Cotton Incorporated

Fabric Substitution Needles Home Textile Shoppers

Preference for Cotton Remains Paramount

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Housing starts and existing home sales are not only good economic indicators, but they are also strong predicators of future growth in other areas like home textiles. As the turnaround in the housing market gains steam, the home textiles market benefits – but consumers are increasingly paying higher prices for lower quality and less cotton-rich items, and they are not satisfied.

Textile World recently reported that housing starts could increase by as much as 15 to 20% over the course of 2014, despite the harsh winter, leading to potentially brisk business for the home textiles sector. While January building permits were 5.4% below the December rate, they were still 2.4% above the January 2013 estimate, according to the Department of Commerce, hinting at an upswing in the industry that could carry over to home textiles.

Cotton remains the favored fiber for home textiles like bedding and sheets; more than eight in 10 (81%) consumers prefer their sheeting to be made from cotton and cotton blends, and 75% of consumers prefer their bedding to be made from cotton and cotton blends, according to the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor™ Survey. But that’s not always evident at retail.

“Just as apparel brands and retailers substituted away from cotton in the aftermath of cotton’s price hike in 2011, so too did some home textiles brands, and now consumers are paying the price,” says Kim Kitchings, Vice President, Corporate Strategy and Program Metrics, Cotton Incorporated.

As a result, the Cotton Incorporated Customer Comments Research™ project, which mined more than 300,000 online product reviews from more than 30 different apparel and home textile retailers, has revealed some significant discrepancies between what consumers expect of their home textiles – and in some cases what they actually get.

“Consumer identified performance issues uncovered through our analysis potentially represent about 1.3 billion home textile products at retail,” Kitchings notes. “And negative online reviews certainly have an impact; according to our Monitor data, 68% of consumers say that they are very or somewhat likely to refrain from purchasing an item if there are negative reviews.”

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Unlike apparel shoppers, who are primarily concerned with aspects like fit (78%), comfort (68%), and price (59%), the average home textile shopper places her primary concern on durability, according to Monitor research. Among those who purchase bedding, more than six out of 10 (63%) say the ability to wash at home/cleaning requirements is very important, followed by softness (57%), durability to laundering (55%), and the life of the bedding (54%). Among those purchasing sheets, softness is certainly important (59%), followed by price (55%), durability to laundering (54%), and how long the sheets last (53%).

As a result of the shift toward synthetic fibers in some home textile products like bedding and sheets, consumers are now faced with performance issues related to laundering, care, and durability – the very purchase drivers that rank highest for them. This is in the face of increased expectations about the life span and durability of their home textiles, far higher than those for apparel. For example, consumers expect their quilts to last about 8 years, blankets to last about 7 years, and their comforters to last about 6 years, compared to 5 years for a pair of jeans or sweater and 4 years for a T-shirt and casual pants, according to Monitor data.

“Consumers expect their bedding and sheeting to last quite a while,” says Kitchings. “For the most part, they’re evaluating the performance of sheeting during the nine days that they use sheets before washing them, and after the estimated 162 launderings that occur within four years – and they need to hold up.”

In light of these high expectations, then, it should come as no surprise that more than six out of 10 consumers (64%) are bothered that retailers and brands would substitute synthetic fibers for cotton in their sheeting, according to Monitor data, and 60% are willing to pay a premium to keep cotton in their sheets.

And for those consumers disappointed in their purchases, online product reviews have become a convenient outlet to vent their dissatisfaction, according to the Customer Comments Research™ project, which revealed a trove of customer frustrations on issues ranging from fiber substitution, to wear and tear, pilling and snagging.

In home textiles in particular, wear and tear (20%), fading (20%), and wrinkling (18%), accounted for the majority of performance issues customers experienced in their bedding, while wrinkling (33%), wear and tear (17%) and fading (12%) accounted for the majority of performance issues customers experienced in their sheeting, according to the Customer Comments Research™.

One such customer comment read: “We are very thankful of [retailer’s] return policy, because these sheets are going back tomorrow. They seemed like they might be smooth, but they cling like old nylon stockings (those horrible ones from the 50s). Your skin feels like it is snagging on the material everywhere. It is not silky, it’s more sticky, like fly paper… Oh, and it smells like rubber. Yuck.”

Indeed, the Customer Comments Research™ revealed that dissatisfaction nearly triples when customers experienced polyester and rayon issues like wear and tear and pilling in their sheeting, as the above shopper did. In fact, more than six out of 10 customers gave sheeting with wear and tear (65%) and pilling (62%) issues a negative rating. Kitchings notes that one issue is how consumers shop for home textiles has changed, thanks to the Internet.

“Fifteen percent of consumers said they shopped for home textiles online in 2013, up from 13% in 2009,” Kitchings says. “While the majority of home textile purchases are still happening in store, what may be missing for some is the ability to open the package, touch the product, and to easily check for fiber content labels which will ensure they are getting exactly what they want.”

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