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  • Jennifer Marks

Performance Products: A Rising Tide

What began a few years ago as a trickle of performance products borrowing finishing and fiber technologies from sportswear, has escalated into a deluge of goods boasting a variety of solutions: anti-microbial, anti-bacterial, moisture control, heat regulation, blood oxygenating and collagen enhancing, to name just a few.

But what's driving the trend? Are consumers more attuned to performance products? Is it a matter of retailers seeking differentiation? Or is this simply a push by suppliers to break through the commodity barrier?

"It's all of the above, but the breakthrough is that there is now science taking place in textiles that looks to be of benefit," said Larry Queen, president and ceo of AQ Textiles. Queen's company has launched a line of bedding using IntellATex technology, which uses negatively charged ions to immobilize positively charged allergens.

"I think it's just the beginning of a new generation of product," he said.

Growing attention in the consumer press on the relationship of sleep to health — and the large numbers of Americans who are sleep deprived — may be making consumers more receptive to new sleep-friendly products.

"When it comes to sleep improvement, I think the consumer continues to gain awareness of the importance of a good night's sleep," said Bob Hickman, vp of sales and marketing at United Feather and Down, which has introduced a steady stream of performance utility bedding. "The consumer reacts positively to things that make their lives easier."

In addition to promoting healthy sleep, a variety of new products address the growing problem of asthma, which now affects one in 15 Americans, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. (AAFA).

"If you're up at night, your nosing is running, eyes streaming — if you can afford a product that deals with that, you're going to want to have it," said Marc Jason, ceo of London Luxury, which recently received AAFA certification of a line of luxury allergen barrier products.

Certifications are becoming increasingly important — and for retailers, understanding what does and doesn't fly in terms of product promises has ramifications beyond mere customer dissatisfaction.

"There are a lot of government guidelines and restrictions about claims that can be made for these products," said Michael Guidry, vp product management at American Textiles, which has been making barrier products for years. "Some involve the EPA, some involve the FDA. There's lots of stuff out there that crosses the line."

Not every performance product is geared toward alleviating allergy symptoms or protecting against dust mites. In sheeting, newer products are using nanotech that make them wrinkle-free, or special fibers that enhance fit. In towels and bath rugs, manufacturers are coming up with fast-drying technologies to both save consumers time standing by the dryer and thereby helping cut energy use.

In this realm, simplicity of message is key, said Bob Hamilton, marketing director of Welspun, which has introduced a series of performance products for two years.

"Dyson worked because he made a vacuum that simply worked better and he shouted it," said Hamilton. "Perhaps the best illustration [in home textiles] is what Target did in reinventing its sheet department, or as they called it, Sheet World. They selected single attributes and they called them out."

In the fabric arena, Sunbury's anti-mold, anti-mildew fabric technology converged with the indoor/outdoor living trend; the result is being licensed to home textiles manufacturers such as Textillery.

"From eight years ago when we had the license for high-end jacquard products for Sunbrella, the business has developed into a substantial one, moving from the outdoors to indoor/outdoors to purely indoors," said Rocco Simone, svp Sunbury. "We're just getting started with sheers at good, better and best price points, and the acceptance is fantastic."

As performance gains traction at retail, suppliers are already looking to other areas for potential orders, especially hospitality and medical institutions

CleanBrands, which has a line of bedding products certified by the AAFA, is running a test with a chain of hotels in Canada. In July, it will launch a partnership with JetBlue, which will offer passengers a small pillow with fleece blanket for $5. The set will be encircled with a belly band that also serves as a coupon for $5 off purchases made at a leading specialty retailer.

"The art of cleanliness is such a strong trend, and the art of sleep preservation is such a strong trend," said founder Gary Goldberg, who got his start in the performance outerwear business. "The bed is the last bastion of health. This is kind of a collision of multiple events."

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