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Blankets Makers Turn Up the Marketing

Consumers React to Energy-Saving Call

Jill Rowen -- Home Textiles Today, December 8, 2008

Despite the overall anemic economy, blanket manufacturers have reason to feel somewhat warm and fuzzy. The blanket, throw and warming device categories are enjoying a fairly good ride across many price ranges and styles in late 2008. Suppliers say this is in part thanks to cooperative cold weather and to some consumers sticking to functional purchases, while others seek decorative and multi-purpose pieces.

The most often mentioned selling point, however, is without doubt the energy-savings benefit of throwing on a blanket vs. turning up the heat. Stickers, signage, promotions and advertising are luring consumers to buy with the promise of lower fuel usage.

"We're running on all cylinders," reported Bob Christnacht, head of the home and blanket division, Pendleton Woolen Mills. "We're seeing a lot of consumers using blankets to serve two functions: for warmth and as top-of-bed fashion items. Beds are getting 'cleaner' and are not as overly layered — and blankets fit well into the mix. In this area, our better blankets have been very successful."

"There are interesting macro-economic issues right now, and they are working in our favor," asserted Tom Bowles, ceo, Berkshire Blanket. "The markets we serve are primarily functional vs. decorative, and people still seem to be buying." According to Bowles, Berkshire Blanket marketing has been clear about encouraging folks to "throw on an extra blanket," with the use of package stickers and call-out signage.

"Heated products are outperforming other blankets in this tough business climate," noted Nancy Golden, vp marketing and brand management, WestPoint Home. "Heated products can save money. Turn down your thermostat, turn on your heated blanket, pad or throw."

In addition, Goldman pointed to sales expansion in added-feature and "better" products. "Step-up fabrics such as plush heated blankets and throws have produced good sales. WestPoint is offering state of the art, brand new technology that provides the best temperature regulation and safety in the industry," she said.

"We have had a very good start to our season," agreed Stacie Pacheco, senior director of marketing, Sunbeam Bedding, who said this was due "primarily to three things: a colder start to the season in September and October vs. last year; our focus on energy savings, which is driving consumers to look at this category as a need-based purchase; and continued investment in advertising and communications that are pulling consumers into retail and to the category."

Conserving energy is also a potent selling point for Perfect Fit, which offers warming devices in the form of both blankets and mattress pads, that have seen significant increases year to date. "Energy savings are at the top of everyone's mind," said Jeff Chilton, svp sales and marketing, Perfect Fit. "This market, however, is extremely seasonal, even more so than traditional blankets. Our blankets use a low-voltage technology that makes them not only safer, but much more comfortable to sleep on. It's not your grandmother's electric blanket."

Throws have a different kind of retail life. Though still a warmth item, the category is more style-driven and has inspired suppliers to create new marketing plans that focus on the fashion and uniqueness of the product.

"Even in a functional business, you have to put in an amount of controlled sizzle," noted Bowles. Berkshire has done well with subtle animal prints, for instance, that lend some contemporary oomph to a basic product area.

Christnacht of Pendleton reports that a tough economy can be a bright spot for throws. "The furniture market right now is tough, but for a consumer looking for something new, a few pillows and a new throw can really make a difference," in home decorating, he said.

"Newness is the thing that is keeping the category from experiencing the kind of declines that are being seen in other categories," suggested Stanley Mieszkowski, vp sales and marketing, The Northwest Company. "Creating new promotional items has helped us combat a larger decrease in sales."

In addition, Mieszkowski noted that Northwest has taken a new approach to its extensive line of licensed throws. "We have started to treat our licensed throws more like toys, building in features that give them play value as well as comfort and warmth. Selling a warm, comfy throw is just not enough," he said. As an example, a Bratz throw features a Hop Scotch game on one side.

Brian Ashley, vp, Faribault Mills, has his own analogy about the need for spice in the basic blanket business. "Think about men's underwear. It is still a big white business — but without the infusion of color, the entire business would be much smaller. In one sense, blankets are underwear for your bed. It's one way to look at it," he said.

Even in a contracting retail environment, hit by the collapse of Linens 'n Things and regional chains such as Mervyns, some vendors maintain a sunny point of view. "With all of the changes in the retail industry, we don't think the category is losing business — instead it's just being re-distributed," said Sunbeam's Pacheco.

Suppliers do not, however, shrink from noting substantial frustration with the way that blankets and throws are merchandised at retail.

Judith Rose, vp and head designer, Textillery Weavers, noted that assortment is an issue, especially in the specialty store arena. "I understand that retailers are cautious, but the reason people shop specialty stores is because they are looking for a better and larger selection of merchandise," she said, observing that more than a few retailers "are tightening up and don't have enough of an offering, and everyone suffers."

"Catalogs do a much better job in merchandising the features and benefits of a blanket," than many stores, noted Christnacht. "An acrylic and wool blanket can look very similar from a distance, but there are miles of quality differences between them."

As with most home textiles suppliers, blanket makers are doing their part for the environment as they test and develop new fabrications and materials, which in turn often provide marketing and selling points.

"We've been working with bamboo for the last year and a half," noted Textillery's Rose. "It's been a real success. We've worked with things like recycled cotton in the past, but that tends to be very stiff. With bamboo, it has the benefits of being 'green'— but my customers are buying it anyway [because] it has a great silky texture and it's washable. It works because it stands on its own as a good product, not just because it's 'green'."

Pendleton blankets are primarily wool — definitely a renewable fiber. Christnacht said the company has also been using dyes stuffs that have no negative impact on the environment. It will roll out the dyes in most of its fabrics in the coming months.

At Berkshire, water-soluble inks are being used; the manufacturer is also decreasing its use of packaging material and has made efforts to move from PVC to "friendlier" PIVA vinyl packaging.

"We make Outlast blankets and blankets made from Ingeo," noted Faribault's Ashley. "Ingeo is a plant-based fiber from corn that is biodegradable and sustainable. While these two innovations are not brand new, our customers are taking much more notice in them than before. We are also getting increasing interest in organic and recycled cotton." Ashley added that the company recently took one of its cotton blankets out of the traditional vinyl bag packaging and "it had a very positive impact on demand."

In addition to all the visibility gained by the "greening" of the marketplace, another label is showing renewed strength: Suppliers report that "Made in the U.S.A." is enjoying new cache and is giving them definite advantages in the marketplace.

"We continue to utilize one of the greatest assets within our portfolio, our U.S.-based manufacturing facility, to drive costs out of our product by finding efficiencies within our manufacturing processes," said Pacheco.

"Our hotel customers are especially supportive of U.S. manufacturers," said Rose. "They are a bit more supportive than the gift or bedding industries. But consumers are beginning to recognize it, so it is changing at a grassroots level."

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