Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Rise and Fall of a Category

Ashton Candle Garden

For over twenty years Pomeroy has explored every type of candle garden imaginable;  a category which was originally developed by Pomeroy and which dominated the market for over two decades. The concept I started with was a simple premise;  present the customer with everything “she” needed to create a beautiful and functional centerpiece without having to spend precious time scrounging for compatible components which might fit together on a tray.  We initially attributed our success with this new category of decorative lighting to the facts that we created an enormous value in the product, including a tray, rocks candles, glass elements, etc… and of course to our particular designs.  In the beginning, we were indeed able to imbue a great value in the item, but of course with the endless march of time, commodity increases, and competition, that benefit began to wane.   As the category matured, I began looking for ways to justify a higher retail, and while I was  never able to create successful candle gardens which were above 29.99 at retail, the candle garden remained a staple for Pomeroy until the activation of the anti-dumping duty tax placed on Chinese wax, championed by a few large domestic candle makers and their congressmen. 
As with most government sponsored programs; there were unintended consequences.  Ten years ago when the duty was originally activated the market for fragranced candles was very strong and was arguably at a peak with candles and fragranced wax lighting representing major businesses in all department stores, as well as specialty retailers.  Since that time, the market has shifted dramatically, with any type of fragranced candle programs all but disappearing from department store shelves with the exception of commodity priced, fragrance filled, glass jars which can be found anywhere from gas stations and drug stores, to Nieman Marcus, with very little separating them other than the distance and time it takes to drive from one to the other.
Occasionally one of the large companies controlling the wax jar business comes out with a new shape, or maybe a new label, but as far as any meaningful design changes which might propel the business into an exciting new direction that the consumer can embrace; well, we’ve been waiting ten years for that one.  In fact, since the antidumping duties were imposed the overall wax fragrance business has continued to decline.  This is a case whereby the government, in an effort to support a domestic industry, has eliminated any creative competition, and while unintended, has led to the decline of that particular industry as a whole.   In the end, I’m not sure that there were any beneficiaries of the action other than management at those companies and the congressmen who represented them.
While Pomeroy continues to design candle gardens to this day, the category as a whole has diminished significantly, and with it retail sales totaling hundreds of millions,  which I attribute to the antidumping duties placed on Chinese wax so many years ago, but not for the reasons you might suspect.  Yes, of course pricing increased dramatically for the underlying commodity (wax) being imported, but it was, I believe, for a creative reason:  by virtually halting the importation of any type of candle from China, the creative market went running and screaming from any new developments coming from that market; which by that time had become a world power in the category.  This had the obvious effect of many factory closures in China which in turn halted new candle developments which curiously were not competing with American production anyway; in addition to the fact that no one was designing new candles for the American market due to the restrictions.  
These resulting events basically cut off any new creative developments in the category (with the exception of Pomeroy, as we remain a “stubborn” company),   hence the near disappearance of the fragranced candle business as we knew it.  There is a phenomenon in retail that happens whereby a store telegraphs the importance of a category to the customer and can actually drive sales; or NOT.  This was the retail mechanism that drove the actual decline in the fragranced candle business.  No creative supply and impossible price points led to the retailer removing its “importance” from its’ shelves, and voila!  A category dies, and in this case, a pointless death. 
There are of course, still fragranced candles being produced in the United States, but because these cannot easily be combined with other items to create more elaborate displays (centerpieces for example) the business has not grown and has no way to expand.  Thus, we have the fragmented and decidedly dull fragrance wax business as it is today, with a sea of glass jars all clamoring for attention, which in the end can barely be seen through the endless promotions which define their life on the store shelf.