The eco-friendly comfort

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For some time now, the heating market has been governed by one specific issue – just how cold and miserable a winter are we likely to have and can we capitalise on that in sales.
The last few seasons haven’t quite gone according to that plan and manufacturers and retailers alike have had to adapt to shorter bursts of cold weather, throughout the year. The same has been true in reverse for cooling products.
Just when the industry thought it had the measure of the British weather, along comes another factor to skew sales performance – the credit crunch.
Depending on which pundits you read and believe, we’re only scratching the surface of the economic downturn, so it’s going to get worse. We can’t do much about solving that, but can the industry seize those opportunities for sales?
Unlike some product areas where a downturn in consumer spending means just that, in heating products we could actually see an uplift in those models helping consumers save money.
Energy efficiency
Energy efficiency has been flagged as a key benefit in many products for a while and more and more consumers are buying into the green agenda. If a squeeze on their bank balances turns more of them into enviro-conscious purchasers, then it’s a win win situation.
Sara Lovell, product marketing manager at De’Longhi, says the credit crunch may well see consumers using less of their central heating because of the rising energy prices, and will instead look towards ‘spot heating’ like oil filled radiators (OFRs). “Retailers should be aware of the effects of energy costs and be able to advise customers accordingly,” she says.
Micromark product marketing manager Jonathan Lim says the market is very price driven anyway, with many sales arising from distress purchases. “With the rising costs of energy bills it is very apparent that the consumer will be looking for products that are cheap to run and have features such as timers or variable temperature settings, allowing you to limit the use of your heaters.”
Valor Fires is another company where energy efficiency is highly viewed as a product benefit. The Homeflame Harmony gas fire range launched last year has been updated in a champagne colour for this year and Valor maintains that with an energy efficiency rating of 89%,   it is the most efficient deep-bed fire on the market.
Claire Payne, Dimplex product manager for portable heating, says that with the credit crunch, consumers can see the financial benefit of heating just the one room they are using rather than the whole house, so that’s good news for portable heating in particular.
A spot of heat
“With gas prices starting to increase faster than electricity prices, consumers are looking for alternative solutions to using gas central heating,” she says, adding that away from the credit crunch there is definitely a place for ‘occasional heating’ offered by portables, including Dimplex’s own ‘green’ products, the exclusive Oil Free Eco radiators range. “Predicting the weather is becoming more and more difficult year on year in this country, and therefore portables will continue to be viewed as a good standby,   as the climate becomes more volatile,” she says.
Heat Electric has gone down the oil free route too, with a range of water-filled radiators (see Products to Watch). The only manufacturer of such products in the UK, Heat Electric’s ‘Easy Heat’ radiators comprise a built-in boiler, pump and thermostat transforming each product into a virtual self-contained central heating system. Managing director David Garrity says that products like Easy Heat  will play an increasing role as the country looks to hit its renewable energy target of 20% by 2020. “Home owners can install the system confident that they will be able to take full advantage of suppliers moving to low and zero carbon electricity over the coming years, while in the meantime limiting energy usage through enhanced controllability,” he says.
Quick and easy are the reasons why Micromark feels its range of towel rails have been a heating success story in recent seasons. Says Jonathan Lim, “They are quick to install and require no plumbing – a simple and quick way to improve the environment of any bathroom, as well as being virtually maintenance-free.” That success is set against a “strange time” for heating products. “There was a sales spike in May and June for heating which was a major surprise,” he says. “But it can be linked to some unusual cold snaps during these months. However, it did not get too cold in the earlier part of the year, so sales overall have been quite sluggish.”
Night comfort
Technology and style also remain key in this sector. In electric blankets, the emphasis is probably more on technology than style – features such as dual control where consumers can choose to have the heat on their side of the bed or not, while ultra thin nano wires mean greater comfort. But Morphy Richards, which is the main player in this sector now, thinks that rather unfairly there is still a negative association with electric blankets. Louise Turnbull, consumer category manager for Rest, Relaxation and Wellbeing at Morphy Richards, says electric blankets are certainly relevant to today’s consumer. “In today’s fast paced world, it is more important we get a decent night’s sleep and if someone can’t sleep in the colder months because they’re too cold, heated bedding can solve this problem by giving them a cosy night’s rest,” she says. Other benefits she highlights are the ‘comfort factor’, with fleecy products cushioning the mattress, and giving extra heat at the foot of the bed, particularly useful to anyone suffering from poor circulation.
The latest technology
Dimplex is heralding its new Opti-myst patented technology as the ‘next generation of fires’ (see Products to Watch). Chris Stammers, marketing manager for Dimplex fires, says this will be as significant as when the company launched Optiflame in 1989. “The holy grail in fires has always been to create an electric fire that people can’t distinguish from the real thing, he says, “with dancing flames and wisps of smoke, without having heat when you don’t want it. At last we can stop holding our breath as the Opti-myst has arrived!”
The technology won two awards at the Heat & Home fires industry trade show this June and gained plaudits from visiting fires retailers, such as “I thought it was the most realistic fire, bar a real wood or coal fire, I’ve ever seen.”
Ceramic heating elements have been used for a while now with fan heaters, but De’Longhi has introduced a new technology for its panel heaters. Mica, which is a naturally occurring mineral with very similar properties to ceramic – fast, efficient, good heat retention – appears in all De’Longhi panels as Mica-Thermic, for silent operation with rapid and wide-spread warmth.
The long-running debate of price versus technology and/or design rages in heating products, but with some qualification. In electric blankets, price has remained fairly stable, although there has been a slight uplift with the increase in King Size bed ownership.
Claire Payne at Dimplex says in terms of portable heating the only way to combat the effect of cheap Chinese imports – “the threat poised by low cost Chinese producers has never been more apparent, particularly in fan heaters” – is to focus on design-led products.
Style, design and safety
Sara Lovell at De’Longhi agrees that price is important, “but if the design and style of the focal point fire perfectly fits into the consumer’s home, then they are willing to invest in the product, as they’re considered to be a long-term purchase,” she says. “Likewise, with product technology, that’s what leads the consumers’ decision-making process. Design is not the most important element in portable heating as the products are chosen for their function and reliability.”
After style and design, according to Chris Stammers at Dimplex fires, one of the top issues for purchasers is safety. “With any electric fire consumers don’t need to worry about annual servicing or carbon monoxide fumes. But with so many small brands of electrical appliances and fires now available on the market, retailers and consumers now need to be extra vigilant,” he says. “As a retailer, you have responsibility for ensuring that all due care and attention is taken – and there’s a minefield of marques and schemes. Insist the products you sell are BEAB approved.”
Dimplex has the internationally-recognised BEAB approval for all its fires, ensuring each has been rigorously and independently tested to provide reassurance of safety as well as compliance with specified European and international standards. “This is policed through factory and market surveillance,” says Chris Stammers. “The CE Mark is only a manufacturer’s self declaration of safety and compliances.”

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