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Innovation Paves Way for Foam Pillows

Jill Rowen -- Home Textiles Today, July 7, 2008

The big money was bet on this report beginning with the skyrocketing of oil prices and their subsequent impact on petroleum-based products like memory foam pillows.

The good news for foam pillow suppliers? While the home textiles industry has to contend with the harsh reality of high material costs, the foam sleep pillow product category is still enjoying expansion — and continues to be a bright spot for many vendors.

The real shift is in consumer acceptance.

With the category no longer the newest kid on the block, manufacturers of foam sleep pillows have to keep pace as consumers increasingly make their demands known for better performance and newer constructions — especially as retailers have discovered shoppers' continued support for price points that start higher than traditional sleep pillows.

The latest range of fabrication innovations includes everything from adding silver for antibacterial benefits, to an increased use of soy-based products, to make the goods greener — and often cheaper — and everything in between.

"In spite of huge spikes in pricing, the category remains strong as it has become more a 'need' than a 'want' product," said Lonnie Scheps, vp, Hudson Industries. "Innovation is the key and, as a U.S. manufacturer, we have the advantage of introducing new skus often and quickly. With very little new in basic pillows and the industry running flat, the foam segment has enjoyed unexpected growth — as it many times represents the only growth in the whole pillow segment."

Carpenter vp Dan Schechter agrees. "The business is strong, but drifting from conventional shapes to more innovative ones," he told HTT. "It needs to continually innovate with products that provide real benefit, not just smoke and mirrors."

"Foam has become more of a basic," concurred Jane Enis, president, Henson Sleep Relief. "It is familiar to consumers, and so the challenge is to keep it new."

Scheps said one of biggest changes in the last year is how consumers willingly embraced foam products and the heftier price points that came with their selections. "The biggest impact was perhaps the mass acceptance of memory foam in its new and improved versions," suggested Scheps. "Education was key, and the justification of higher pricing was finally confirmed."

Schecter, however, warns that retailers may not be marketing foam pillows as a value-added product as well as they should be. "This [foam] consumer is well-educated about the benefits of sleep and the bedding they use. Selling value-add foam is an intelligent sell and needs to be marketed that way. The merchandising and marketing of the product at point-of-sale is the responsibility of retailer. If they keep doing what they are doing, they will keep getting what they are getting. It is not possible to sell a Cadillac for the price of a Ford — not going to happen. In the end, the consumer will simply pass, and we all pay for that by killing the category."

"Consumers are fussier, in that the higher prices are making them more sensitive to better products," offered Scheps. "They are willing to go higher vs. buying at mass merchants where they feel [the product] effectiveness is not up to par. This has resulted in more catalogs and internet retailers jumping in and taking huge market shares of the category. People get a better education online with these products, and they are a bit more sophisticated in their approach to them. Brick-and-mortar retailers seem to lag a bit in this category because of this."

For many vendors, the higher price points have to be justified through constructions that create pillows with the all the right "rest" benefits, but still help trim the cost of materials. One of most prevalent efforts across the marketplace is to reduce the amount of oil-generated matter in a foam pillow. At Louisville Bedding, for instance, Mandy Talbert, product development manager, said that the company has reduced the percentage of petroleum-based materials by 20%. "Continuous efforts are being made to increase that percentage," she said. "The reduction of petroleum-based materials has been [offset by] renewable soy based products." And elsewhere on the green front, she noted, "Foamers use carbon-filter scrubbers to remove approximately 99% of emissions."

Henson Sleep Relief partnered with Springs Global this year to debuy a BioFlex Hybrid foam pillow, which also uses soy ingredients. According Enis, the construction has dual benefits, holding down costs while and creating a "greener" product.

At Hudson Industries, Scheps pointed to "a new lineup of our exclusive PolarFoam cool foam skus and our EcoFoam organic foam technology to insure optimum sustainability. Green is starting to matter big-time and we are there." He noted that construction trends have really been design-driven to respond to more comfort and more resolution of physical challenges as diverse as snoring, acid reflux, pressure relief and ache/pain relief.

Carpenter likes to focus on "benefits" construction, according to Schecter, who said the company is continually working on designs "that better help the body (head and neck) rest in a natural position or in natural alignment. Our Zoned Comfort pillow is a perfect example of how design and function are making their way into the market."

At Softex, which produces the Royal Velvet brand pillow, constructions featuring soy-based materials and even a "green tea" pillow are part of the effort to reduce the amount of less benign chemicals used in pillow manufacture.

At Northern Feather, its line of foam pillows — introduced a little over a year ago — feature exotic-sounding constructions that utilize charcoal bamboo, green tea, coconut and silver.

Despite the optimistic outlook based on the market progress made by product innovation, the reality of oil prices is not being ignored. "We're at the beginning of this cycle of price hikes," noted Hasper. "We're working with our suppliers to find the best course of action."

"Using more soy-based materials is a price advantage, and we're looking at ways to raise that percentage in products," remarked Enis. "We had a great '07, and are maintaining our business in '08. We want to get through these price increases."

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