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The ironing category is back on the up, largely thanks to increased sales of the higher priced steam generator products. Sarah Selzer reports.

Good news – the irons and steam generator market has bounced back. According to GfK, it was the only one of the large SDA categories to noticeably suffer during the recession, posting serious declines in sales value.

Even better news, the recovery has been led not by traditional steam irons, which retain the majority share of the irons market value (around 73% MAT Sept 09 to Aug 10). It is largely down to steam generators, which have consistently shown good growth over nigh on the last decade. Steam generators now represent around a quarter of sales value, up 9% MAT. Traditional steam irons were also up, around 3%, giving a total increase in the sales value of irons of a respectable 4%.

The star of the market

Looking at like-for-like sales (August 09 to August 10), the irons market grew by 9% in sales value, with steam generators capturing 27% of market value, up a hefty 24%. Traditional steam irons still represent the majority – 71% of sales value – and also grew, albeit at a much slower rate – 2.5%.

The reason why it is even better news that steam generators are the fastest growing sector is because of the higher price tag they command. It is still possible to get a traditional steam iron for the ridiculously low price of under £4 (supermarket own brand but even some branded ranges are only just into double figures). But steam generators have hung onto their value and consumers can expect to pay well over £130 for a fairly highly equipped model.

Mags Siddle, garment care category consumer manager at Morphy Richards, believes the increase in steam generators might also be down to the fact that the consumers able to invest in such products haven’t been as affected by the recession as others. “They are more likely, currently, to continue to buy into the benefits a steam generator can offer,” she says. “But the gap between traditional steam irons and steam generators seems to be closing and, in fact, GfK suggests that market share for steam generators may be close to 30% by August 2011, closing the gap and driving more value into the category as a whole.”

The benefits of steam generators – cuts ironing time in half through the constant delivery of pressurised steam being the main one – have been long known and Lindsay Mitchell, at Philips, says the increase in sales of generators reflects how ‘time poor’ consumers are. “They demand greater ease and convenience,” she says. “The rise in sales also confirms that there are clearly trade-up opportunities to convert consumers from traditional irons to pressurised steam generators.”

Modern requirements

It should be reasonably easy to identify ideal consumers for the premium-end products – and this can include the higher spec’d traditional irons as well as steam generators. As well as those consumers who have a higher disposable income and can be persuaded to pay for features because they can afford it anyway, a captive audience is those with a regular and larger ironing need, such as families. Lindsay Mitchell says life in the 21st century also plays its part. “With the pace of modern living becoming even faster, time saving and convenience have become top priorities for consumers. On average consumers spend 162 minutes ironing per week and it is important that home laundry is made as comfortable, easy and convenient as possible,” she says.

Jane Lee, category manager at BSH Consumer Products Division, says a simple rule of thumb for the retailer would be finding out how much ironing the customer does each week. “If for example, the customer only has five shirts a week to iron for work but usually irons a shirt before he/she goes to work in the morning, then an iron with a super quick heat up time is perfect. On the other hand, if you are ironing for a family of six, we’d recommend one of our steam generators much more, as the steam output and the continuous refill system means you don’t have to wait for ages for it to heat up or keep refilling the water, so you get through that pile of ironing much quicker.“

Recent product developments

Groupe SEB operates in the irons sector with the Tefal and Rowenta brands. Recent product launches from the company have focused on both steam generators and traditional steam models. Steve Lowe, customer marketing manager at Groupe SEB says that for both product sectors, the emphasis remains on performance. “This requires a perfect blending of features to achieve perfect results,” he says. Tefal’s Ultimate Autoclean range of traditional steam irons has a self-clean soleplate with properties of palladium (a chemical used in catalytic converters in cars) which helps to evaporate any microfibres collected while ironing. The result is easier and faster ironing apparently.

The new Rowenta Steamium iron delivers as much steam – 200g per min – as many steam generators on the market (see Products to Watch), while another new model, the Tefal Express is a compact steam generator, with 4.5 bar pressure, extra large water tank and anti-scale collector.

BSH also features the chemical palladium in its Palladium Glissee ceramic soleplate and has opted for power in both the traditional Premier Power iron and Professional Power steam generator (see Products to Watch).

Other developments include, from Morphy Richards, the new ComfiGrip (see Products to Watch) with TriZone soleplate technology – powerful steam shot to remove stubborn creases; constant steam to relax the fabric and a hot press plate to remove the excess moisture that causes clothes to crease again.

Philips has launched the EnergyCare range featuring an Automatic Energy Saving System that detects when there is no pressure on the iron’s handle, for example when it’s placed on its heel or left face down without movement. At this point, the system reduces the production of steam, so saving energy.

Energy saving is important with the Lecospira range from Polti, which features an aluminium boiler that reaches the highest temperature in a short space of time and offers even heat distribution. This cuts down on energy consumption by around 20% according to the company. But probably the most eye-catching aspect of this range is that it is actually a steam and vacuum cleaner that can be turned into a steam generator. Marketing manager Jennifer Riley says consumers appreciate such versatility. “The flexibility of the product range means customers only need to buy one machine for their complete cleaning and ironing needs.” The company is looking to support the range with DVD and live in-store demonstrations.

While most laundry products remain white with pastel or translucent accents, BSH has gone for the metropolitan look with its Bosch Power products – both the traditional iron and the steam generator are a mix of gloss black and brushed stainless steel. “Generally people hate ironing,” says Jane Lee, “and making the product more attractive can help to generate more interest in the purchasing process.”

Bosch has grouped its irons into different ‘target groups’ such as Power, Protect, All Rounder and Secure. Each highlights the main feature of the iron; for example with the Protect iron there is a clip on the soleplate to prevent shiny spots appearing when ironing trousers.

In terms of sales distribution, the last year has seen chain stores steal some share from mass merchants, and with independents remaining largely static, “despite a difficult time for all over the last 18 months,” says Mags Siddle from Morphy Richards. “Average selling price shows aspirations to continue to grow, suggesting less reliance on promotional activity.” Suppliers agree thou
gh that ironing is a sector where independents really can make their mark. Steve Lowe at Groupe SEB says selling through the independent channel brings clear advantages for his brands. “Independents add value to the consumer shopping experience with their expertise and knowledge of the market and the products,” he says. “Selling through this channel ensures our unique selling points are explained and understood by the consumer for increased sales.”

In that one-to-one experience, independents can educate consumers, help dispel any pre-conceptions (eg, such as the amount of space irons or steam generators take up, where they sit on the ironing board etc) and generally trade them up, either to a top end traditional steam iron or a steam generator. This sector is still a relatively young market in the UK compared to continental Europe so education is very much a requisite.

Jane Lee from Bosch says independents should focus on a simple range with easy trade-up steps for the consumer. “They mustn’t be afraid of higher-priced products and steam generators; they are perfectly placed to explain to the customer why it is worth spending the extra money.”

A good spread of medium-high priced irons and entry-priced steam generators should give independents a balanced offering, according to Mags Siddle from Morphy Richards “This will enable them to cash in on trade-up opportunities but they should also ensure periphery accessories are at hand with dual sitting and cross selling opportunities.”

Rowenta Steamium steam iron

The new Steamium steam iron is certainly impressive – it has 2600W of ironing power delivering 200g/min shot of steam, more than many steam generators on the market. Using Steam Force Technology, the Steamium has a pump system aiming to push nearly a third more steam right into fibres. A specially designed trigger under the handle allows control of the steam output level and efficient steam usage.

Bosch Professional Power steam generator

BSH has gone for a radical new look in irons with its Power range. Whether the traditional steam iron model or the Professional Power steam generator (pictured), the look is very much urban industrial – gloss black and brushed steel. But it is heavy on features too. It has a fast start up time (two minutes to boil), large removable water tank but a cold-water reservoir to replenish so no need for a pressure release valve, 120g/min of permanent steam, 5 bar operating pressure and Palladium Glissee ceramic soleplate.

Morphy Richards Comfigirp irons

Comfigrip is probably one of Morphy Richards’ best known irons ranges and the company has continued to develop it. The latest version features TriZone soleplate technology which apparently goes one step further than the norm. Three areas of soleplate combine to deliver that freshly-ironed look even once clothes have been put away. Powerful steam shot removes particularly stubborn creases; constant steam to relax the fabric for easy pressing and the piece de resistance, a hot ‘press plate’ to remove excess moisture which causes clothes to crease again.

Philips GC8420 steam generator

The GC8420 steam generator from Philips has a 1.6 litre tank that allows for up to three hours of ironing time uninterrupted, 160g/min steam boost, ingenious iron resting mat so the iron can be put down anywhere during ironing and a lock-lever at the back so the product can be carried as one and put away.

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