The miserable British weather might not be good news if you retail barbecues or air conditioning. But as a way of bringing forward sales in the ‘winter warmers’ area of heating and related products, long may it continue. This has been particularly welcome, as the mild winter last year left many manufacturers and retailers with excess stock from the previous season – and many hoping for a prolonged cold winter this year.
This category, which covers Oil Filled Radiators (OFRs), convectors, panel heaters and fan heaters, probably suffered the most from the effects of the last mild winter, with GfK market data across all sub-sectors showing a drop in sales on the previous year. But this should be taken in context as it is worth bearing in mind that the winter of 2005-6 was the coldest for 20 years, resulting in artificially high sales figures.
A large proportion of sales in portable heating tend to be distress purchases, particularly with fan heaters or convectors, as Claire Humphreys, product manager for portables at Dimplex explains. “Portable heating products are often a suitable purchase when there is a requirement to heat just one or two rooms, such as in case of people working from home who use them instead of turning on the central heating to heat an entire house.”
Style and design
Design has proved an important factor in this sector, but so too has technology, with features like electronic climate control and colour-changing heat indicators appearing on fan and ceramic heaters. Jacqueline Neal, product marketing manager at Micromark, says there have been price decreases across all segments but improvements in style and design. “Consumers are now able to buy better styled products at cheaper prices,” she says. “Style and design was at the forefront of this past season’s new product development, unfortunately with the bad weather they have not had a chance to see the sales through.”
With manufacturers and retailers alike crossing everything for a cold winter this year, there is plenty of advice on how retailers can make the most of portable heating products. This ranges from keeping an eye on the weather forecast (when there’s a sustained cold spell, place the products in a high footfall area) to being up to speed on safety features and energy efficiency. Micromark is looking at producing a heating chart to allow consumers to choose the right heater for their needs, while Dimplex advertises its products when a cold snap is predicted and offers a customer service line for pre- and post-sales queries.
In terms of consumer profile, there are specific differences when it comes to purchasers of portable heating. More traditional ‘radiant heat’ products like OFRs and panel heaters are often purchased by elderly customers, as the heat dissipates to be felt more rapidly by the end user. Then there are more ‘fun’ products like the pink Daisy heater from Dimplex, ideal for a young family or teenage girl’s bedroom.
Alice Mariere, product manager at Bionaire, says safety and design are both important purchasing criteria, for different end users. “Families look for a specific type of heater, as parents are concerned about children hurting themselves on the product and as such make sure there are no sharp angles or edges,” she says. “They will also pay attention to safety features such as automatic switch off to counteract overheating. Then there are consumers who are specifically looking at design whether it is on a fan, convection or panel heater.”
Giovanni Toffano, De’Longhi UK marketing manager, says in portable heating consumers are mostly lead by need, in terms of product purchase. “For example, if a consumer needs to heat a space quickly and for only a short amount of time then we would recommend a fan heater,” he says. “OFRs are best for stable and efficient heating while convectors supply quick warmth and run silently. In addition panel heaters, with their slimline design, are perfect for background heating.”
Focal point fires (FPF)
Design and aesthetics have been driving the market for some time, as manufacturers seek to complement fast-moving interior design trends by constantly updating their offerings. Recent ideas have included the introduction of fuel bed options like logs, glass, driftwood and pebbles, alongside an increase in convenience such as full remote control options, low wattage and long life bulbs for energy efficiency.
In terms of installation style, while traditional hearthmounted options are still popular, there is a move towards landscape ‘hi design’ models, which hang on the wall like a plasma TV. Darren McMahon, head of marketing at Valor, says the company has seen growth in demand for products like its Glamour or Distinction ranges. “These fires are ideal for ‘urbanites’ and ‘loft livers’ who want to make a statement in their home,” he says. “The materials used tend to be more minimalist to reflect this.”
Another popular area in FPF are suites. Giovanni Toffano at De’Longhi says these are particularly popular with those consumers interested in interior design, but there are also distinct purchaser profiles throughout FPF. “Consumers who are interested in interior design and are prepared to spend a bit more money tend to buy suites over the other categories due to the product’s style elements,” he says. “The stove is the most traditional of the focal points and tends to be most popular with consumers who are buying period houses or prefer a more traditional feel in their homes. Inset fires are the most flexible and give consumers a number of options due to the many panel choices.”
The change in demographics, with more smaller homes and flats, has resulted in a demand for slimmer models with minimal projection into the living space, such as wallmounted fires. The latest range of inset fires from Dimplex is designed for installation as either free-standing or inset.
Valor is seeking to reinvigorate a market, which according to Mr McMahon, has remained static in terms of technology for the last 40 years. The result is Dimension, heralded by Valor as the “first believably real electric fire.” It uses patented technology to add depth to the fuel bed – one of three ‘triggers of realism’ consumers are looking for. “While we were developing Dimension, we carried out research into what consumers were demanding from their fires,” says Darren McMahon. “While consumers love the convenience and ease of electric, they don’t want to be reminded of the fact that the effect is not real. Fuel bed depth is the most important in the three ‘triggers of realism’, with glow, so the fire communicates warmth and flame effect, which includes colour and movement.”
Royal Cozyfires produces both gas and electric fires and marketing manager Adam Selby says design remains key, particularly in electric. “Our C603R electric fires have been very popular, both with traditional Blenheim fronts and more contemporary styles,” he says, “as have our ‘hole in the wall’ LFX Halo models. Based on the Hearth and Home fire exhibition this year, it seems that energy efficiency is the key area people are looking at – we’ve seen growth in our energy efficient gas fires for instance.”
Dimplex is now introducing fires which use LED bulbs to power the flame effect, taking under 14W in total to operate and resulting in a 100,000 hour lifetime for the bulbs. Running costs are reduced as is the need to replace the bulbs more frequently.
Gas or electric?
Gas versus electric has been a debate for some time and the signs are that electric fires are outstripping gas. Darren McMahon at Valor suggests that in 2001, gas fires accounted for around 72% of the overall market, while today the figure is nearer 54%. “Yet the overall fires market has remained reasonably static at around 900,000 units, with sales of electric appliances making up for the loss in gas.”
Adam Selby at Royal Cozyfires says the split does seem to be moving more towards electric. “I think price is becoming a more important factor in people’s choice of fires, contributing slightly to the drop in gas fire sales,” he says.
Chris Stammers, marketing manager for Dimplex fires, says there are residual safety issues as well as environmental concerns that might also be leading consumers to opt for electric over gas. “People increasingly view electric fires as a hassle-free option, particularly with safety worries surrounding carbon monoxide,” he says. “Additionally, the growing awareness of environmental issues is making consumers consider the efficiency of gas appliances, as well as the issue of security of gas supply in the face of dwindling North Sea reserves.”
Darren McMahon agrees that electric is seen as more hassle-free, particularly by developers in the housing market. “Legislation is moving us towards ever more efficient homes and while a chimney with a gas fire can actually improve a home’s SAP [Standard Assessment Procedure] energy rating, it requires more investment from the property developer,” he says. For non-premium homes, many are finding it easier to leave out the chimney altogether and are installing an electric appliance instead or leaving the decision to the homebuyer.
It will be interesting to see how this impacts on sales in future years, as the number of home owners upgrade their ‘bought with the house’ electric fires.
This is a sector which has seen the number of players dwindle, but there is still strong activity, despite yet again being dependent on the vagaries of the British weather. Sales of electric blankets – or heated bedding – to give its more contemporary tag – have dipped slightly but in the key months of November and December have remained fairly static during the past few years. In fact, the sales period has actually lengthened according to Louise Beaumont, category manager for this product area at Morphy Richards. “In 2004 heated bedding sales predominantly occurred in December where as now they are spread more evenly through October to December,” she says. “As climates and seasons change, so the season for selling heated bedding increases.”
Energy efficiency is a trend being sought after by consumers, so there are technological advances in this area to help reduce the cost of using the products.
Morphy Richards has become a major player in the sector in recent seasons – in terms of technology (the company has introduced ‘nano wires’ in heated bedding for energy efficiency) and promotional activity. One of its latest moves has been to join forces with the AECC (Anglo European Chiropractic Clinic) to produce information on treating aches and pains using heat and ice therapies rather than painkillers. This is linked with the company’s Heat Treatment Pack, which includes a heat pad and a cold compress. The heat pad sector itself has increased 56% year on year and is certainly an area to watch.
Underblankets is the sub category which has seen plenty of interest in recent seasons. It is now worth around £10 million at retail, compared to overblankets – favoured by a more traditional older consumer – at around £1 million (source: Morphy Richards/GfK May 2007).
Average pricing is actually increasing, particularly at the top end of the market, with 6% of sales in the £60-£70 bracket, compared to half that proportion a year or so previously. Consumers are trading up for products with increased features, benefits and ease of use, with sales up in fitted underblankets (29%), mattress covers (25.6%) and king size models (7.2%).
As with other heating products, retailers are advised to position heated bedding in a high traffic area when there is a cold snap, as the products are generally a weather dependent, distress purchase.
Selling tips for portable heaters
- Follow the weather forecast
- Place the products in a high footfall area
- Inform customers about safety features and energy efficiency