BY SUSAN FRIEDMAN
While economic news may leave retailers and manufacturers wondering about the repercussions of eroding consumer confidence, the roller-coaster stock market and a stagnant jobs market, the Associated Press reports that current events have not caused consumers to seriously scale back spending. Pundits surmise that potentially negative factors have been offset by positive ones, including low interest rates and a refinancing boom that has left people with extra cash.
Historically, the housewares industry does well in rocky economic times; it's a fundamental, fixed consumer goods category that expands at a somewhat steady rate of 6 percent a year. And the trends are in the industry's favor; according to USA Today, the tendency toward spending more time at home - and doling out more on products for the home - may be more than a temporary action. The home kitchen will not become extinct, as some have predicted. On the contrary, some industry insiders believe its importance will grow as lifestyle changes brought on by the new economy continue to affect traditional family roles and norms.
A.J. Riedel, editor of Housewares MarketWatch and founder of Riedel Marketing Group, refers to the current state of consumer behavior as a "tectonic" paradigm shift: "Not a return to cocooning, not a retreat to the home, not about accumulation or having the latest technology... It's about doing things or having things that enable consumers to connect with their families, live in a more fulfilling community or find balance. This priority started well before Sept. 11 and has spawned several important trends that impact our industry." Lee Eiseman, director of the Eiseman Center for Color Information & Training and executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, concurs. "We're going through an evolutionary period," she says. "This is a time when people are reacting to their heavy schedules, more women are working, more people are saying, 'Stop the world - I want to get off,'” Eiseman notes.
So what better way for consumers to stop the insanity of everyday life than with tea? Consumers crossing socio-economic demographic segments as well as ethnic categories are embracing teacups, teapots and ancillary accessories. Starting in 2000, the industry saw such distinct influences as the zen and Asian looks. Today, the Pan-Asian Fusion food trend in packaged goods and upscale restaurants is present in a diversified range of items. Firms such as Joyce Chen Products of Billerica, Mass., is right on target with Vietnamese teapots and teacups and Asian-inspired teapots honoring the Chinese New Year -- Japanese Cast Iron (Tetsubin) Tea Pots with stainless-steel mesh infusers. Helen Chen personally works with Japanese artists to create a new commemorative Tetsubin Teapot to celebrate and greet each Chinese New Year, according to Tom Keenan, national sales manager of Joyce Chen Products. The Chinese believe the animal ruling the year in which a person is born has a profound influence on personality, saying, "This is the animal that hides in your heart." The 2002 "Year of the Horse" Japanese Tetsubin (Cast Iron) Teapot is available in Saddle Brown. The 2003 commemorative theme is "Year of the Ram."
The Asian look continues to be the mega-trend at the turn of the 21st century, and there are abundant design opportunities from other parts of the world as well, according to US Product Trend Report. This trend carries itself to Internet-based businesses both in the United States and abroad. Online shopping allows companies to reach the tea-savvy consumer demographic in areas where they do not have physical operations. The Hong-Kong- based FunAlliance.com is a coalition of suppliers of Chinese artifacts that has created a YiXing Teapot Collectors' Room and has accumulated a wealth of authentic items for consumers seeking YiXing clay teacups, tea art (Chinese paintings and calligraphy with tea themes) and Rosewood (longevity) Tea Trays. ZenAgainProducts.com of Vancouver, Wash., offers an array of Asian-influenced, handcrafted artisan pieces such as Kyoto Tea sets.
Tea drinking has exploded in the last decade. It is no wonder that the housewares industry is embracing tea-related tabletop items, shifting back and forth from tradition and function to what's fashionable on the runway in colors and fabrics. Fashion designers including Armani and Prada have crossed over into high-end home products. "This influences the world of design, with consumers wanting these high-end looks at a lower price point. This is one reason why we have to pay attention to trends at every level of the marketplace," says Pantone's Eiseman. Manufacturers are paying definite attention. Joyce Chen Products is a firm capitalizing on the designer cache thanks to its exclusive Designer Series Collection of "Tatara" Tetsubin Teapots and trivets. The collection is suitable for tea aficionados and collectors alike. Helen Chen worked personally with the designer, Hisanori Masuda, to select examples of his work for exclusive presentation to the American market. The color schematic of the Hisanori Masuda line is conducive to fashion trends with mottled chamois, mottled garnet, mottled green, mottled black-brown, electric blue, black and mottled gray.
Black and white remain popular, notes Eiseman. Deemed "the salt and pepper of the housewares industry," white is the operative word in the tea category for Lakewood, N.J.-based Harold Import Co., says company principal Robert Laub. Tradition is the backbone for the category, and white is an enduring tone for tea housewares, he adds. "Traditional tea items are constant best-sellers," he notes. Brown Betty Teapots and floral English tea service sets are Harold Import mainstays.
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