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Beach Towels Bask in Back Yards

Suppliers Upscale Product to Upshift Prices

Cecile Corral, Maria Weiskott -- Home Textiles Today, May 19, 2008

Whether motivated by limited discretionary funds or a more cautious spending attitude, Americans are viewing summer 2008 — positioned in the thick of the economic slump, top-heavy with rapidly rising fuel costs — with a similar panorama in their sights: their back yards.

Consumers are quickly realizing that taking a road trip to a national park could cost them at the gas station as much as or close to a flight for a holiday with the family to a Caribbean island. And either choice just might prove too much for this year's escape budget.

But the alternative, which retailers are avidly helping them recognize with their stacked Adirondacks and veranda vignettes, is that splurging on new patio and poolside furniture could create a closer and more affordable getaway to lift spirits this summer.

Suppliers are creating the decorative accessories for this emerging al fresco "fifth room" of their homes — as Gretchen Dale, coo and head of the U.S. division of New York-based Loftex described — of which beach towels will be key.

"I think the biggest factor in all of this is the whole movement of entertainment around the pool at home," she observed. "And with all this new expensive outdoor furniture, people don't want to put some horrible beach towel on it."

Indeed.

It is then strangely thanks to the slowed economy that beach towel suppliers — the few still in the game — said they are finding resuscitation for this previously drowning category, which for the past several years took a beating at retail with poor presentation and early markdowns at the store level.

Miami-based J.R. United president Salo Grosfeld recalled competing not so long ago against many more players — some who are now gone. Retailers' common attitude toward the category, he said, has not helped.

"It's a small business with no margin and no innovation or plan to fix the business," Grosfeld opined, somewhat tongue in cheek. "I would say it's time for them to give up and use that space to sell more $2.99 solid color towels. Now there is an idea. We should go back to only selling white sheets and towels and start over."

But there is a silver lining in the skies emerging, and some retail channels giving better treatment to the category.

Warehouse clubs, Grosfeld noted, are increasing their attention to beach towels, while certain discount department store chains are anteing-up their assortments with more sophisticated designs on heavier weights. One in particular, he said, has decided to "match and coordinate with other products, like the lawn furniture."

With that in mind, beach towel suppliers have conceived a new generation of goods that catches the consumer's eye with their unusually urbane palettes — a more subdued spectrum that includes hues like browns and teals, among others.

Design complements the schemes, with inspiration logically drawn from architectural and organic motifs, fitting for today's posh poolsides and patios with panache. Constructions follow suit, with heavier weights adding value to these new mainstays, no longer throw-away pieces discarded at the Holiday Inn check-out.

A recent demand for un-sheared jacquard beach towel constructions speaks to the new trend, in that people are using more sophisticated beach towel styles for both the outdoors and indoors, said Welspun USA (New York) design director for bath and rugs Blair Tate.

"It's a beach towel that is not going to the beach but rather backyard pool, so it's going to be going in and out of the house," she said. "A beach towel is a bath sheet, like a candy mint is a breath mint."

These new items command a better price point, and the retailers and shoppers seem to be showing willingness to paying up a notch.

Larry Price, director of U.S. sales for Pembroke Pines, Fla.-based Hilasal USA, estimated specialty chains and department stores are raising their prices into the $19.99-$29.99 range, up from the prior $9.99-$14.99.

He added this incline is driven mostly by larger and heavier sizes — 40-inch-by-70-inch 18 pounds-per-dozen varieties, "a difference" from the past 30-by-60 10-pounds-per-dozen and the 34-by-64 14 pounds-per-dozen, the latter of which he said "have become commodity price points at mass merchants."

He continued, "The whole novelty class, such as frogs, fish, and busy beach scenes that sold in past are giving way to the fashion designs and colors with higher price points. The higher the retail [price point], the more fashion the consumer demands for the purchase."

Hilasal USA is responding to the demand for improved design with a high-tech photo-real assortment, "whether it be beach scenes, lighthouses, or the animal class of 'Friends by Hilasal' of dogs, cats, and horses," Price said, adding these patterns represent the company's largest volume growth.

"You might say our designs now have the digital clearness and clarity, like a television," he said.

New York-based Espalma/Cobra Trading said its beach towels — from Brazil, India and China — are so suitable for the luxury set that "even famous designers in this business have purchased our towels directly from us for their own homes."

It's the right crowd to cater to now, said Rae Ellen Blum, vp and national sales manager.

"The luxury business is steady and growing, and this is the market niche," she said. "For people who have beautiful homes and who have not really been affected by the economy, this is their time of glory in the sun — from Memorial Day on. They like to show off to their summer house guests with luxurious special items that they won't find at [the discount stores]."

Espalma/Cobra answers the call with heavy-weight terry 700-gram stripes, 600-gram velour jacquards, and what the company calls "our safari niche" comprised of African animal skins done with designer flair.

At $20 to $60 apiece, Blum said, "I can't keep them in stock." She added her better department store customers "are screaming for them."

Brazilian beach towel manufacturers, such as Dohler and Buettner, also are poised to leverage high retail price point opportunities.

"We've further specialized our products in reference to design concepts, higher weights, printing techniques, embroidery work and sequined applications," explained Eric Vergucht, who develops private label beach towel collections and represents Brazilian beach towel manufacturers here in the United States. "Catalog beach towels connected to the apparel teams are becoming very important. Innovative design concepts in apparel make nice coordinating, exclusive beach towels. A lot of development work is involved in this and we always love the challenges. Juvenile beach is a growing category. And pool towels are becoming an important category again, in special concepts such as personalized woven monograms. These looks certainly differ from the mass market retail channels."

But these enhancements are not necessarily paying off just yet, as Vergucht doesn't see the pricing curve sliding upward in the near term.

"Price points for this season are similar to last year, but I think that the 2009 prices will be higher," he observed.

Revere Mills International Group of Niles, Ill., isn't seeing any shift in beach towel price points from its discount and mid-tier retail customers. In fact, the company embarked on the season careful to stay within "our historical price points of $4.99 through $19.99" for traditional beach looks, said Elaine Aschenbrand, director of marketing and product development.

But Revere is doing so with a bit more style this time around.

"I'm seeing in the upscale market more muted oranges with pinks and teals with browns," she said. "That is not our forte. But I will say we have adjusted some of our brights so that they aren't quite as vivid as last year. But still I consider them beach brights. We wanted to respond a little to the trend, but at the same time I didn't want to completely change anything because our bread-and-butter is the mid-tier."

Color isn't the only aspect of Revere's beach towel line — manufactured in Pakistan, India and China — that has been touched up. Aschenbrand pointed to three new collections that demonstrate the company's sensitivity to new trends.

The highlight is the new Fashion Fibers collection of "better fiber-reactive prints with more contemporary designs," she said — specifically a fish scale, a bubble and a mosaic pattern — interpreted on a heavier-weight towel than Revere has used in the past — up to 13-pounds from nine-pounds-per-dozen.

The other new Revere groups are the solid-colored Velour confetti with woven dotted stripes and the High-Low Velour, a terry look with sheared horizontal velour stripes throughout.

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