By Michael Rudnick
Home environment sales this year may be driven by both older, more established filtration technology and from new sensors and digital readout features.
The air purifier category is segmented between two dominant filtration technologies, HEPA and electrostatic. The roughly 50-year-old HEPA technology, which stands for high-efficiency particulate air, is a mechanical filter that sifts small particles out of the air. Electrostatic or ionic filters charge airborne particles and then attract them to metal electrodes. Ionic technology has attracted considerable consumer attention and sales in recent years, which had been sparked in part by Sharper Image’s heavy marketing investment in the category with its Ionic Breeze line. Sharper Image may have hurt the category as much as it helped it, as its ionic purifiers were deemed ineffective in a 2003 Consumer Reports article. Further damaging the reputation of this newer technology have been scattered reports that these units may produce harmful ozone.
A Sharper Image spokeswoman declined to comment.
The more established HEPA filtration technology looks to have benefited from the negative publicity plaguing the ionic world. HEPA filtration accounted for 31 percent of the air purifier market on a dollar basis in 2007, up 10 percentage points over 2006, while electrostatic purifiers sank to 37 percent of the market in 2007 from 50 percent in the prior year, said Peter Goldman, president of Home at NPD Group.
“We have seen a resurgence of tried-and-true HEPA and HEPA-type technology,” said Matt Ragland, senior director of marketing for wellness at Jarden Consumer Solutions. “The category had seen some huge dollar growth in electrostatic filters, but slowed considerably in 2007,” he said. This year, air purifier companies will attempt to entice consumers with a number of new filtration technologies, most notably germicidal ultraviolet technology, “but in general there will be a consolidation back to high-performance, mechanical filtration devices,” he added. “When push comes to shove, the consumer trusts and understands mechanical filtration,” he said.
Blueair combines old and new with its air purifiers, which utilize both HEPA filtration and electrostatic technology. Particles that are missed with the HEPA filter are attracted with an electrostatic charge. The company claims that its purifiers do not produce harmful gases. Chan Tinkle, vice president of sales and marketing at Blueair, said he is seeing a shift to HEPA-type filtration due to the “unacceptable” level of ozone that some ionic units produce.
Old and familiar filtration technology may be a large driver of home environment sales this year, but new technology will also have its place in facilitating consumer interest.
The humidifier category, which is largely driven by seasonal conditions (a cold, dry winter means healthy sales), is getting a little extra help from new digital technology, sensors and improved humidistats.
Select units in Essick Air’s new MoistAir line, which it gained via the mid-2007 acquisition of the Emerson humidifier business, feature digital readouts that indicate when the filter should be cleaned, said Mark Ulrey, Essick Air’s director of sales. The MoistAir units also feature new humidistats located on the electrical cords, which provide for a more accurate readout of the humidity level in the surrounding air. Essick introduced digital controls to five of its new humidifier models in the past two years, Ulrey added. “Humidistats, sensors and readouts have become more important,” he said. “These features and benefits are driving more business.”
Digital displays and sensors are also helping to attract buyers in the air purifier arena. “Sensors and indicators are a big driver for us—we had manual-type units previously,” Blueair’s Tinkle said. “Everyone is looking towards that way,” he added.
Another spark in humidifier sales could be the re-entrance of a large national brand into the industry. Vornado, known primarily for its fans, this year will step back into the humidifier space, having not launched a new unit in over four years, said Sonia Cox, Vornado’s director of marketing. The company, after a five-year air purifier hiatus, stepped back into that ring last year with a midprice electrostatic model.
“Vornado is a strong name and should continue to participate in such a strong category [humidifiers],” Cox said. “We are re-energized with new management and being aggressive in investing,” she said. Bill Phillips, president and chief executive officer of Vornado, and members of his management team joined forces with private investor McCarthy Capital to buy the company last year.
Cox is optimistic that these new entrances, coupled with increasing consumer demand for healthy and cleaner indoor air, should help lift humidifier and purifier sales this year amid a difficult economy. “I expect continued increased demand, unaffected by the housing market, just due to the nature of the trend of wanting a clean [indoor] environment,” she said.
Air purifier and humidifiers are coming off of a difficult 2007 as combined dollar sales fell nearly 13 percent to about $774.7 million for the 12-month period ended Nov. 30, according to NPD.
Eric Duerr, chief executive officer of air purifier company Venta Airwasher, shared in Cox’s optimism despite last year’s performance. “Due to recent environmental headlines, we expect a strong year in 2008,” he said.
Tinkle said that while the air purifier industry may see slightly slower growth in 2008 due to the overriding economic conditions, the category’s strong focus on the increasing population of allergy and asthma sufferers should help to prevent a sales decline.
The other home environment categories, fans and heaters, could stand to benefit from the economic tightening. Room heaters and fans are increasingly being marketed to consumers as an alternative to using whole-home heating or central air conditioning in times of escalating fuel costs, Cox said. Heaters looked to have benefited from this in 2007 as the category recorded a 14.4 percent dollar sales gain for the 12-month period ended Nov. 30, according to NPD Group.