Selling a crease-free finish

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The irons market remains fairly static at around £134 million and 5.3 million units, with conventional models taking the bulk of sales, at around £99.7 million and 4.8 million units.
The remainder is made up of steam generators and ironing systems, which consistently put in good sales performances as they take a stronger hold on the market. In this sector sales were up by 8% in value and 10% in volume over the last year (to the end of September; source: GfK). By their very nature, they tend to command a higher price tag in general than conventional irons. Their appearance on the UK market around 15 years ago probably helped initially polarise the sector, something which has continued despite the drop in prices of steam generators.
Need to focus on benefits
The last few years have seen the starkest example of polarisation, with the introduction by many supermarkets of their own label products – Tesco for instance with its sub-£5 conventional iron.
Manufacturers agree that this has had an impact on the market in volume terms, but many have faith in the consumer’s innate desire to want products that last, particularly when it comes to electrical goods.
Jamie Lennox, managing director at Home-Tek, says the market has certainly suffered from the concept of ‘throw away’ irons but that in the end, irons is a sector where consumers want quality and performance and so fully-featured products still sell well. “The consumer is prepared to pay higher prices for these features and benefits. This will not change because ironing is a chore and consumers want to make this as easy as possible,” he says. “They’re prepared to pay if they can be convinced that the product will reduce time or improve ironing results.”
Jane Lee, product category manager at Bosch, says there has been huge growth in the sub £20 category, but also in the upper price segments too, driven by brands similar to her own – Bosch currently has the highest average price on the market for a conventional iron. She predicts that the sub-£20 price category will stabilise or even decline, as customers who experience using a very cheap iron go back to quality brands. This is likely to be particularly marked in the current economic climate. “In a recession, consumers tend to invest in products that will last rather than ‘bargains’ that need replacing within months,” she says. “This is something the independent sector can use to its advantage – customers in this buying mode are more inclined to buy from somebody offering good advice and information.”
However, Bosch has designed a new range of its TDA26 iron, starting at £25, with the idea of combining a well-known brand with a two year guarantee, but at an affordable price. “This should also help the retailer to bridge the gap between ‘cheap as chips’ ranges and a real brand,” says Jane.
Morphy Richards provides conventional irons and steam generators and in conventional irons has seen sales come through at both ends of the price spectrum. Louise Turnbull, category consumer manager at Morphy Richards, says in the coming years price points should continue to increase as new technology evolves to make ironing easier still. “There is the chance that polarisation of price points will continue even more – those consumers driven by price and promotion and others that will be willing to pay the premium price for technology that offers benefits,” she says. “Despite features playing a strong part in the changing dynamics of the irons market, retailers will increasingly see the need to steer away from talking in numbers and communicate benefits to consumers.”
Who buys and why?
Susanna Richardson, senior customer marketing manager for garment care at Philips, says promotional deals are incentives but aren’t the only aspects of motivating consumers to purchase new irons. “Consumers become attached to their irons,” she says, “so they need to be convinced of the lifestyle benefits of replacing or upgrading them and this requires insight into how and why consumers make the purchase.”
Manufacturers want to encourage consumers away from the cheap irons and towards their fully-featured products so several have carried out research into who buys an iron and why.
Philips’ own investigations suggest that the core purchaser is a woman, who spends an average of 162 minutes a week ironing. Susanna Richardson says there is very clearly an emotional impulse when it comes to purchasing irons. “Spending that amount of time a week ironing indicates that they invest this time because they think it’s important to look and feel good,” she says. “So, the strongest proposition is achieving better results in less time.” Philips has found that consumers are also looking for higher steam output, soleplate quality (for durability, easy-clean, smooth ride over different fabrics) and systems that prevent or loosen scale deposits.
Morphy Richards’ Louise Turnbull says there will always be consumers who want a basic iron but even though motivation to iron is low – if they can avoid doing it, they will – they are still looking for products that make the chore of ironing quicker and easier. “The rest of the population is made up of consumers who strive to achieve a really smart, crease-free finish,” she says. “Some will get a real post-ironing buzz and others still want a great finish but see it almost as a necessary evil. The one thing they have in common is wanting that crease-free finish.”
So identifying that even at the basic level, consumers are after good performance means that manufacturers will continue to develop products that meet those needs – and particularly in the current economic situation, that will hopefully capitalise on the wariness of consumers to buy cheaply and repent their decision.
Jane Lee at Bosch says independent retailers have an advantage when it comes to the irons purchase. “They are ideally placed to sell the iron that suits the customers’ ironing habits best, rather than pushing what is on promotion,” she says. But the key is for retailers to understand their customers’ needs. If they only have five shirts to iron a week for work and do that before heading out in the morning, then a conventional iron with a quick heat up time is ideal. “If, on the other hand, they are ironing for a family of six,” says Jane Lee, “we’d recommend a steam generator like our TDS2510GB much more, as the steam output and the fact you won’t need to keep refilling the water will mean getting through that pile of ironing quicker.”
Steam generators
Steam generators have been the focus of most interest in recent years, with manufacturers looking at more compact models, those that require less frequent filling, as well as useful features that are also important on conventional irons like soleplate material and different steam options.
New from Russell Hobbs is the Steamforce steam generator with pressurised steam output generating up to four bars of pressure, around five times more steam output than a conventional iron.
The GC9040 from Philips is the first fully automatic anti-scale steaming system, while the GC8261 has a small footprint – about the size of a piece of A4 paper, able to fit on any ironing board.
Breville has the VIN067 high performance steam generator and assistant brand manager Kathryn Elliott says the sector is still an area where consumer education is needed. “We think in-store communications, point-of-sale and product demos help to educate both salespeople and consumers,” she says.
Daniel Daly, product manager for Russell Hobbs, agrees that there is still work to be done in steam generators, with many consumers not fully aware of the benefits. “This category still offers opportunities for growth,” he says. “It is up to retailers and manufacturers to work together to effectively communicate the benefits. Demonstration is key to increase awareness and also encourage word-of-mouth recommendation among consumers.”
The latest developments
In conventional irons there have been several interesting moves recently. The GC4640i Ionic Steam iron from Philips has 50% smaller steam particles penetrating the fabric three times deeper than other irons, while the Protect iron from Bosch has a clip-on soleplate. The company describes this as ‘a technologically-advanced alternative to the wet tea towel or hanky that was once used to prevent shiny spots on trousers.’ This has now received the Which? Best Buy award as well as Good Housekeeping 2008 approval.
Also featuring Good Housekeeping accreditation is the Precision Heat digital iron from Russell Hobbs with temperature control technology.
Morphy Richards has introduced its ‘tip’ technology onto the Turbosteam and Comfigrip ranges of irons – this is where two separate chambers direct steam to the tip for a powerful shot of steam where it is needed and a separate amount  to the rest of the soleplate. Breville also offers tip technology on some of its models.
Probably one of the most exciting and commendable launches from Morphy though is the ‘ecolectric’ iron. This is the company’s attempt to help kickstart a campaign to create a standard on irons similar to white goods, allowing consumers to understand the energy consumption implications and carbon footprint of the sector. “As a manufacturer it is important we help the consumer understand how they can save energy,” says Morphy Richards’ Louise Turnbull. The ecolectric features a three minute auto shut off, “so if users answer the phone, the door or nip into the kitchen to attend to the cooking, the iron won’t waste energy while it’s not in use.”
Steam remains a priority in both conventional irons and steam generators – the higher the grams per minute, the better the result.
In soleplates, the key is to aid ‘glideability’, thus making ironing easier. Breville is launching the ‘supreme glide ceramic soleplate’ in January 2009. This features nano silver (a material currently being used in electrical haircare products for smooth finishes), which also has antibacterial properties and this can give a ‘fresher’ finish to the ironing.

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