NEW YORK — Despite the dim retail scene for the Christmas season, the candle category proved one of the bright spots.”

While several specialty and department store retailers cited the category as a source of sales strength during the past two months, scented candles have been popular items for years. In fact, the decade-long growth had begun to plateau in the last few years. This season’s upsurge came as welcome news. Candle sales had accelerated in the late Nineties, with annual gains in the double digits, but then momentum began to slow. “The category was starting to mature,” said Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing, “but we’re now seeing people buy an increasing number of candles, and this will continue into 2002.”

Unity, a marketing firm that tracks the candle category, is predicting an increase as high as 10 percent for 2001, counting both scented and unscented candles. The category had shown double-digit growth until 1999, when total sales slowed to a 7 percent increase. In 1997, total candle sales reached $1.8 billion. In 1998, that number reached $2.1 billion, a 15 percent increase, according to Unity’s market report.

But by 2000, growth had slowed to 3 percent from the year before, with annual sales of $2.3 billion, according to Kathy LaVanier, general merchandise manager of Illuminations.

She added that the bulk of growth through 2005 will be in scented candles, because consumers tend to replace the fragranced items more often. Citing market research, LaVanier said 52 percent of consumers polled said that fragrance dictated their reason for buying candles.

The attacks of Sept. 11 ushered in a return to what marketing executives quickly portrayed as a reemergence of domestic lifestyle and at-home living, or nesting.

Consequently, there was a surge in candle sales. “This year will end very strong,” says Danziger. “I’ve heard from companies that sales are going through the roof.”

Says Kip Crennan, president of the fragrance division of Mane USA: “Based on the statistics I’ve seen, candle sales, in terms of unit-dollar volume, have recently overtaken men’s fragrance.”

Mall retailers, such as Bath & Body Works and Illuminations, which merchandise candles and accessories, have seen an uptick in candle sales recently. “Sales started improving in late August,” says John Brennan, group product director, home fragrance for Bath & Body Works and White Barn Candle Company, “and have further accelerated since Sept. 11, with more people spending time at home. Consumers are looking for candles that help create a warm and inviting environment in their home.”

Although mall traffic has decreased since Sept. 11, Illuminations, which has 80 stores around the country, has also seen an increased interest in candles. “There’s a focus on healing and wellness, the need to create a sanctuary,” says LaVanier, noting that sales jumped after a Sept. 11 fund-raising telethon featuring a multitude of candles blazing on the set in the background.

“There has been a return to nesting and cocooning” says Ken Downing, vice president of corporate communications and Fashion Presentation at Neiman Marcus. Candles have been performing well for the past four years and he feels the industry has kept up with the newness. “Our customer is very into fashion, and for their home environment. They are lifestyle driven. Candles enable a person to change their environment without painting.” Downing feels there will be a trend with people entertaining in their home. Some of the store’s top performers include Slatkin & Co., Diptique, Fresh and Space NK.

Crennan says “mid-mass and specialty retailers do the best job with candles. Department stores have had a hard time understanding and positioning them.” According to Crennan, “Sept. 11 has had a big effect on this category because more people are moving towards the safety of home and candle market retail sales have increased dramatically.” Price points are such that they are conducive for gift-giving and personal use, not an expensive luxury good.

“Candles are very hot right now, with the interest in being at home,” said Annette Green, president of the Fragrance Foundation. Green added that “candles are becoming more sophisticated. Women want their fragrance in a candle.” As far as trends go, she feels that people are staying at home and want an entertaining, comforting environment. They want to control their environment.

Scent is an important aspect of the category. “Customers will be looking for intense scents. They will also be looking for candles that fit their lifestyle with a focus on healing and wellness” said LaVanier. “In October, we donated 10 percent, which was $21,000, of the proceeds from our red, white and blue candles to the American Red Cross.” Floral-fragrance candles are a category leader with $95.5 million in sales, according to estimates by industry executives. “In the new millennium, we are seeing very floral and heavy scents becoming popular as well as oriental fragrances,” Downing noted.

Vanilla-scented candles did $78.9 million in sales, but showed a 12 percent decrease versus the prior year because consumers are turning to fruits and florals. Berry fragrances are overtaking vanilla and pine, which had previously been popular around the holidays.

LaVanier feels that “big and chunky shapes and candles made with vegetable wax” are where candles are trending. Candles with a decorative theme have seen increases since Sept. 11, she added.

Candles with sparkle and shine are popular this holiday season. Illuminations, based in Petaluma, Calif., has stocked a variety of glitter candles in festive colors.

Blue is expected to become the most important color in the next decade. According to at least one industry executive, this is “due to an influence in social trends. It is both soothing and spiritual, as well as the favorite color of most Americans.” Other colors expected to become popular are pale colors like pink and aqua, in response to a desire for serenity.

Poured candles are increasing in popularity because consumers see them as safer than other types. “Candles in glass holders are perceived as safer and we all want to be safe right now,” says Danziger of Unity Marketing. They currently have 54 percent of the market share, pillars and tapers make up 31 percent and votives and tealights grab only 15 percent. “The pillar candle business as of September is up 30 percent,” according to Scott Parker, vice president of merchandising, home fragrance for Bath & Body Works and White Barn Candle Co.

Harry Slatkin, president and chief executive officer of Slatkin & Co., feels the category is still growing. “Candles have developed into a cosmetics item. I think just as a woman would put on mascara, she buys a scented candle for her home. Candles are not going away, they are here to stay. If anything, they should start to grow more because people are spending more time at home.”

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