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EXPANDING LATEX; THE PREMIUM FOAM IS GAINING IN BEDDING AS CUSTOMERS MAKE A COMMITMENT TO COMFORT.

HIGH POINT, N.C.-Latex foam has quickly become one of those materials that is stretching marketing possibilities for the bedding industry -- and making end consumers more comfortable.

Because of its high cost, latex has largely been reserved for premium bedding products. Still, this natural foam is quickly finding acceptance as consumers are willing to commit financially to achieve a good night's sleep.

"Latex has built up, over many, many years, the perception of being a very high-quality sleep product," said Ed Scott, president and chief operating officer at Restonic, which offers mattresses with latex cores and toppers. "I think consumers relate to that, as people put more emphasis on the need for good sleep and the benefits for good sleep. They are willing to invest more in a better mattress."

Kevin Stein, director of marketing at Latex Foam International, the only U.S. supplier of latex foam, predicted that use of the foam would double in the next four years. LFI provides Talalay foam, named after the inventors of the manufacturing process, to eight of the top 10 bedding manufacturers, Stein said.

Talalay latex foam, which is more expensive than either basic polyurethane foam or natural latex foam, has properties that dissipate body heat and moisture, Stein said.

He added that prices could come down due to increased efficiencies in LFI's new plant. In May 2001, a fire destroyed the Connecticut plant and LFI rebuilt it. The company now uses state-of-the-art equipment that has improved efficiency by 30 percent in less space with fewer employees.

Latex is gradually working its way into all sorts of mattresses, even if in moderate amounts in a bed, as the name increasingly becomes an effective sales tool.

King Koil, for example, which launched its first latex line last summer, Natural Response, includes an innerspring model with a latex pillowtop.

Last fall, Natura World Ltd., a specialty bedding manufacturer, designed one latex mattress, the Tranquility, so that the retail price point for a queen-sized mattress was only $999.

"It brings it down to a little less of a sticker shock for the consumer," said Larry Klein, director of sales at Natura. "Once you've shown him that and he asks what else you have in that same vein, you have the opportunity to move him into something even a little more."

Klein added that latex bedding sales for Natura have been steadily increasing each year. "That part of the business did not suffer from the last couple years' slump in bedding," he said. "It's been a good opportunity for retailers to maintain the volume and make a reasonably good profit. There appears to be less price-cutting in latex bedding than there is in the typical coil lead-in offer type of product."

King Koil, an LFI customer, uses Talalay-process latex for its Natural Response line, and offers various models in latex-over-innerspring; latex-over-polyester foam cores; and latex toppers-over-layered-foam cores.

"We are having phenomenal success with this," said Dave Roberts, King Koil's executive vice president of sales and marketing. "With existing customers, it has certainly expanded, substantially, our penetration with those retailers."

Sealy Inc., another LFI customer, launched its Talalay latex line, Reflexion, about 18 months ago. Each bed is 100 percent layered Talalay latex. Sealy currently offers eight SKUs in the $1,299 to $3,999 retail price range. The Reflexion line is marketed by the Sealy Innovations division, not the innerspring division, so the Reflexion can be marketed and distributed independently.

"It has grown nicely, and continues to grow and exceed expectations," said David Evans, vice president of marketing at Sealy. "It is definitely a viable niche within the bedding category, particularly as people see the advertising and learn about alternative bedding options, particularly foam products."

Hypnos, an English manufacturer of high-end bedding, started manufacturing its products in the United States last year. One of its for-America-only models, the Eminence, contained a 2-inch-thick layer of Talalay latex, which provides the same comfort and natural spring qualities as the horsehair used in the English version of the bed.

"Latex was something we had added for the U.S. market to Americanize the feel, to give it more of a plush feel," said Adrian Jones, director of sales. "Talalay latex is the finest that money can buy. We use it for comfort and feel and the resilience."

According to Jones, Peter Keen, the Hypnos chairman, liked the feel of that latex mattress so much he has decided to start adding latex to the British-made top-of-the-line mattress he will be introducing later this fall. That same model will also appear in the United States.
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Article Details
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Author:Kunkel, Karl
Publication:HFN The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 19, 2003
Words:765
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