THE RAINMAKERS
FASHION AND MULTIPLE FUNCTIONS ARE THE CURRENT FOCUS OF THE UMBRELLA MARKET.

Byline: WENDY HESSEN

NEW YORK — With a shower of new product introductions slated between now and the end of this year, umbrella makers are expanding their offerings to include a variety of new looks and novelty-oriented items. According to industry leaders, items are driving business today and are expected to push it through the holiday gift-giving season.
“That’s really where the action is now,” said Steve Wit, owner and president of Mespo. “The stores just aren’t interested in basics.”
Items like matching umbrella and rainwear sets, a fanny pack containing an umbrella and poncho and quilted, mini-umbrella carrying cases with chain shoulder straps have doubled Mespo’s fall bookings over last year’s, Wit noted.
The firm is also offering gift sets that include either a pair of stretch gloves, an acrylic muffler or a pair of slipper socks, each teamed with an umbrella and retailing for $20 and under.
Wit has projected a record year, with increases of about 25 to 30 percent, saying, “We just picked the right time not to play it safe.”
As for the recent influx of competition, with more companies getting into the umbrella business, Wit said it initially made some in the industry nervous. In retrospect, however, it may actually have “provided the impetus to become more creative and gamble on new things,” he said.
Mespo has invested heavily in EDI and UPC systems that will enable the firm to better monitor sales, stock levels and even pre-ticket merchandise.
Loveland, Ohio-based Totes is gearing up for a nationwide rollout of two new items — Small Wonder and Big Top.
Michael Cardito, vice president of Totes, explained that Small Wonder is a full-size umbrella that folds down to 6 inches and retails for about $20; Big Top is a golf umbrella that can fold to about 8 inches and retails for $25.
Cardito said Totes expects Small Wonder to increase a store’s umbrella business by at least 25 percent, and Big Top to boost business by 5 to 7 percent. These figures are based on results from a regional test conducted during the fourth quarter of last year.
He also noted that a key to the success of these two items is Totes’s investment in television advertising, which over the years has created a “trusted and memorable brand image.” Totes plans to promote Small Wonder with more than $1 million in TV ads that feature a woman in evening dress tucking the umbrella into her evening bag.
Ken Daniels, vice president of sales for Futai USA, which introduced its Leighton brand, said his firm will expand its television ad campaign to 23 markets for fall and holiday, in a continuing effort to boost the brand. Earlier this spring, the ads, all featuring the quality and durability of the automatic open-and-close umbrellas, were tested in 10 markets.
“Although Totes has been the dominant resource for many years, we believe we offer comparable quality at the appropriate price with a better markup than our competition,” Daniels said. “Our biggest challenge is competing with the name that Totes has built up over the years.”
Daniels added that Futai owns the patent on the automatic-open and automatic-close technology, and its versions of mini- and micro-mini umbrellas with that technology will hit the market in the next several months. Other firms, according to Daniels, can boast only automatic-open technology with manual closes.
He also said the company has a growing portfolio of prints from around the world that will be introduced beginning next year in a limited edition.
Daniels estimated that distribution of the Leighton brand will increase to 50 to 70 percent of stores across the country by the end of this year.
Bob Hobe, director of Aris-Isotoner’s rainwear division, the latest entrant into the umbrella arena, said the firm made it through its first season with sell-throughs in its test markets that were “comparable to the established competition.” This year, Isotoner is attempting to build on that business and position the brand as an innovator when it introduces a “windproof” umbrella.
“First we launched the dry umbrella [treated with DuPont Teflon], which received tremendous response from consumers, and we’re hoping to capitalize on that interest with our windproof item,” Hobe said.
The windproof feature, which allows the umbrella carrier to simply pull down on a runner to return a reversed umbrella to its right side, will be available on all folding styles and at all price ranges. Isotoner will launch it in select stores for August market, with rollout to the remaining stores next spring. Hobe expects sales to be double those of last year.
Liberty Umbrella’s president, Burt Biderman, said fashion, items and value are the focus in umbrellas now. His firm will launch several new printed umbrellas for August market, the most innovative of which is an “underside print” — a black patent-finish umbrella with a celestial, metallic or plaid print inside, wholesaling for about $24. Also new will be conversational prints featuring chairs, sewing items and an equestrian theme, all of them with matching rain hats.
Liberty’s leading item is the Triple Catch — a three-in-one unit that includes an umbrella and a carrying case that doubles as a handbag, and has a strap that transforms into a belt. Previously available only in solids, Triple Catch cases will be available for the fourth quarter in printed fabrics, quilted leathers, leopard-printed hair calf, lizard-grain leather and wool plaids. Wholesale prices will range from $13.50 to $30, depending on the fabrication.
Biderman projected double-digit increases this holiday season over last year’s.
Jeff Blauer, vice president of sales and marketing at Shedrain, said his firm’s ability to take over a store’s rain business and completely individualize its presentation was central to Shedrain’s success.
“By conceptualizing rain shops — from fixturing to fashion — we can really maximize an area so it gets the most bang for the buck,” Blauer said. “Also, through the use of EDI and monitoring local rainfall, we can determine when stock levels need to be full.”
Blauer projected increases in the low double digits compared with last year, and noted that while novelty and museum prints are still popular, metallics and iridescents have been particularly strong in both umbrellas and rainwear.
Another lively side of the umbrella business is licensing. Shaw Creations — with licenses for the World Wildlife Fund, Warner Bros., Disney and the New York Zoological Society — believes in strong patterns, according to Shaw’s sales manager, Tom Scheuer.
“Mickey Mouse and Looney Tunes characters are the hottest right now,” Scheuer said. “We’re seeing nice sell-throughs at both mass market and department store levels.”
Shaw will introduce complex, all-over story patterns for the World Wildlife Fund line that will debut in stores for spring ’95. Essex Manufacturing is another firm involved in licensing with the J.G. Hook, Jones New York and Misty Harbour labels. Burton R. Krull, vice president of the umbrella division, said that although business has been flat for the third quarter, he is optimistic about the fourth-quarter gift- giving season.
“The combination of impulse shopping, gifts and weather-related purchases in the fourth quarter should put us ahead by about 15 to 20 percent over last year,” Krull said.
He pointed to paisley, watercolor and dot prints for Jones New York, and crest and wallpaper prints as top performers at J.G. Hook.
Jeffrey Schertz, president of Schertz Umbrellas, said the quality of his firm’s folding umbrellas has driven business in the luggage specialty stores he sells. Schertz’s Travelaire RT has been recently updated, making it lighter, flatter and easier to pack. Also on tap is a new range of florals and jacquards.

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