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Surface Interest Key in Bath Towels

Bamboo Works To Gain Footing in Competitive Marketplace

Michele SanFilippo -- Home Textiles Today, May 16, 2005

New York — The big trends in towels all point to surface interest. Whether from new fibers, jacquards or different varieties of terry, manufacturers and importers alike say surface interest is becoming more important to retailers.

Two-ply yarns and jacquard constructions are on the rise for strong visual presentation, while embellished towels are plateauing, suppliers said.

When it comes to new fibers like bamboo, however, towel producers say it is still too early to measure success at retail since the fiber currently has little meaning to the consumer and needs to be positioned in terms of its enhanced properties.

For example, in Europe, where bamboo is selling well, hang tags, labels and store fixtures help tell the story. There the focus has been placed on quality and innovation in order to get retails up. That's also a trend at Target and Wal-Mart, which are each trying to raise average towel prices even as they pursue gritty opening price points.

Research from WestPoint Stevens found that 45 percent of the towel business is done in the under $4.99 range, with 30 percent in the $4.99 to $9.99 range and 25 percent in the above $9.99 category. It found that in the largest group, there are only a small number of big volume programs. While in the $9.99-plus range, there are lots of programs with less distribution, suggesting that as price points increase the business gets more fragmented.

“Retailers are starving for unique, innovative and differentiated product. That is the main reason why you are seeing products like Micro-Cotton, bamboo, soy, reversible and organic towels entering the solid color world,” said Keith Sorgeloos, president of HomeSource International. “Newness provides the opportunity for increased margins in the beginning until everyone follows and forces retails downward.” Sorgeloos sees a real impetus for new textures, fibers and fabrications to drive an otherwise basic category.

Since the start of 2005, Reinaldo Chaves, a sales representative for Felpinter Sofil USA, has seen an increase in fiber and texture varieties.

“Business is moving away from Egyptian into modal, micro-cotton (low twist), bamboo, seaweed, Lyocel and now soybean, corn and a few others. The greatest growth will come from new fibers,” he said, describing new textures as three-dimensional, three-pick in loop, scented, quick-drying and others. In his opinion, the fiber innovation will continue and increase, but no one knows for sure which will succeed or fail.

“The prevalence of what used to be premium yarns is a marketplace fact now. Egyptian, pima and Supima are everywhere and at seemingly contradictory price points,” added Eric Loges, vice president of bath sourcing at HomeSource. “Unfortunately, cheaper products tend to disappoint the consumer when put into use. (Therefore) bamboo would seem to be the next premium fiber because of its softness, luster, antibacterial properties and greater absorbency; however, it has yet to gain acceptance on a large scale.”

Loges predicted that if bamboo doesn't get major placement by spring 2006, it will vanish from the scene. Retailers currently carrying bamboo include Sears with the Opulence towel and Bed Bath & Beyond with Mandalay; while Target and Macy's are expected to introduce bamboo towels this summer.

“We've placed a lot of bamboo for the fall so we don't have retails yet,” added Dan Harris, vice president of marketing and product development for Revere Mills. “The market is waiting to see how the new fibers will play out this year.”

Eric Verguchte, sales representative for Dohler USA, thinks fancy jacquards coordinated with solid towels will become more important and more frequent in new collections or launches.

“The bath room will become more fashion coordinated, especially in the upper price range product lines, coordinated as bath ensembles with towels, bath mats, robes and accessories. Eventually we will have mostly cheap and better towels; the mid-range will decrease in quantity,” he said.

More of a fashion cycle at retail is also what Tim Shine, senior vice president of bath merchandising at WestPoint Stevens, envisions.

“Jacquards and fancies are being treated as fashion drop-ins with initial orders and back ups, then moving on to the next item,” he said. “It is also interesting that the average price of towels has declined almost 10 percent over the last three years, while sizes have increased and weight is almost two pounds.”

Jeff Gregg, vice president of sales and marketing at Santens of America, said, “The two things that are driving retails are newness and added value. A lot of retailers are trying to be more fashion-driven by having a program for a six-month season that they follow with another new program. Obviously, it's easier for department stores to do this.”

Gregg said that all of Santens' business is going to two-ply yarns as opposed to single ply. “This offers more density and bulk as well as definition in jacquard designs.”

According to Gretchen Dale, vice president of design and marketing at Loftex Industries, color is becoming more daring in towels.

“Just as in ready-to-wear, colors have become less seasonal. In our area, brights are selling all year long when in years past they only sold in the spring,” she said, adding that pink towels sold through the winter as in ready-to- wear. Dale continued that added value in either weight or visual differentiation is becoming more important. “Fiber reactive is also having a resurgence in the bath ensemble area; it brings great color and excitement to a solid category.”

HomeSource's Loges noted the emergence of China and growth of Pakistan since quota removal. He said those gains at the expense of India, where exports are barely ahead of 2004, and sees a consolidation of sources starting to take place in India, Turkey, Brazil and Pakistan.

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