Turning up the heat

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The economic slowdown is uppermost in all our minds, and across every sector. With portable heating products, pricing has always been a significant force and that doesn’t really seem to have changed. In the past, it has gone hand-in-hand as a financial pressure with the unpredictability of the British weather.

As we seem to have one aspect under control (summertime rain seems inevitable), how is the market coping with the squeeze on pricing and downturn in consumer spending?

Recessionary considerations

One of the biggest influences is the consumer’s desire to save money. Claire Payne, product manager for portable heating at Dimplex, says the current recession has inevitably seen consumers cutting back and looking for ways to save money. But there may be good news for the sector too. “In these times of financial crisis,” she says, “given that consumers have lower disposable incomes, it is likely that many may opt for portable heating as an alternative to spending thousands of pounds on a new boiler, should they find their central heating breaking down this winter.”

So the key for retailers is to have a good selection of products, for differing needs. De’Longhi brand manager Kate Rolton says ‘spot heating’ with portable heating units is an economic alternative for those consumers keeping a close eye on how much they’re spending on heating. “Retailers should be aware of the potential for increased sales and should take the time to speak to customers in depth to find out more about their heating needs,” she says. “For example, a fan heater for spot heating is ideal for those looking for a quick burst of heat, while an oil-filled radiator can be used to replicate central heating if the customer wants to just heat one room.”

Bionaire has found a greater demand for heaters with timers and/or two heat settings, because of the cost- and energy-savings they can offer, says UK marketing manager Gayle Black. “The recession has made consumers more aware of the products that they are buying,” she says. “Rather than buying a product on impulse, they are doing more research to make sure that the product they buy is right for them and their needs.”

Another effect of the recession is a slowdown in the housing market, with people deciding to stay put rather than move. The recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s saw a huge increase in DIY because of this phenomenon, and, this time, there could be benefits for areas like heating products, according to David Garrity, managing director of water-filled radiator manufacturer Heat Electric. “With the economic climate leading more people to improve, rather than sell, their properties, homeowners are looking for ways to improve the running costs as well as the value of their home,” he says. “As a result, when it comes to upgrading their heating system they are looking for solutions that are both cost effective and energy efficient.” With the Heat Electric range, each unit looks like a conventional radiator but features an internal mini boiler and pump making a self-contained heating system.

Some of our more recent and, one could say, less dramatic economic slowdowns have tended to hit the middle market more than the lower or very upper end. This recession is affecting all strata, according to Geoff Jones, managing director at Aestus. “We’re at the high quality end of the radiator and towel warmer market and therefore traditionally have been less affected by economic downturns,” he says. “However, this recession has hit all areas of the market and our sales figures have been affected like everyone else’s. What we have discovered though, is if there is enough product differential, sales can still be achieved.” The company has just launched its Hotech range covering 12 models that look like works of art. “With this inspiring collection, we aim to attract consumers who have fallen in love with the product who would perhaps normally have left the buying of radiators to an installer,” says Geoff Jones, adding that models in this range “are not cheap” – for example, the 8mm thick aluminium Feather by designer Monica Pilenghi retails from £5,300 – “but it proves that consumers can still be ‘sold upwards’ during a recession,” he says.

The choice is wide

Vogue UK’s prices are at the lower ‘higher’ end – its stainless steel collection of towel warmers retails from £313 to £1134 (see Products to Watch) – and Steve Birch, national sales manager believes the transformation of designer radiators in recent years has completely changed the way consumers look at heating. “Consumers did not give much thought to selecting a heating appliance as the choice was so limited,” he says. “These days, there is a plethora of designer radiators and heated towel rails in both contemporary and traditional styles and consumers are enthused by this wide choice. It has helped revive and sustain interest in heating appliances during the economic downturn.”

While all thoughts are focused on trying to battle the economics, the unpredictable weather is a constant with the heating market and consumers remain in two camps – those looking to replace an existing product and those in the distress purchase category. So it falls on retailers to ensure they have the correct products, just as with exploiting the economic situation and offering OFRs and fan heaters for ‘spot heating’ if consumers can’t afford the expense of full-scale replacement central heating should it go wrong.

Kate Rolton at De’Longhi says retailers should stock a range of products that cater for unexpected or sudden changes in temperature. “Look out for fan heaters which have both a heating and cooling setting, which is a good option for shoppers looking for a product that is dual-purpose and therefore good value-for-money.”

Design still plays an important part in portable heating though, even with those consumers in the ‘help we have no heating’ camp. “They want a product that looks good and performs well,” says Gayle Black at Bionaire. “With the increased emphasis on interior design, they are definitely becoming more conscious of how a product looks irrespective of whether they are buying to replace or making a distress purchase.”

Focal point fires

As a sector, focal point fires is not as able as its cousins in portable heating to take advantage of the immediacy of changes in weather or indeed the changes in fortunes of customers. But according to Chris Stammers, marketing manager for fires at Dimplex, the product area is holding up well, with the Optiflame effect still surprising some consumers. “It’s well-known to us in the industry, but being able to have a highly realistic hassle-free fire that lights at the flick of a switch still comes as a genuine surprise to many consumers,” he says.

Realism certainly plays a key role with fires – Chris Stammers reports the response to the Dimplex patented Opti-myst revolutionary flame-effect. “Customers can’t believe the flame effect really is electric – someone even called the local fire brigade thinking a stove in a window display had actually caught fire!” New this year from Dimplex is the Piermont stove, designed to retail for around £599, combining the popular UK trend for stoves but with Opti-myst’s real flickering flames and wisps of smoke effect.

Standing out

The final word comes from Gay Treherne, marketing manager at Burley, which has launched a range of instore-only fires to help retailers in the ongoing price battle with web-based stores (see Products to Watch). “As consumers turn increasingly to the internet to source anything and everything, it is vitally important that independent retailers recognise that this competition will not simply disappear and that they too need to push themselves forward in terms of promotion and differentiation.  Some retailers, of course,
do this extremely well but others are missing out,” she says.

“Investing in professional help to set up a website, not necessarily to sell online but to highlight the brands and types of fire on offer in your showroom, is money well spent.  The only advantage that internet companies have over retailers is price.  On every other front – customer service, product knowledge, installation, warranty, delivery, a retail environment and the ability to sell to customers in the shop – the internet companies cannot possibly compete.  For the consumer, the peace of mind that these additional services bring is well worth the difference in price.”

Best sellers in portable heating

  • Convectors/panel heaters – consumers are staying put and extending their homes rather than moving, so convectors becoming primary source of heating in extensions. Plug and go, freestanding or wall-mountable are easy and cheap alternative to full central heating.
  • Fan heaters – difficult to compete on price but consumers still appreciate added value and reputation of brands. So, they’re prepared to pay for heritage, extended warranty and safety assurances like BEAB.
  • Oil-filled and oil-free radiators – oil filled still dominate but the last year has seen change in consumer attitude to oil free, benefits of which include heating up faster and at greater temperature; they are also lighter and more portable.
  • Economic options – fan and panel heaters that are efficient to run, and include timers as standard.

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