Rethinking Flatware

The category gets a lift from more variable configurations and a fresh approach to design

By Allison Zisko

flatwareFrom top: Hampton Forge is exploring new ways of applying color to stainless-steel flatware.; Gibson likens its Isaac Mizrahi flatware to jewelry design. Lifetime Brands' new patterns for the Tabletop Show will include several textured looks across its many brands.

Flatware introductions at next month's Tabletop Show will

address consumer preferences with new, more practical configurations, more add-on options and more fashionable flatware that keeps pace with design trends.

This more flexible approach--giving consumers what they really want while giving retailers more selling opportunities--bodes well for an industry that has been stagnant for the past few years but appears poised to grow in the fourth quarter and beyond.

The business is being driven, according to Ross Patterson, business director, tabletop, for Robinson Home Products, by "changing things up with new configurations and piece counts. Anything incremental that services the add-on or replacement customer, like sets of six or four, produces a lower ticket, but it's a positive development. The core business is looking up, but the growth is coming from doing different things."

"All the old ways of doing things are changing," agreed Jim Mylonas, vice president, general manager for Gorham. "Giving [consumers] more flexibility is the name of the game."

One of the more noticeable changes is the new approach to boxed sets. Although the 20-piece set in the mid-tier retail channel and the 65-piece set in the upper-tier channel are mainstays, some vendors have begun to tinker with different piece counts and different SKU configurations in response to consumer feedback and research they've conducted.

Research shows that consumers use the place fork, place knife and teaspoon frequently but rarely reach for the soup spoon or the dessert fork, which are the pieces that make up the standard five-piece place setting. On the other hand, many like to have iced tea spoons and steak knives as part of a basic collection. So some vendors are ignoring the five-piece place setting template and offering more practical alternatives, like three- and four-piece place settings and boxed sets that include steak knives or other popular items.

Although Scott Bial, president of luxury tabletop and metals for Lifetime Brands and a flatware veteran, said he doesn't see any major shifts in boxed set configurations, he acknowledged that steak knives have been included in sets "off and on" for many years and that one retailer, whom he did not name, now insists that they be included in expanded sets. "I think [steak knives] do better when they are in sets than in open stock," he said.

Gibson will introduce Oster flatware at next month's Tabletop Show, and the six launch patterns will include steak knives--taken from Oster's best-selling cutlery designs--in some of its configurations. There will be 24- and 45-piece sets, as well as a 38-piece set, which offers service for six plus six steak knives and a two-piece hostess set. "Steak knives are usually sold separately, and do well, but we thought the steak knife was important to include in the set because people use it, it's an integral part of the meal," said Grace Saari, senior marketing director.

As for the iced tea spoons and other add-on pieces, many vendors said they have found success with carded programs that bundle those SKUs in six- or four-packs. A set of six is an easy pick-up, Patterson said, and it doesn't hurt the core business. "It's servicing a different need, a different customer," he said.

Gorham will test the waters at the show with a new "build your own set" concept that offers a basic 20-piece boxed set that includes six three-piece place settings (the place fork, place knife and teaspoon), a serving fork and a serving spoon. It offers the remaining SKUs in add-on sets of six. The program enables consumers to customize their sets based on their needs, Mylonas said.

New and different configurations enable retailers to achieve certain price points (in the case of lower-piece-count sets) or attract consumers' attention on the selling floor (in the case of 32- or 36-piece sets because they are atypical), said Suso Balanza, vice president of sales and marketing for Hampton Forge. Hampton Forge has found success with expanded sets of four-piece place settings; the dessert fork was what was eliminated. But Balanza also pointed to the growing popularity of pure open stock assortments. Specialty retailers like Zara Home, Anthropologie and Williams-Sonoma have generated consumer excitement around this concept, and larger retailers have started to pay attention, according to Balanza. "I think we will see smart retailers try to offer these types of things, through catalog options or better in-store displays," he said. "We are moving away from the stigma of the dollar store approach to open stock. This is different, it's about getting people to look at flatware in a different way."

"There's been significant growth in open stock over the years," said Bial. "There is a lot of custom business in open stock. It's been a good business for us."

The other way to draw consumer attention to the flatware category is through design. Recent markets have shown ramped up efforts in this regard, and next month's show will undoubtedly reveal more.

"We see a strong interest in fashion designer flatware," said Saari of Gibson, which offers Isaac Mizrahi flatware. "It's like jewelry design."

Texture and unique finishes continue to be design trends. Hammered finishes remain popular and are a safe choice, Balanza said, while more daring options include stone and other finishes. Color, too, is big, he said. All agree that gold has enjoyed a resurgence, while titanium finishes offer additional metallic options like copper as well as funkier colors like black or bright blue. Hampton Forge has been applying color to stainless steel via enamels and resins, a look, Balanza said, that is beginning to resonate with retailers. For the October market Hampton Forge's Argent brand will introduce "beautiful colors that are uncompromised and original."

Gorham gave its top-selling Gorham Studio line a new look at the last market by offering it with a black coating. It has a completely different feel and "it's gorgeous," Mylonas said.

Overall, clean and contemporary looks are trumping traditional designs, vendors said. It's a very polarized market, according to Patterson. "We have strength in very clean styles that are simple, but on the flip side, we see more expressive yet casual designs." Those more expressive looks typically feature sculptural elements on the handle, or reflect global and ethnic influences.

"We're addressing the younger demographic in getting cleaner, contemporary patterns," Bial said.

Transitional designs, said Saari, give consumers the confidence that their flatware will coordinate well with mix and match dinnerware. "Traditional always sells," she said, "but consumers are clamoring for that mix."

HFN Staff | News & Commentary

HFN provides detailed information on the key home classifications: Housewares, Tabletop, Floor Covering & Rugs, Furniture, Home Textiles, Lighting, Home Decor, Mattresses & Bedding, Gifts, Major Appliances and Consumer Electronics as well as Business, Finance and Retail.


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