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  • Cecile Corral

Bath accessories bring broader retail appeal

In the bath category, bath accessories are having a particularly good year, as suppliers find placement across a wider variety of retail channels. In addition, suppliers report, they're seeing price point movement on both ends of the spectrum — whether due to lower resin prices and private-label programs at the low end or because specialty retailers are giving more space to the category, allowing for better goods on the top end.

"Bath accessories is the bright spot in the area for volume growth and margin opportunity," said Dianne Weidman, vp of marketing, sales and design of Cincinnati-based Saturday Knight Ltd. "It's the one category of bath that is experiencing growth across all channels with the retailers that we are working with."

Toothbrush holders, soap dishes, tissue box covers, waste baskets, tumblers and lotion pumps continue to be the mainstay products generating sales. Over the past several years, the segment has gained momentum, first as coordinates to towels, rugs and shower curtains and soon-after as standalone items.

According to Home Textiles Today research, the category represented 11 percent of bath product sales in 2000 and gained share to represent 12 percent in 2001, or some $336 million in retail sales.

There has been a positive response from consumers who seem willing to pay a broad range of price points from low end to luxury — in the case of one importer, Hamden, CT-based Labrazel, as much as $800 for a Carrarra polished marble wastebasket imported from Italy.

"For the most part, higher price points are being more readily accepted by the buyers and the consumers," said Frank Scalice, executive vp, New York-based Town & Country Living. "That does not mean lower or opening price points are being abandoned. It means the lower price points are still there. But the range is greater, and there are more offerings at the higher end."

Fort Mill, SC-based Springs Industries has seen bath accessories like its top-of-the-line Palace Collection by Wamsutta — a metal construction collection that includes a $49.99 waste basket — create strong sell-through at retail, said Noren O'Reilly, merchandise manager for bath accessories.

"I think the combination of materials we're using is making our better product lines more appealing to consumers," said O'Reilly, who added that other new high-end bath accessories include metal with resin and metal with ceramic constructions. "These represent more fashionable products to the consumer."

Barbara Wright, director of bath and licensing, Panorama City, CA-based Veratex Inc. agreed: "There seems to be room from high end to lower for all bath related products."

Affecting price points most, many suppliers acknowledged, are the different constructions.

"I don't see price points for the same type of mediums or designs increasing, but I see the techniques and mediums changing," Weidman said.

David North, vp, marketing development for New York-based Ex-Cell Home Fashions, reinforced the impact of construction on price points. "Various uses of raw materials help determine price points," he said. "Generally, ceramic is more expensive than resin, and so on."

Kathy Fowlkes, bath business manager of High Point, NC-based The Bacova Guild Ltd., whose parent company, space-dyed yarn supplier Ronile, in April took over the bath business that belonged to Burlington Industries, has detected a shift in retail pricing. "Resin, which was a new material a few years ago and pricier than many of the other options such as ceramic, has [experienced] dropped retails in stores," she said.

While a wide scope of retailers have increased their commitment to the category, specialty stores have taken a leadership position because of the large amount of selling space available to the segment.

"The big boxes like Bed Bath & Beyond and Linens 'n Things are getting the most growth because of the space they dedicate and the sku extensions and broad offerings that allows," Scalice said.

For New York-based Panache For The Bath, 35 percent of its bath sales are generated by accessories, sell-through has been evident from all sides, in particular catalogs and specialty and department stores.

"For us there are no declining channels," said Norman Harris, president.

Bacova's strongest sales have stemmed from channels such as mass, specialty and mid-tier retailers, Fowlkes said.

In addition to specialty and traditional mass market stores, the home center channel is also another source creating growth for Ex-Cell, North said.

Meanwhile, Croscill Home Fashions, based in New York, is experiencing a lot of its growth in the category with private-label programs, said Patrick Clemente, assistant product manager, designer, bath accessories. "Bath accessories remain solid with the big boxes, specialty stores and department stores."

Making the segment all the more attractive to suppliers is the fact that the retail buyers they already work with on other bath products are typically also assigned to select bath accessory merchandise.

For instance, the many different buyers that work with Ex-Cell on shower curtains are the same ones looking to coordinate with the company's bath accessories, North said. "And in some cases," he added, "it's the same buyer as for towels and coordinating bath rugs."

For Veratex, retail buyers "generally buy the entire line for bath," Wright explained.

However, retailers' frequent rotation of buyers forces suppliers to constantly adjust to new contacts from their retail partners.

"Buyers change from time to time, but we try to be flexible, to work with the range of personalities and expectations that are in the minds of buyers when it comes to lifestyle for a price," Clemente noted.

For several years, Croscill has been one of the segment's leading players. It embarked aggressively on the bath accessories business more than seven years ago.

"Since then, there have been steady increases in annual sales for the bath line," Clemente said.

Holding even more experience in the bath accessory business is Saturday Knight Ltd., which has been a bath accessories supplier since 1976. Today, the segment comprises as much as one-third of the company's total sales, Weidman said.

"We have probably been in the bath coordinate business longer than anybody, and we see the potential of the business continuing to grow as retailers are experiencing success with the category and, therefore, expanding their support for the category," Weidman said.

But will bath accessories continue to offer growth opportunities going forward?

"People are more confident in the value of their physical assets — their homes — than in any other investment at the present time. Therefore, we feel that the trend of cocooning will continue and effectively continue to strengthen the bath accessory business, since the bath is one of the last sanctuaries available for consumers," Clemente said.

While the category occupies 10 percent of Town & Country's total bath sales, Scalice said that rate is "growing rapidly for us. And it is a growing category at retail." He believes it can soon become "one-third of our total bath sales, when bath sales are calculated without solid towels and solid rugs."

Veratex added bath accessories to its offerings a year and-a-half ago and the segment "has contributed largely to the success of our bath business. This is both in freestanding accessories and accessories that coordinate back to a full ensemble. We will continue to add to this category each market, as accessories are the largest portion of our bath business."

For Ex-Cell, bath accessories now exceed shower curtain sales, North said.

"The bath accessory business has grown by multiples over the past several years at a far greater rate than shower curtains," he said. "The accessory area opens vast opportunities to use new raw materials and to create accessory items not offered in the past."

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