boonton, N.J.-based Allure Home Fashions, takes a similar approach. “The combination of materials is still a big trend,” she said. And despite the acknowledged rise in costs, Colquitt noted, “Resin still is a great material and we still use it where we can.”

Business for Allure, one of the top two vendors in the category, continues “to stay steady,” according to Colquitt. The biggest trend she sees is the fact that more and more retailers are selling bath accessories as a collection rather than pieces. “A collection is more visually appealing, and we're dealing with a much more sophisticated customer that is looking for better quality and more interesting, upscale products,” she noted.

Retailers are certainly heeding this message, and offering more to consumers. “Every retailer is looking for a point of differentiation. Retailers are looking for a visual magnet in an end-cap or as a feature story,” said Joan Karron, vp of New York-based CHF Industries. “There is a shift to more seasonally appropriate stories and bath accessories that tell a thematic story.”

For CHF, that has meant nurturing a successful nautical-themed collection slated to be in stores in 2007, as well as launching a line of colorful, print-rich bath accessories designed to coordinate with — and give a boost to — solid color selections.

While CHF is dealing with the same material cost issues as other vendors, Karron emphasized the importance of focusing on being fashion-right and cost-effective. “Our mission is to re-engineer product to be cost effective, but it has to be unique — not a replacement. It has to move the bar forward,” she said.

Bob Weiss, director of sales and marketing at Creative Bath Products based in Central Islip, N.Y., sees the changing look of the home bath as an opportunity. According to Weiss, the bath accessory segment is a source of great growth potential.

In many cases, Weiss explained, “New home constructions don't have specs allowing for shower curtains, and I feel bath accessories then become an important growth segment. You don't coordinate so much with a shower curtain, but are following a color or pattern trend.” In fact, for Creative Bath (about $51 million in sales for 2005) that may mean broadening the definition of bath accessories, he said, implying that the company has some interesting plans in the near future.

Despite the optimistic outlook, Weiss admits to challenges as well. Competition is greater and there are fewer customers to sell to at retail. “You better have your ducks in a row with the right product at the right time,” he said. For Creative Bath, that means leveraging brands and designers such as Echo and Joseph Abboud. But the licenses are secondary to being on trend with the styles.

“Consumers are looking for more in terms of perceived value. Color and design comes first, and then it's the perceived value of what's being offered,” said Weiss. During August market, Joseph Abboud's Fortaleza line and Echo's Island Mist line showed well for Creative Bath, he said.

For Fort Hill, S.C.-based Springs Industries, the brand-focused lines of Wamsutta, Springmaid, and Palace have helped keep its position as a market share leader in the category. According to Neren O'Reilly, merchandise manager, bath shop, Springs too is challenged not only by the cost of materials, but by the overall increase in energy costs worldwide. “We continue to work with our retailers as well, with shorter lead times and shorter product life cycles a challenge in the category,” she said.

And the issue — or ongoing threat — of more retailers buying direct? “We are a company completely entrenched in the category and our point of differentiation is the level of design and innovation that we bring to everything we do,” said O'Reilly. Next for Springs: a push for its Palace brand. The company is expanding and building the brand across both the bed and bath categories.

The outlook for bath accessories in general includes vendors finding ways to please and to manage many masters — retailers, consumers and material suppliers — while keeping the category fresh.

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