Automatic blanket competition heats up

Don Hogsett, Carole Sloan, October 29, 2001

New York — Breathing new life into the automatic blanket business — a segment that doesn't see much change because of the high cost of entry — two new breakthrough automatics, from WestPoint Stevens and Malden Mills, have started making waves, and a third is on the way from Beacon Blankets.

Intriguingly, since the marketplace for automatics has long been dominated by the mass merchant channel, both the WestPoint Stevens and Malden Mills products are taking aim at the high end of the market, with retails starting at $99 for the twin, in the case of WestPoint's Vellux, and climbing as high as $219 for a king for Malden's Polartec fleece.

The projected Beacon automatic, which could start shipping by the end of next year, takes aim at more moderate price points and the high-volume segment of the marketplace.

Until last week, the market for automatics had been dominated by just one player, Sunbeam, which had a virtual monopoly on the business until Biddeford Textiles introduced its own ill-fated product and Perfect Fit launched its high-tech, "wireless" Soft Heat blanket last year.

Both WestPoint Stevens and Malden are leveraging the strength of two existing powerhouse brands — Vellux in the case of WestPoint, and Polartec fleece at Malden — to drive their entry into the relatively small market for automatic blankets, estimated at no more than $130 million at mill cost during 2001, with Sunbeam accounting for the lion's share of the total, about $110 million.

Malden Mills' Polartec fleece went on sale earlier this month under a marketing agreement with catalog giant Lands' End that runs until next year, when the product becomes available to all retailers, said Robert Himmel, president of Malden Ventures, a new unit formed to manufacture and market the product. While Malden has achieved widespread trade and consumer recognition for its Polartec fleece, the new blanket is the first manufactured product the Lawrence, MA-based company has produced since before World War II, said Himmel.

Using an innovative new technology, the Polartec blanket does away with the copper wires that have historically been used to heat automatic blankets — up until Perfect Fit's introduction of a "wireless" blanket into the U.S. market. "Our product is quite a bit different," said Himmel. "We are using a very fine conductive yarn and knitting it right into the fabric."

In another innovation, the Polartec blanket uses a low-voltage direct current. "A big negative in some consumers' minds is the idea of a wire carrying a high-voltage current across your body as you sleep. Our blanket filters it down to just 28 volts passing through 70 separate filaments."

Given its unique wireless construction, Malden is positioning it as a year-round lightweight fleece blanket.

The Polartec Heat Blanket retails through the Lands' End Home catalog at $159 for the full, $199 queen and $219 king.

Shown at the recent market, and gearing up for a deliveries during the second half of next year, is WestPoint Stevens' Vellux automatic blanket. The Vellux entry licenses a technology developed by Thermosoft that uses non-metallic conductive fibers to heat the blanket, the same technology first used by Perfect Fit. "It's the marriage of the strongest name in the blanket business with the Thermoloft technology," said Art Birkins, president of WestPoint's basic bedding division.

"We're not geared up for mass deliveries yet; we're in the process of re-engineering one of our plants now," said Birkins. "Our plan all along has been to start shipping in the second half of '02, but we could very well end up shipping on a small scale by the end of this year." WestPoint's Vellux automatic will open at $99 for the twin, with a $79 promotional price. "So we're clearly not going after the mass market."

Lou Morris, ceo of Perfect Fit, the first company to take aim at the high end with the Soft Heat product, said, "It's not inexpensive, but it's an extraordinary technology. You really can't tell there are any wires in there at all." Now in its second year, and its first full year of ramped-up production, Soft Heat "is doing very well," he said. "We've dramatically increased the sales."

Taking aim at lower price points is Beacon Blankets, recently purchased in a management buyout from former parent Pillowtex Corp. Ironically, noted Tedd Smith, president, and Kenny Hines, sales and marketing chief, Pillowtex had spent more than a million dollars, and done all of the development work on the product, before Pillowtex became distracted by its buyout of Fieldcrest Cannon Inc. and abandoned the project.

"All of that development work was done in '98-'99, and then they dropped the project," said Hines. "But with all the work that's been done already, we've got a real head start."

Providing Sunbeam with fresh competition at more moderate price points, Smith said Beacon should start shipping as early as the end of next year.

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