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Beyond Shiatsu: massagers yield to newcomers.

NEW YORK-Historians use the prefix "post" to describe certain eras. There is the Post-communist period in Eastern Europe; there was the Post-War time after World War II.

For massager manufacturers, fourth quarter 1995 can be described as the Post-Shiatsu era. Shiatsu massagers, using independently rotating mechanisms to simulate an oriental massage technique, have driven much of the market for the last two years. According to many sources, their heyday is over.

Shiatsu massagers will be found on most retailers' shelves for the upcoming gift season, but under different circumstances. With an influx of vendors entering the category with achingly competitive price points, shiatsu massagers no longer have the margin-making edge.

Most consumers were introduced to shiatsu massagers via an infomercial for the K-Tel Shiatsu Masseur during the fourth quarter of 1993. Other companies such as Homedics and Vitec were also at market with shiatsu massagers--all of which hovered around the magic retail price point of $100.

Shiatsu prices dropped to lows of about $69 last Christmas as additional companies entered the market and retailers used competitive prices to create traffic their stores. Leading up to Christmas 1995, there have been sightings of shiatsu massagers at $29. Plummeting prices are common in the small appliance industry--look at steam setters and pasta machines.

"When there's a lot of people out there, the product becomes a commodity," explains Tony Pecorari, K-Tel national sales manager. "Everyone's entered the category looking for a piece of the action and the retailer uses it to attract customers into their stores. It's a never-ending phenomenon."

"It's going to be tough for manufacturers and retailers to do as much in 1995 as we did last year," says another manufacturer. "The shiatsu is what you could call a dead horse."

The massager category enjoyed approximately $89 million in sales in 1994. Some sources estimate the number will be as much as 20 percent lower this year.

However, all is not bleak. An aging population bodes well for massager sales. Vendors estimate an approximately 6 percent growth in units sold.

Also, some vendors claim the shiatsu massager will leave a positive impact on the category.

"We believe that the shiatsu created an interest in the massager category," Pecoraro says. "Through all the TV that we did, we built up a demand for all massagers."

Not all vendors agree, however. Consumers exposed to shiatsu advertisements are not likely to purchase other products such as stick massagers, some sources say..

"The promotional pricing of the shiatsu has really made consumers very value-conscious," says Bob Van Zeyl, Health o meter vice president of marketing. "In the typical mind-set, the shiatsu has more value, plus consumers are presold."

And stick massagers may be more expensive at retail than the shiatsu, Van Zeyl adds.

Manufacturers are looking for ways to respond to the vanishing shiatsu, while at the same time develop products to target the potential market of aging baby boomers.

Conair enters the 1995 fourth quarter, Post-Shiatsu period with the Foot Shiatsu Massager. The new massager uses infrared heat and shiatsu vibration, and has two speeds and heat settings.

The massager is designed for home or office use and has carrying handles and a 9-foot cord.

"This is just the item that retailers are looking for to anniversary the sales of the shiatsu massager," says Diane Nicosia, Conair product manager. "This massager provides the consumer with the unique combination of infrared heat and massage to soothe their feet. It makes a great gift-giving item for Christmas."

Dazey's foot massager also is a popular Christmas item.

Health o meter entered the massager category two years ago as an alternative to more price-oriented products. The company concentrates on stick massagers in the "better to best" price range, according to Van Zeyl.

The firm, best known for its bathroom scales, has introduced a packaging design that allows consumers to touch the massagers. Health o meter will show new massagers at the upcoming housewares show.

While Van Zeyl feels shiatsu massagers have hampered the category's success, is positive about the future.

"The marketplace has been increasing," Van Zeyl says. "It's a growing category in general. As consumers get older, there's a market shift to products that make them feel more healthy. I look for retailers to give more shelf space to massagers."

Homedics is a company that has benefited greatly from the popularity of shiatsu massagers. The company is the recognized leader in the massager category with distribution spanning mass merchants to specialty stores. The company leveraged its admirable distribution to become one of the leading players in shiatsu massagers, following K-Tel's TV advertising.

Homedics president Ron Ferber acknowledges the importance of advertising, but he doesn't attribute all the product's success to advertising.

"The advertising helped, Ferber says. "but the only reason it did so well is because the market was prepared for that kind of product. People were ready for the shiatsu."

Now, Ferber hopes the market is ready for another high-ticket massager called the Back Pleaser. Homedics has begun testing an infomercial for this programmable, cushion-type massager featuring individual massaging motors. An illuminated LED display allows the user to program the motors in any sequence.

The item is available in four different versions with various features, including heat, starting at $100.

The product is sold during the infomercial, but Ferber says the main purpose of the ad is to spark sales at retail.

"To be honest, I'm happy to just break even with the infomercial," Ferber says. "I'm not looking for profits from the infomercial. It's designed to drive products at retail."

K-Tel enters the Post-Shiatsu era with a new foot massager called the Foot Masseur and a massager for the car called the Auto Masseur.

The Foot Masseur is being advertised via a direct-response television commercial. The Auto Masseur operates from a cigarette lighter or household socket and will be sold through automotive stores.

"Many of our customers are looking to make up their numbers from last year," Pecoraro says. "Retailers have to pick up the numbers with new products."

Pollenex has redone its entire line of wand massagers and created packaging, according to Phil Gyori, vice president of marketing.

The Rival division moved to a more contemporary design and made the products easier to use. The companies stick massagers range in price from $15 to $49. The company has gift-oriented products such as the Humbug, a small personal massager with a $15 suggested retail price.

Pollenex is targeting a wide range of customers, according to Gyori.

Sunbeam has a variety of handheld and back massagers available for the fourth quarter. The company increasingly packages products under its Home Health Care name, according to sources.

Wahl is looking at demographics for potential sales in the massager category.

"I see a lot of opportunity in the aging population," says Sandy DeWolf, Wahl product manager. "Now, there's 30 million people age 55 and older. There will be 40 million by the year 2000. The aging population will look to quality massager products."
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Author:Ratliff, Duke
Publication:HFN The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network
Date:Nov 27, 1995
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