In top gear

In Features On

Both steam generators and conventional steam irons are putting in good sales performances, with strong rises in value and volume. The total market – the second largest in SDA – is now worth around £133 million on 5.4 million unit sales (GfK, August 2007). Steam generators continue to put in the most impressive rises – up around 19% in value and 35% in volume, with over 300,000 units sold.
Speeding up

This in part has been due to promotion by manufacturers of the ease of use and time-saving benefits – always a winner with this still hated household chore. The results clearly show that the message has been getting through.

Since the launch of the first steam generators, the significant benefits of a speeded up process to complete the task has been the ‘mantra’. This has been joined by ease-of-use, particularly with the introduction of continuous refill models, as standard with some brands.

Italian manufacturer Domotec, now featuring the Simac brand, claims the first steam generator on the market, launched over 14 years ago. Sales & marketing director Kevin Hearn says throughout that period, the key benefit has been ironing time reduction. “More than ever in these busy times this benefit is supremely important to the consumer,” he says. “We have seen over the years, consumers buying into boiler steam generator irons but increasingly they are trading up to constant refill models for the convenience.” Domotec is embarking on a £350,000 consumer campaign for both the Domotec and Simac brands.”

The segment is set to grow too, according to Anne Skinner, senior product manager at Groupe SEB. “Steam generators will continue to play an important role in growing the overall value of the irons market and we are forecasting this sector to become an even bigger part of the total market,” she says.

A major factor in the assured success of the sector though, according to Philips customer marketing director Paul Hobden, is communicating the benefits of pressurised steam generators. “The demand for steam systems is showing phenomenal growth, with this category expected to total 25% of the irons market by the end of this year,” he says. “But there are huge differences in quality and performance of steam systems so our focus is on educating the consumer and our retailers on the specific benefits of pressurised steam generators compared to non-pressurised. We are looking forward to another year of double digit growth in 2008 and hitting the £30 million mark for the first time.”

Consumer education

Despite the strong performances in steam generators, the UK still has some way to go before catching up with our Continental European cousins, where the products have been established for decades. Giovanni Toffano, UK marketing manager at De’Longhi (see Products to Watch), says the ironing category will be a major focus for the company over the next five years, capitalising on the growing interest UK customers have in steam generators. “Market share will continue to grow for steam generators as customers become more familiar with them,” he says. “We have found that consumers are often unaware of the difference between traditional ironing systems and steam generators, so it is important for retailers to educate customers on these differences as well as the benefits of each system.”

It is also a case of catching consumers’ attention too, and French manufacturer Domena might just have done that with the launch planned for next year of its Ecofibre steam generator, where the body of the iron and handle are made from renewable and recyclable material (see Products to Watch). Managing director Mike Bennett says the company plans to take its eco-friendly approach into other products, such as steam cleaners and presses.

Steam irons

Consumers are still buying traditional steam irons too. Sales are up by around 8% in value and 13.3% in volume and manufacturers haven’t been slow to innovate in this sector either. Kathryn Elliot, assistant brand manager at Breville, says that performance, ease of use and the amount of steam produced are all rated by consumers as key considerations. “We have looked to satisfy this with practical irons that use technology such as auto steam, one touch temperature selection and vertical steam,” she says. “It is all to make the task of ironing easier.” The latest products from Breville include the VIN010 Extreme Steam digital model and VIN025 Max steam.

Product innovations

Morphy Richards has teamed up with scientists at Bristol University to look into the effects of temperature, moisture and pressure on fabrics, resulting in the Advanced Finish range of irons (see Products to Watch). Chris Lever, category manager for garment care at Morphy Richards, says manufacturers will continue to innovate in irons because “consumers expect products with more sophisticated features, as they require appliances that help them take control of the process,” he says.

Russell Hobbs is another brand looking at innovation and design as a way of boosting the market. Its new Precision Heat range features technology to accurately maintain the temperature and is the subject of a major ad campaign later this year. Daniel Daly, product manager for Russell Hobbs, says that while the company is committed to introducing products which offer real consumer benefits, “the traditional steam iron category is being helped by more appealing retail prices too.”

The question of price

Price remains a significant issue in both segments of the market. Chris Lever at Morphy Richards says there is clear polarisation. “Entry price point products are pushing the volume growth and premium appliances are pushing the growth in value,” he says. “However, independent retailers cannot compete against entry level which is why it is better to rely on branded products. It is in this sector that consumers are trading up to higher spec products that give a superior finish, as they are increasingly dissatisfied with irons that don’t do the job properly.”

Anne Skinner at Groupe SEB agrees that brands play an important part.

“Consumers are increasingly time precious and so are looking for irons that will give them great results in no time,” she says. “Brand continues to be a strong purchase driver for consumers, as they prefer to buy reputable brands to ensure performance, reliability and safety.”

Domena has introduced lower-priced products in the ‘ironing centre’ sector (ironing tables with integrated steam generator) to boost interest. Prices are still £250 compared to £500, so they are significant considered purchases. But Mike Bennett from Domena says that lower down the scale, in steam generators at the £100 level, manufacturers need to offer more from their products. “There are still many conventional irons that have better features than many steam generators selling at twice the price,” he says. “In a market that generally has become tougher in recent months, it may become more difficult to induce consumers to trade up to £100-plus steam generators.” He points to features such as fast heat up and also something that he claims is a Domena exclusive, a guarantee against any scale-related problems. “It is estimated that over 30% of steam generator iron failures under guarantee are due to scale-related problems – something many manufacturers ignore or offer inadequate solutions to.”

Price continues to be an overriding factor throughout the irons market, according to Anne Skinner at Groupe SEB. “With aggressive pricing and promotional activity shaping the market currently, manufacturers must continue to invest in tangible and meaningful added-value features to encourage consumers to trade up,” she says.

A red herring?

One of the features which is highlighted as a key benefit, whether traditional steam or steam generators, is output of steam. But Florian Pfister, product category manager at Bosch Siemens, says this should be taken in context. “Consumers are increasingly choosing higher and higher steam output but this is a bit of a red herring because after a certain point steam output wets clothes too much,” he says. “The real key is precision, targeting the steam along the soleplate to be most effective. The future is all about making the task easier. Ironing is still a job no one likes, so getting it done faster, with better results, is paramount.”

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