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Dateline halogen: TV show stirs a mild reaction.

NEW YORK -- Retailers and lighting suppliers took steps to allay consumer concerns about the safety of halogen floor lamps after a nationally televised story by "Dateline NBC" addressed the issue. But so far, there has been little public reaction.

The "Dateline" segment, aired earlier this month, included an interview with a woman whose house burned in a fire linked to a halogen floor lamp. "Dateline" demonstrated how the lamps can cause fires if they are left on for long periods near combustible materials such as curtains and paper, and interviewed a fire chief who recommended consumers "replace the lamps." The show sought comments from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Underwriters Laboratories, lamp importers and retailers. Only a UL assistant vice president agreed to be interviewed on air. Manufacturers and retailers declined to be interviewed; some issued written statements that were shown on air.

Retailers reminded consumers that halogen torchieres, when used properly, do not pose fire hazards in the home. JC Penney has made available to store managers a lengthy list of safety guidelines for proper use of the products.

"We did have some customers go to stores to ask questions about halogen safety, and we sent a message to all stores alerting store managers that all our lamps are safe and do meet all safety requirements," noted Stephanie Brown, a Penney's spokeswoman. "To add an extra measure of customer comfort, we printed out a list of safety tips, and some store managers are handing them out to consumers."

She said all torchieres sold in JC Penney stores and through its catalog have carried a warning label since the retailer began offering the items several years ago.

Kmart instructed its customer service representatives to reassure consumers that the lamps carried by Kmart meet all safety standards, a spokeswoman said.

Penney's, Kmart and Venture Stores acknowledged that new designs are on the drawing boards or in production that meet and exceed the new UL safety standards that take effect in February.

This is the first time in recent memory that the lighting industry has been the subject of national television exposure. Lamps rarely are advertised on television, and the industry is made up of relatively small suppliers.

Industry executives said they had feared the "Dateline" program would scare consumers, spark a fury of product returns and cause a drop in sales of halogen torchieres, which are the number-one selling item in the lamp industry. Their fears never materialized.

"Sales seem to remain steady," reported Brown of Penney's.

Kmart spokeswoman Laura Mahle reported, "We really haven't seen any major effect on sales or customer inquiries."

"We've had very little consumer reaction," commented David Ellwanger, assistant vice president of merchandising for Heilig Meyer. "We only had one or two stores give us a call, so out of 750 or 800 stores, that's not a lot."

Venture Stores' spokeswoman Tina Schneider said Venture had expected some fallout -- consumer outrage or a drop in sales -- as a result of the broadcast, but was "pleasantly surprised."

"We've been gearing up since the summer for this and we haven't heard any consumer reaction," Schneider said. She said that while individual stores may have had product returns, they were not significant enough to attract the attention of corporate heads. "We have had no comments from the stores on the issue," which indicates the issue has blown over, she suggested.

The "Dateline" segment quoted statements from Kmart, Penney's and lamp importer Cheyenne Industries that the lamps they currently sell meet UL safety standards and that new designs are in production to meet the new standards that take effect in February.

The show reported that the CPSC and Tensor Corp. issued a voluntary recall of Tensor's 500-watt halogen bulbs. The recall happened in April, according to Roger Sherman, chief operating officer of Tensor.

"We stopped selling the bulbs in April and did a recall at the same time," he said. Sherman said Tensor has replaced "well over 250,000" of the recalled 500-watt halogen bulbs with 300-watt halogen bulbs for consumers. "Unfortunately, we did sell 500-watt halogen, and in hindsight, we shouldn't have done it because of the wattage and the heat it generates," Sherman said. UL stopped listing the 500-watt bulbs in May.

The lighting industry has breathed a collective sigh of relief that reaction to the "Dateline" story seems to have been minor, because industry executives were braced for far worse, they reported.

"I think the program was a bit slanted, but overall it wasn't that bad. It could have been a lot worse," Sherman said.

"The phones have been very, very quiet," reported Robert Hersh, chief executive of Catalina Lighting, whose Dana Lighting division is a major supplier of the torchieres. "'Dateline' was very clear to point out that if you use the product properly, you shouldn't have a problem."

Bob Livergood, president of Holmes Lighting, another torchiere supplier, reported Holmes has "had some fallout from it. I've had some customers call up, but what retailers are looking for is a little bit of hand-holding and we will hand-hold for this."

Suppliers and retailers are readying new designs that meet the new UL safety standards, which include passing the "cheesecloth test" --placing a piece of cheesecloth over the halogen bulb for seven hours. Torchieres manufactured after Feb. 7, 1997, will have to pass that test. And UL is requiring better warning labels for torchieres.

According to UL, it has approved at least seven manufacturers' products under the new standards. Some of the new designs feature a glass panel or a wire mesh screen that covers the bulb, a metal guard over the dish-shaped shade, thermal-sensitive cut-off switches and other safety measures.

Some suppliers, including Dana and Tensor, reported they already have begun shipping the new items. Kmart said it has received UL approval on its new design with a guard over the top, and is producing the guard, which the consumer will have to assemble with the lamp. Future designs will have an assembled shade with guard, according to the retailer.

At the International Housewares Show that opens in Chicago Jan. 12, lamp suppliers expect to work with retailers on the merchandising, advertising and promotion of the new items, to help consumers understand the added safety features.

"Our merchandising team is looking at further ways to help the consumer understand the safety issues," the Kmart spokeswoman said. The "Dateline" segment was reported by Dawn Fratangelo, produced by Jaclyn Levin and edited by Bill Clark.
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Title Annotation:Dateline NBC expose of dangers of halogen lamps
Author:Meyer, Nancy
Publication:HFN The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network
Date:Dec 23, 1996
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