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Getting up steam: performance, not gimmicks, key to iron sales.

Consumers are willing to dig a little deeper into their pockets when buying irons today. And vendors said the latest features, including top steam performance and cordless operation, will make it worth their while.

One small appliance buyer said there's a good deal for consumers to choose from. "It's either a stainless steel bottom or adjustable steam and more vents. There are also irons with separate water reservoirs for people who really are into ironing."

Black & Decker, the leader in irons, said overall iron performance, particularly in steam, is most important to consumers.

"Consumers want simplification," said Mark Turner, garment care marketing manager at Black & Decker. "They don't want to be bombarded with features they don't need."

Turner identified five crucial features that meet the needs of different ironing types: an auto off, a spray to get out wrinkles, a nonstick/Silverstone sole plate so the iron will glide across fabric and be easy to clean, a surge or extra blast of steam and adjustable steam. All the other features are nice to have, but don't break the bank for consumers.

He explained consumers look for these key features to simplify the task; irons with these functions, manufactured well, offer strong performance. The other scenario, he said, is when "manufacturers put in a lot of features - and we're seeing that in low-end irons - but the unit only generates a small steam rate. The consumer doesn't get what they need to get the wrinkles out fast."

"I see growth in products with better features that will ease the way of ironing," said Xavier Sabourin, director of marketing for T-Fal.

Rick Vogler, national sales manager of Rowenta, agreed. "Features are important, but more important is the performance that the iron delivers for the consumer to make the job easier. So you can have a $19.99 fully featured iron, but if it doesn't work well, what good are the features?"

As an example of good steam power, Turner of Black & Decker cited its Quick 'N Easy line, which generates 13 grams of steam. "This is a high steam rate for a lightweight iron at a value price," Turner said. Promotional prices are $20 and up.

Jennifer Danich, product manager, Hamilton Beach, noted it has several offering with strong steam performance at reasonable prices. Its latest is its Hamilton Beach Steam Elite, a full featured iron with stainless steel sole plate and automatic shutoff as well as 65 steam vents for top wrinkle removal.


Some vendors are taking the steam issue one step further with European technology, including steam systems and steam generators.

A steam system has an extra large cold water reservoir outside the system. The water is pumped through to the iron, where the steam is made.

Steam generators have a separate reservoir where the water is boiled to produce steam and steam is stocked in the reservoir. When the button on the iron is pressed, it is dispensed through the iron. With this technology, one can iron delicate irons, but still use steam.

But while these are rapidly growing technologies in Europe - they're about 40 percent of the market overseas - they're virtually non-existent in the U.S. at the moment.

"In Europe at Domotechnica in 1994, almost every European manufacturer introduced a steam-generating system," said Bill Enerson, president of Singer Sewing Co., "and now they're starting to come here."

Carolyn Poodt, product manager at T-Fal, said it offers a Turbo Glide steam system that continuously produces 30 grams of steam. T-Fal's regular irons release 15 grams of steam.

And Rowenta recently introduced a $250 steam generator because its research indicated good potential and acceptance with consumers, retailers and professionals. This particular model turns 33 ounces of water into an hour and a half of continuous steam.

Rowenta is also marketing a self-contained motorized steam iron, which delivers the precise amount of water needed to the sole plate for ironing with lots of steam or less steam at a reduced temperature for delicate fabrics.

A department store retailer said he's game to see how this high-priced segment plays out with consumers. That's why he's giving a Canadian company with a $199 unit a shot on his floor. "It's got steel insides versus plastic. It's quite sturdy. And even though it won't be a major market share gatherer, it is going to be something that upscale retailers and catalogers can sell."


While some sources believe European technology win be a source of future growth, others believe new, fully featured electronic, cordless irons have strong potential, too.

"I believe there will be more electronic models, eliminating mechanical dials. I also see more cordless coming out in the market," said Mark Balsama, national marketing manager of small appliances at Panasonic. "Cordless represents over 40 percent of the market in Japan and usually trends in technology cross the ocean at some point in time."

He explained that one of Panasonic's cordless iron's most important features is its electronics temperature control. The unit doesn't rely on external sole plate temperature to produce steam, but does so internally, which allows this unit to have a mid-temperature setting.

Mark Wagner, associate product manager at Norelco, said the key feature of its new cord/cordless is convenience. Without the cord, the consumer can do spot ironing easily, Wagner said.

Paul Fassler, vice president and general manager of Morphy Richards, North America, said its irons have a reflex base, which gives the user a stable base while in use and prevents the iron from toppling off the board. He added the base revolves 360 degrees so it can be easily used by left- or right-handed ironers. The cord reels in and out from the base, avoiding cord tangling in clothing.

High Performance Appliances' new compact, lightweight iron has a flexible 8-foot cord, easy steam control and self-cleaning features.

Automatic shutoff remains a key trend tied to safety.

Sunbeam's Etchinson explained its irons have an auto shutoff technology that senses time, motion and position, unlike "other irons that may just sense time so they turn off in any position even if the person is ironing." She added some irons can take up to 10 minutes to shut off in the down position, which could destroy a garment.
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Title Annotation:HFN Buyers' Guide: Irons
Author:Purpura, Linda
Publication:HFN The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network
Date:Jun 24, 1996
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