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Pillow Suppliers Fight for Share in Tough Economy

Jill Rowen, Staff Staff -- Home Textiles Today, October 13, 2008

A confusing economic crisis and a recent upheaval in the market with the Chapter 11 filing of memory foam pillow maker Sleep Innovations has suppliers of basic bedding on guard. With a credit crunch and shrinking consumer dollars to go around, vendors are focusing on core strengths and on making an impression with shoppers in a crowded marketplace.

Manufacturing changes using lower-cost raw materials, along with marketing that emphasizes U.S.-based operations are among their efforts, as are innovations to guarantee better sleep, and better packaging so products can stand out from the crowd.

"With the state of the economy being uncertain, we continue to push even harder, not only making sure that we have the best price possible, but that we have the best possible product for that price," said Mandy Talbert, product development manager, Louisville Bedding. "Consumers are still willing to buy and pay, but truly want to get their money's worth and more, now more than ever."

"It's a time for being conservative financially but redoubling our efforts to innovate," noted Chris Ernst, vp of Sleep Studio. "The market needs innovation to create excitement, in order for consumers to open their wallets."

"People's dollars are stretched, agreed Jane Enis, president, Hensen Sleep Relief. "Our goal is to provide the best possible product, at the best possible price." According to Enis, the news on Sleep Innovations' woes has kept Hensen "very busy" as some merchandisers look to shift their sourcing options.

For the short term, Dan Schecter, vp, Carpenter, sees "lots of misery on profitability and margin erosion, due to sale prices." But Schecter counters that Carpenter "is unique in that we have no debt and we are vertically integrated — we are in good shape to weather anything that comes our way."

In fact, companies with U.S.-based manufacturing are using that as a calling card. For one thing, they point to their ability to provide quick turnaround at a time when retailers shun holding any excess inventory. For another, this speed-to-market can provide a fresher range of goods.

"You are definitely seeing retailers tightening inventories, and buy-in to programs is lightening. They are very cautious," said Jeff Chilton, svp sales and marketing, Perfect Fit. "But, because we are 80% domestic, we are in the position of being very reactive to what's happening in the market."

"We continue to stay in front of retailers, showing them new product, designs and ideas — and continually remind retailers that we are locally owned, and our goods are locally manufactured right here in the U.S.A.," said Louisville Bedding's Talbert.

As the marketplace toughens, there is evidence of a new focus on packaging. Suppliers are vying to capture every consumer's attention, if not brand loyalty. "Paying special attention on creating eye-catching product in a sea of white bedding is important," said Jyl Davis, marketing director, Downlite. "It has been an ongoing effort for our design team to incorporate small embellishment details and color into a traditionally basic white product. We feel that it is...also an added value to the consumer at the point of purchase and every time she changes her pillow."

Another trend worth noting: the increased use of natural latex, which imparts a number of benefits. For one, utilizing this material from the rubber plant can allow for the use of the word "natural" in marketing. It also mimics many of the benefits of foam pillows, and is designed to be anti-dust mite and anti-bacterial, but is a lower cost alternative to petroleum-based foam products.

Perfect Fit, for one, has introduced latex in its new Oodles line, a program that combines new technology in construction with a modern menu of natural materials. Hollander Home Fashions has also introduced a quilted latex pillow that is garnering a lot of attention from retailers, the company said.

Ultimately, sleep pillows, pads and mattress toppers are still designed with comfort and health benefits in mind as the most important selling points to consumers. Each vendor interviewed by HTT is looking to keep its head firmly in the market with additional feature-benefit offerings.

Fresh from the New York Home Fashions Market, Amy Webster, vp, Hollander Home Fashions, said that Hollander's Purista line is growing steadily. Purista is a textile treatment that keeps products fresher and cleaner for a longer period of time. As an aside, Webster reports that Hollander body pillows are doing extremely well, suggesting that in these troubled times, "people need something to hold on to."

Louisville Bedding introduced the Muse line at market, a group featuring a "fit for life" guarantee, even on pillows. "It's not about fitting the bed, it's about fitting you, is what we tell people," said Talbert. "We guarantee that the style pillow chosen from our Muse collection will fit your sleep style for life."

Carpenter's Sleep Better Signature Collection continues to be one of the widest assortments of health related bed pillows. According to Schecter, bi-component products that work together to increase comfort and support, as well as new shapes that pamper the neck and shoulder area, are doing well.

For Sleep Studio, new shapes are also a factor. Ernst said, "The contour pillow, a longtime staple of the foam pillow category, is being replaced by other more traditional shaped pillows, often using a combination of materials to provide customers with both support and comfort."

"We have to speak to the consumer in a language they understand," said Downlite's Davis. "Keep them engaged and informed while providing new details to catch their eye."

"The 'next big thing' is keeping our category fresh and inviting, not necessarily through gimmicks," said Davis. "Products need to be both relatable and beneficial for the consumer."

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