On the warm front

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The prospect of another cold winter may be the most effective incentive for customers to invest in heating products. There are plenty of highly effective solutions on offer and most of them won’t break the bank. Anna Ryland looks at the options.

The winter of 2010/2011 will not be easily forgotten. It brought heavy snowfalls, record low temperatures, travel chaos and school disruption. National media referred to it as the Big Freeze and it proved to be the coldest winter in Britain for 31 years with an average temperature of 1.5°C.

It was also another reminder of the climate change embracing the European continent which is likely to bring many more severe winters. It may not be a welcome prospect for the majority of people but this is good news for the heating sector and retailers who sell heating products.

Market statistics for the last 12 months clearly reflect people’s reaction to the extreme weather conditions.

“Electric blankets have seen steady growth over the last three winter seasons, and are approaching the one million units a year barrier. Portable electric heating also performed particularly well last winter, but was more subdued in previous years. Meanwhile electric fires are in decline, having been hit hard by the housing market slow down.  Traditionally premium electric fires were a popular new-house purchase, so, as the housing market remains sluggish, so too do the electric fire sales,” comments Ben Mansell, senior account manager, SDA, at GfK.

In fact, sales volume of electric blankets which 12 months ago (July 2009 – June 2010) showed a healthy growth of 8.75%, shot up by 17.8% during the period June 2010 – June 2011, with its value increasing also by 16%.

Portable heating seems to be a perfect answer to cold autumn and winter days, and its sales volume grew over the last 12 months by 10% and value by 12.71% from (0.16% and 1.17% in the period July 2009-June2010). This is also indicative of the product investment in this category.

“One guarantee in the UK is that winters are cold. De’Longhi does all it can to try to produce technologically advanced heating solutions for optimum results in the home.  The best scenario is producing portable heating solutions that are not only effective and therefore require less time ‘on’ thus, less energy.  With rising energy bills and living costs we encourage everyone to heat the room they are using and not the entire house, it’s simply a waste of energy to heat unused rooms,” argues Kate Donohoe, brand manager of De’Longhi UK.

Something for every room

Dimplex is renowned for its best-selling range of flame effects fires – inset, wall-mounted and freestanding models – but the company also makes oil-filled portable radiators, fan heaters and convectors. It has recently been focusing on making its Opti-mist fires more attainable to the mass market. “With higher sales volumes giving economies of scale and improved manufacturing efficiencies, we are able to expand the range to incorporate lower-cost variants, enabling more consumers to own and enjoy the amazing Opti-myst effect,” says Chris Stammers, marketing director for trade and independents at Dimplex.

A new approach to electric fires, introduced four years ago to the market by Smeg, continues to find customers’ approval.

Smeg’s ‘retro-style’ flueless fires “fit flush to the wall without the need for a chimney or flue to give instant heat and are suitable for use with either natural or LPG gas.  Instead, the combustion gasses pass through a catalytic converter system positioned at the top of the appliance, with only warm air being released.  For the energy saving conscious, Smeg’s fires convert 100% of the gas to heat, unlike open or coal fires, so they are much more efficient at heating your rooms, reducing gas bills by 75% when compared to conventional gas fires,” explains Joan Fraser, Smeg product development and training manager.

The fire frames of the Linea and Classic models, that come in seven colours,  can be easily interchanged to allow consumers to adapt the look of their fire according to the season or occasion.

However, “portable heaters are performing particularly well, after the last two very hard winters,” confirms Dimplex’s Chris Stammers. “They are useful for supplementary heating in garages, extensions and conservatories, where the central heating cannot or is too expensive to be extended. In many cases, portables are still a distress purchase, prompted by problems with the main heating system. We have also seen a trend, in the tough economy of recent years, for people to keep their central heating switched off for short periods, and just use a portable heater to heat the room they’re using – fan heaters’ fast warm-up is ideal for this.”

Dimplex also reports that within the portables market, oil-free products are very popular, with their high levels of performance and economy. “In addition to the environmental benefits, consumers recognise the correlation between efficient performance and lower running costs. Plus, oil-free products have a very fast warm-up, giving instant heat, which is also a ‘must-have’ for many people,” explains Chris Stammers

More ‘stand-out’ designs are particularly popular, such as Dimplex’s football fan, Glo-fan and daisy fan.

The latest innovations in portable heating from De’Longhi include the Electronic Climate Control systems. “They can monitor your room conditions in real time and set the heater to use only the necessary energy to keep you completely comfortable; so no bounces in temperatures.  You can also set the heater to automatically come on and switch of as required, while on some models heat distribution is maximised by a dual heating method: radiated heat and convection, with fan-assisted boost,” says Kate Donohoe, brand manager of De’Longhi UK.

The Dragon and Vento oil filled radiators from De’Longhi are also very effective and energy efficient. They channel ambient air through the hot core of the radiator and accelerate it producing a rush of convected air.  The chimney effect quickly heats up the room, whilst radiating heat the traditional way.  

The drivers

Energy efficiency is becoming a major issue in this sector, partially because of the advent of the EU Energy-Using Products Directive (known as Lot 20). Small domestic appliances such as electric fires, portables, convectors and fan heaters will need to be energy labelled to make energy consumption clear to consumers, so it’s been a major incentive for manufacturers to review the energy performance of their products.

Dimplex has been conforming to the new regulations by replacing bimetallic thermostats with highly accurate electronic ones, for close control over room temperature.

The need to reduce energy consumption is behind many new product developments. The eRTv, an innovative, British-made thermostatic electronic radiator valve, that has just entered the market, does just this saving the users money in the process. It has the potential to save on gas or oil central heating costs by typically between 15% and 25%. Created heating controls specialists, Chalmor, eRTv makes it easy for the central heating radiators in each room to be individually and flexibly operated by using the eTRV’s remote controlled handset.

Existing thermostatic radiator valves can be easily replaced by eTRV at home.

Each radiator can be controlled not only individually, but in a flexible way. For  example, the bathroom could be heated throughout the day but to a comfortable temperature in the morning, a low temperature in the day and an economy temperature in the evening.

Price and product quality have always been the primary drivers in this market. However the recession has led to the emergence of the particularly cost-sensitive co
nsumers who are not only focused on getting good value but also high quality products that will stand the test of time. 

“Nobody wants to be in a position whereby they have to buy another heating solution for their home the next season because the last one has already broken or fallen apart.  There is also an element of safety which comes into buying a heating product.  It’s one appliance which not only gets ‘hot’ but is also likely to be left on unattended and for longer periods of time so people want them to be reliable and safe.  Cheaper products inevitably give the impression that they are made to a lesser specification and quality and therefore may not reassure consumers of their safety,” Kate Donohoe at De’Longhi.

Learning and educating

Knowing products well and their suitability for different home environments is essential for a make successful sale in this sector.

The current economic climate has made this even more of an imperative since consumers are becoming more skilful at seeking information. The recession has accelerated the growth of comparison websites, and many consumers do their research by the time they enter the shops. They also ask harder questions, such as what is an expected product lifespan, and won’t be fobbed off with hazy answers.

“The retailer needs to be armed with more information than ever before. The personal touch and customer service counts for a lot, so retailers need to really engage with the customer. Consumer buying behaviour often isn’t rational, so use cues from the customer to establish what the emotional driver is behind the purchase. Also, it sounds obvious, but get to know your area, and who your customers are,” advises Dimplex’s Chris Stammers.

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