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Cecile Corral

Bath product sales near $3B

NEW YORK — Proving that the bath is more than just a niche category, the home textiles segment continued its steady ascent last year with 7.4 percent growth to $2.9 billion.

For manufacturers like Panorama City, CA-based Veratex, which creates full coordinate lines for the bath, that figure is a reflection of consumers' increased interest in the category.

"I think for one, there are more bathrooms in a lot of newer homes being built, creating more of an opportunity for us," said Barbara Wright, director of bath and licensing. "Also, more people are redecorating their existing bathrooms and doing it more affordably. For us, we felt it was an area that was a necessity because people want more and more to carry a scene from their bedroom to their bath with full coordination."

Discount stores are increasingly the retail partner of choice for bath manufacturers. Discount stores conducted more than twice, 44 percent, the bath business as did home textile specialty chains, which again accounted for 21 percent.

Those figures came as a surprise to New York-based Cobra Manufacturing president Kurt Hamberger.

"Specialty chains have done the best job," said Hamburger. "They've grown tremendously, they have the greatest variety of product and they are easily accessible. Most importantly, though, they specialize in nothing but home products and housewares and not in ready-to-wear, like department stores."

Pat Moyer, vp, marketing for Sugar Valley, GA-based Mohawk Home, concurred.

"In most cases, specialty chains have the largest bath departments of any of the other stores," Moyer said. "They've invested a significant amount of space to the category."

Giving discount stores the sharper edge over all other retailers, manufacturers agreed, is their renewed willingness to "offer better quality towels, eroding the department stores' niche," Hamburger said.

"It appears discount stores represent a strong value for consumers and are offering greater variety and better quality in bath rugs," Moyer said. "Higher piles, heavier constructions and finer yarns for bath rugs are all being incorporated into our bath offerings for discounters that were once only reserved for higher-end stores."

Rick Lipton, national sales manager, Creative Bath Products Inc., Islip, NY, noted that discount stores have started placing more importance on the shower curtain business.

"Even though department stores do a nicer job displaying the product, they have greatly reduced their offerings for bath, going more into lifestyle-oriented display groupings," Lipton said. "That means bath products like shower curtains have really been diminished, almost like an afterthought in department stores."

In other findings from the survey, participants said that while domestic manufacturing still occupies the bulk of the business, importing is becoming increasingly important. Domestic manufacturing decreased by three points to 65 percent as importing rose to 35 percent.

"Towels and shower curtains lend themselves more to domestic manufacturing, or at least embellished towels do," Wright said. "Jacquards can be imported but embellished towels are better made in the United States."

For Cobra, which makes all of its towels in Brazil and India, importing is "the business" for towels.

"I project that in the next five years, those numbers will be reversed — 65 percent will be imported and 35 percent will be domestic," Hamburger said. "Ten years ago, 10 percent or less of all towels were imported. The bigger manufacturing companies want to de-emphasize their own production because they can't compete. The entire industry is shifting and the American mills aren't profitable."

Hamburger added that discount stores have become a more prominent player in bath because they are more interested in imported product.

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