The market for home furnishings and housewares has been affected just as deeply by the recession as any other sector, but for most wholesalers in the category, the challenges they now face are being viewed as opportunities.
"Last year we finished up 36 percent," says Anthony Pizzelanti, owner of The Cutting Board Company, which as its name suggests offers a wide range of wooden, plastic and even bamboo cutting boards, as well as a line of knives and sharpeners. "We've benefited from placing high in the Google listings, so when people search for, 'plastic and bamboo cutting boards,' they find us - and see that it's a lot cheaper to buy from us."
Another inexpensive way of marketing - word-of-mouth - has paid dividends for Solay Wellness Inc., which sells salt crystal lamps and other health and wellness products. "We're now entering our fifth year," says president Isabella Samovsky, "and we've seen how good word-of-mouth and the effectiveness of your products can be so very important. It's really one of the best ways you can grow a company."
Other tried-and-true methods such as advertising in magazines, newspapers and the Internet, and attending important trade shows, are also proving, once again, to be effective.
"The last 18 months have been up and down for us," remarks Rick Rosenbalm, owner of Rosey's Unique Products, which offers a line of handmade furniture, jewelry and sand art created by Rosenbalm and his son, Travis. "We were going pretty well, and then in January and February everything slowed way down. However, all it takes is one good show to turn things around."
One such event is the annual International Home and Housewares Show, held each March in Chicago and produced by The International Housewares Association, the 71-year-old voice of the housewares industry, which it says accounted for $301 billion at retail worldwide in 2007 (2008 figures are not yet available). The not-for-profit, full-service association offers its 1,700 member companies a wide range of services, including industry and government advocacy, export assistance, State-of-the-Industry reports, point-of-sale and consumer panel data, executive management peer groups and group buying discounts on business solutions services.
Highlighting this year's show, held March 21-24, was a panel discussion entitled, "Top Trends for 2010," which cited six trends as the most important facing the industry in the future: Respecting Generational Divides, Living Within Our Means, the Live-In Kitchen, the Green Kitchen, the Wellness Kitchen and Cooking for Fun.
In addition, the panelists identified four major age groups: Gen Y, Gen X, Baby Boomers and Prime Timers and provided information on how to reach each of them.
For example, according to the panel said, the Gen Y group is aged 14-33, usually rents an apartment rather than owns a home, are still in school or are just entering the workforce. The Gen X group (aged 34-43) typically is raising a family. Baby Boomers (44-63) are either entering the empty-nester phase or are experiencing children and/or parents moving back in with them. The panelists said the group is going to need to work longer than planned, but still represents the highest group of discretionary income for housewares. Prime Timers (age 64+) want to grow old where they are, they are reinventing themselves, and their focus is on ergonomics and intuitive design.
The newest trend, the panel said, comes under the "Living Within Our Means" category, created by the recession. "The recession is changing the way we view cash versus credit," said Tom Mirabile, vice president, global trend and design at Lifetime Brands, Inc., a leading designer, developer and marketer of a broad range of nationally branded housewares, including Cuisinart, Mikasa and Pfaltzgraff.
"Durability is now more important, in addition to redefining leisure time activities," Mirabile noted. "That is a huge opportunity for our industry. Yet, at the same time, you are fighting for a smaller piece of the discretionary income. Household expenses that did not exist 20 years ago like Internet service are now considered non-expendable, which reduces the money left for housewares and home products."
The continuing-to-grow trend towards "green" efforts and more healthy living is also making itself felt, according to the panel. "Consumers are asking for green, but the reality is that there is a lot of misinformation," remarked Curt Bailey, president of industrial design firm Sundberg-Ferar, Inc. "Do your homework and be authentic. There is a well connected group of consumers who will call you out on false claims."
The wellness trend centers around nutrition and an overall commitment to well-being. "With this trend you should focus on helping consumers save money and offer options that help them make more healthful decisions, like making home food prep easier and retaining nutritional value," said Sharilyn Ruckman, president of creative strategy and product development firm Ruckman & Company.
That expanding trend has been key to Solay Wellness' growth, says Samovsky. "People are increasingly looking for homeopathic solutions; they're very concerned about what's being put into the air and into their bodies."
The company's trademark salt crystal lamps are mined in an ecologically responsible manner, and crafted by dedicated artisans into attractive and safe lamps that can be used indefinitely. According to the company, studies have shown that salt crystal lamps can increase the count of negative ions in the air; negative ions benefit asthma patients, people with chronic lung illnesses and allergy sufferers. They also are believed to help improve learning, memory and emotional well-being, and can stimulate natural drive and healthy energy.
Solay's salt crystal lamps, which come in various styles and sizes, range in price from $29.95 to $140 each. The company also offers an array of candle holders, green cleaners, plant food and herb gardens, along with other merchandise.
"People are also increasingly turning to companies that are small, or that offer handmade products," Samovsky adds. "It makes them feel good to be able to patronize companies like that."
Rosenbalm at Rosey's Unique Products certainly hopes so. "We've been scrambling a bit to find ways to keep things going," he says. "I'm hoping the economy's done all the damage to me that it's going to."
Rosey's sand art items involve multi-colored sand held within rectangular wooden frames that, when tilted, form new shapes and patterns. Wholesalers are required to order a minimum of 25 pieces, which can be mixed among the dealer's four sizes: 5 x 8 ($13.75 each); 7 x 11 ($16.25 each); 8 x 10 ($18.75 each); and 11 x 14 ($25.25 each).
In addition, Rosey's sells a variety of jewelry and handmade furniture - ranging from bureaus and bookcases to beds and chairs. Furniture is created and sold on a commission-only basis, Rosenbalm says.
Houseware and home furnishing sales have been steady at Odom's Wholesale, according to manager Addison Everett. "For housewares, we do most of our business in figurines, picture frames, clocks and decorative lamps."
Frames are priced at between $25 to $75, while lamps can go anywhere from $5 to $50.
"Things have stayed pretty normal as always," Everett reports. "We're continuing to expand our promotions on the web, and we've done some print advertising and the occasional TV ad."
The Odom's website is being revamped to include pricing information - currently, the site only lists inventory - and various bugs with its online shopping cart are being worked on, he adds.
Great Bay Pottery recently launched a brand new website, according to owner Patrick Frazer. New photos, layouts and easier navigation are among the improvements, and a minimum reorder requirement has been dropped.
"After a few slow months, we're starting to see things pick up again," he says of his company, which offers handmade functional art pottery, created by a group of skilled pottery artists and decorators. Each clay piece is hand thrown, hand glazed and hand decorated before its final kiln firing. This handmade process results in slight variations in color and size, which makes each pottery art piece unique. And, on the healthy living front, each pottery piece made by Great Bay is lead-free and suitable for functional daily use.
"Going to trade shows has definitely helped," Frazer adds, pointing to the recent New England Product Trades Show, held March 21-23 in Portland, Maine, and the Boston Gift Show, held March 28-31, as being particularly beneficial.
In the meantime, Pizzelanti at The Cutting Board Company says he'll be doing more direct mail to customers than in years past, trying to maintain business with established customers, which range from mom-and-pop concerns to Nasa, the Ritz-Carlton and Halliburton.
"We're not looking to reach outside our current customer base right now," he says. "Despite the economy, we're a strong company, and we plan to still be here in five years."
One strategy that Cutting Board will not undertake is slashing its prices. "Underpricing your product can be a short-term fix for a long-term problem," Pizzelanti believes. "We intend to keep our prices fair and competitive, where we should be."
For more information, contact:
Addison Everett, manager
1701 N 6th St.
Ft. Smith, AR 72904
Anthony Pizzelanti, owner
The Cutting Board Company
PO Box 95
Readington, NJ 08870
Toll Free: 866-247-2409
Isabella Samovsky, president
Solay Wellness Inc.
8051 N. Ridgeway Ave.
Skokie, IL 60076
Toll Free: 866-497-0274
Rick Rosenbalm, owner
Rosey's Unique Products
Patrick Frazer, owner
Great Bay Pottery
69 Lafayette Road
North Hampton, NH 03862
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