Pressed into service

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The garment care category still registers a healthy £94.3m for conventional steam irons and £32.1m for steam generators (year-on-year, to end August 09; Source: GfK), despite the stiff economic climate. Looking further at the figures, conventional steam irons take around 90% of all volume sales (4.7m units) but much less in value (around 75%), with steam generators at nearly a quarter of value sales. Correspondingly, steam generators are at around 7% of volume.

But value has always been the all-important figure in assessing sales and while steam irons were witnessing a decline during the months before the credit crunch really hit, steam generators were actually showing 10% year-on-year growth. Now all bets are off as sales slow down across the board, but this is a good time to identify where growth will come from when the market returns to normal (still debatable as to when).

Consumer preferences

Manufacturers have spent a lot of time and effort identifying who buys steam irons versus steam generators and the smaller category of ironing systems. There is convincing evidence that once a consumer has used a steam generator – sold on the back of cutting down the time it takes for this still hated domestic routine – they’re unlikely to go back to a conventional iron. So it would seem this sector is the one to get behind, with overall higher price tags delivering retailers greater profitability.

But conventional irons are not losing out in the development stakes – and there will remain a need for these products so they shouldn’t be ignored. Ian Nicholson, sales director at the consumer products division of BSH Group, says conventional steam irons continue to be a fast-moving, innovation led market. “The recession has certainly had a polarising effect on the market for steam irons, as it has for steam generators, although they have shown more resilience,” he says. “The cheaper and premium ends of the market have shown growth, while the middle of the market has struggled. There are no signs of this changing, with consumers continuing to choose one end of the market or the other.”

Jamie Lennox, managing director at Home-tek, says there is a definite split between the consumer who is happy with a ‘disposable’ product they can buy from a supermarket and the consumer who wants a quality branded product. “This latter consumer seems prepared to save their cash and trade up to a better model,” he says. “We don’t see the pre-Christmas period being affected too much, as irons are more of a distress purchase.”

Mags Siddle, category consumer manager for garment care at Morphy Richards, agrees the credit crunch does have a lot to answer for and not just in this sector. But that when your iron breaks, you still have to replace it. The question is, how does the consumer react? “What has certainly been seen recently is a shift in consumer behaviour.  Today’s shoppers are much more savvy about what they want, for the price they want to pay,” she says. “They’ll review promotions and compare many more offers and retailers than ever before.  And so retailers and manufacturers need to work much harder to ensure that their product range offers competitive value for money, at a price that today’s consumers are prepared to pay.”

Communication and education

Ian Nicholson at BSH says to ensure sales growth every brand has to see that product development provides a real USP versus its competitors. “That’s how to survive in the highly competitive irons market,” he says. “There is no doubt that there is increasing retail pressure to provide promotional support for all lines.”

The consumer profile of who buys what iron doesn’t really seem to have changed much, although we might be seeing a temporary blip with a classic steam generator consumer opting for a steam iron, for current economic reasons alone.

Jamie Lennox at Home-tek says there will always be “the bargain hunters who buy the ‘pile it high’ sell it cheap’ products,” but that more often now consumers have recognised ironing is a chore better served by a good performing product with high steam output. “And so they’ll pay for the product,” he says. Home-tek is offering infomercials of its new electronic travel iron/garment steamer (see Products to Watch) for use as in-store demos.

Raj Tut, assistant product manager at Groupe SEB for linencare says promotion and price can lead consumers to purchase a particular iron. “However, there are consumers trading up in irons and steam generators to get better results,” he says. “Mothers with families are willing to invest in a steam generator as they know they will get what they paid for. Students and first time home owners may go for the basic iron that ‘does the job’. Brand also plays a big part – consumers usually change their iron every two years, so some will go for the same brand they had before.”

It will be interesting to see if that rather rapid product cycle continues at the same rate after we turn the corner in the economic slowdown.

Steam generators have always needed that extra bit of help in educating consumers as to their benefits and this will need to continue, especially for new purchasers. Mags Siddle at Morphy Richards says signposts in-store highlight benefits but retailers should look towards the web too. “It is known that consumers will research their next purchase on the internet prior to that purchase, and so it is key for retailers to ensure their website offers great information about the different sorts of garment care products they offer,” she says.

Ian Nicholson at BSH says communication on-pack is also significant, while Susana Richardson, senior customer marketing manager for garment care at Philips, says there is a need to further define the different types of product within steam generators themselves – namely, between pressurised and non-pressurised models. “Education remains an opportunity for growth of steam generators but retailers need to communicate to customers the difference between a pressurised steam generator and a non-pressurised steam generator,” she says. “By promoting pressurised steam generators, retailers can encourage consumers to trade-up to the best products in garment care, increase total revenue and generate real satisfaction among consumers. This also leads to a lower return rate because of longer lifetime and better performance than other products.”

In short, Philips defines the difference as those above 2.5 bars of pressure (pressurised) and those below 2.5 bar (non-pressurised).

The sector is helped in this by the fact that consumers are much more aware of the concept of ‘bar pressure’ because of the popularity of espresso makers. Manufacturers have started to flag up the bar pressure – usually up to 5 – much more and linking that to the increased performance and decreased time it takes to complete the task.

Under pressure

The UK market can still look to Continental Europe to see just how far this sector can go. Steam generators have been available over the Channel for decades and while some styling may not be to the UK’s taste, the innovations occurring over there certainly should be. French manufacturer Domena has been at the forefront of innovation using recyclable materials and its EasyBox steam generator range (see Products to Watch) focuses on energy-saving – it takes just 30 seconds to be ready to use. Pascal Bechemin from Domena says despite the gobal turndown, other European markets don’t tend to suffer from the drop in prices that the UK now sees with steam generators. “Perhaps it is because there are too many players in the field in the UK which means that no major brand is acting as leader in order to push up prices, which is what we see in other European
markets.”

UK based brands over here might not agree, but it’s an interesting point.

Italian manufacturer Polti is another success on the continent and UK marketing manager Jennifer Riley says the shift from a conventional iron to a steam generator will eventually take place. “It has already happened in other European markets,” she says. “But it is still necessary to educate people about steam generators.”

As well as bar pressure, key features in steam generators tend to focus on the ease of use, such as continuous filling, larger water tanks, convenient cord storage and handle locks so the whole system can be carried safely.

In conventional irons, ease of use and safety are also key. Russell Hobbs has introduced the ‘easyfill’ iron (see Products to Watch) with a patented funnel design to avoid spills.

Soleplate developments

Developments in soleplate technology are available across both types of irons. In generators, numerous holes concentrated at the tip ensures a higher steam pressure, while including more holes on the soleplate of conventional irons gives extra steam output. Choice of soleplate material too all adds to the glideability across the fabric and so easing the task.

And there really has been thought behind these developments. Morphy Richards claims its Advanced Finish soleplate is the only one to offer three aspects at the same time – extra steam for stubborn creases, constant steam to ‘relax’ the garment’s fibres while you iron and a hot plate to remove any remaining moisture encouraging the garment to stay crease-free for longer.

Jennifer Riley at Polti says stainless steel soleplates tend to be popular on steam generators because they have a more ‘domestic’ look and do give good results. “It has to be said however that the real ‘professional’ iron is represented by the aluminium soleplate (look at professional cleaners: they only use aluminium soleplates.) Aluminium is the best conductor of heat (nine times better than steel). It reaches a higher temperature in less time and distributes steam evenly. That’s why aluminium soleplates allow even heat distribution over the surface of the iron and allow you to maintain the correct temperature. The result is: drier steam and savings on electricity.”

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