The future of foam: An ever–widening sphere of influence

By Jim Parsons

A proliferation of providers and products has created a wide range of materials. Appropriately for the information technology age, another product innovation seems to debut every day.

SleepComp President Roger Coffey can only smile when he recalls the ISPA trade shows he attended as a chemical supplier’s representative in the 1970s.
"Most mattress manufacturers just laughed when I suggested they increase the use of polyurethane in their beds," he says. "Cotton garnett was the big material for padding then, and few saw any need for an alternative. Today, most beds have more polyurethane in them than anything else."

Indeed, the Polyurethane Foam Association estimates that luxury, high–profile, innerspring mattresses often contain more flexible polyurethane foam than was found in the full–foam mattress designs of the 1970s and ’80s. The reason? A combination of intense product development, a dash of marketing savvy, a need to comply with current flammability standards, and a consumer population that is growing older, more affluent and more demanding about what they sleep on.

A proliferation of both providers and products has created a wide range of materials that include the pressure–relieving properties of visco and the one–of–a–kind feel of latex. And, appropriately for the information technology age, another product innovation seems to debut every day.

Paving the way for what has become a truly cushy market are upper–end luxury mattresses that use different combinations of foam to enhance the support, comfort and feel of innerspring systems. Polyurethane foam and latex also have spurred a new spin on certain niche products – such as adjustable mattresses for aging Baby Boomers’ aching backs – and add a touch of class to conventional bedding through the ever–popular pillow top. Where once the concept of all–foam construction might have been equated largely with futons or recreational products, one need only do a bit of channel surfing to find a commercial touting Tempur–Pedic’s mattresses.

A crowded marketplace

Most agree that the driving force behind this proliferation of products and applications is a consumer population that wants more from mattresses. "There are so many combinations that can provide a desired feel or level of support, yet are price competitive," says Carpenter Company’s Bob Steelman. "It has fostered a new impetus on high–end, value–added products."

Bobby Bush, vice president of Hickory Springs’ Foam Products Division, agrees. "What we call the ’Wal–Mart mentality’ of customer satisfaction (if you don’t like it, bring it back) has resulted in consumers being less willing to accept sub–standard product performance," he says. "They want the most from what they pay for."

Not surprisingly, there have also been changes within the product supply chain, with both manufacturers and suppliers conducting more research and development for bedding–specific products.

"When you have price points of $1,000 and above, you want the bed to truly perform differently," says Alvaro Vaselli of Foamex. "The research and development we do in areas such as pressure mapping, recovery time, spinal alignment and durability give bedding manufacturers information they can use to help differentiate their products.
At the same time, manufacturers have also become more educated in various metrics and indices for comfort."

Steelman adds the new era of direct marketing to consumers has rubbed off on business–to–business communication. "It used to be that most of our marketing to manufacturers was face–to–face," he says. "Tempur–Pedic has altered the way our customers market finished beds, so we and other suppliers have done the same by looking for ways to add and differentiate various foam products."

"Everybody has something that they’ve put a lot of bells and whistles into," agrees Buddy Swicegood of Vitafoam. "With this level of differentiation, we have to work that much harder to show customers the value of our products. I just wonder if there may be a point where there is too much choice."

Core issues

One product U.S. buyers may see more of are solid polyurethane foam and latex mattresses, yet another byproduct of Tempur–Pedic’s successful direct marketing campaign. Swicegood for one, is pleased to see solid foam cores regaining acceptance as a quality sleep product.

"We allowed innersprings to push solid foam out of the arena 30 years ago," he says. "Today’s constructions provide a far greater level of support."

That doesn’t mean that innerspring manufacturers should be losing sleep. A. Lava & Son’s Steve Applebaum says that all foam constructions are still very much a niche product. "Smaller bedding companies have been willing to dive into this market with some success, but I don’t think they’re stealing the show from innerspring mattresses, particularly since more high–end innerspring products are incorporating high–density (polyurethane) foam and latex."

One of the obstacles is the cultural difference between North American tastes and those of Europe, where all–foam constructions are more readily accepted, especially with adjustables and popular slat foundations. Solid foam cores no more than a couple of inches thick would hardly get a second look in a U.S. market where, as far as beds are concerned, size really does seem to matter.

"It all depends on how it is marketed," observes Vincent Gesquière of Latexco in the Netherlands. "There is a lot of science behind the construction of foam and latex beds that not everyone understands. For example, we can make a synthetic latex product with a three–zone core that provides higher firmness in the middle to support body weight. Our higher–end products have seven zones with a high amount of natural latex."

The key, Coffey adds is to simply get customers to give it a try. "We equate high–profile (15–inch–thick) mattresses to value," he says. "Six– to eight–inches–thick is perceived as not being as good. But once you can get shoppers to lie on it, those misperceptions go out the window."

PFA President Bob Luedeka says previous luxury full–foam products, constructed from high–density conventional flexible polyurethane foam or latex, offered the physical performance needed for customer satisfaction (outstanding comfort, support and durability), but often lacked what he calls the "sizzle" necessary for retail selling success.

"Successful bedding merchandising includes being able to tell a logical consumer benefits story and being able to illustrate the benefits with construction features," he says. "Hands–on examples become valuable selling tools on the retail floor. Innerspring units traditionally provide the tools required for ’show and sell’ merchandising."

Until recently, he adds, it has been very challenging to find ways to visually demonstrate the benefits of full–foam mattress construction. "Demonstrable viscoelastic performance and innovative fabrication designs, such as those revealed in cutaway examples, help make the ’show and sell’ process much easier. And with the proliferation of Web sites offering visco–type full–foam mattresses and mattress pads, I believe there will be a resurgence of interest in full–foam mattresses among retailers, if for no other reason than to surround the visco product offerings with good–better–best choices within the category."

Dueling definitions

Amid this growing popularity, however, there are concerns that some important distinctions may be getting lost in the marketing clutter. The most important one centers around how consumers perceive bedding that touts the use of latex.

"There is a mystique about latex beds that we’ve seen re–emerge during the past five years," says Steelman. "It has an inherent marketing advantage among Baby Boomers who remember them as being very comfortable. Now that they are more affluent, they can buy the same thing, only with a higher level of quality."

But do they always know what they are buying? Not all types of latex are equal, nor are they created equally. There is the natural kind (which is derived from rubber trees), synthetic, and various blends of the two. There are also differences between the two latex manufacturing processes, Talalay and Dunlop. The resulting products have trade–offs in terms of feel, durability, performance and cost.

Kevin Stein of Latex International argues that most people in the bedding industry know the differences. Among many retailers and most consumers, however, there is the idea that latex is latex – and that’s the problem.

"The Talalay process (which Latex International uses) has two major steps that create a more uniform cell structure, resulting in a softness and firmness consistency that is better suited for high–end products," Stein explains. "With latex bedding poised to gain a larger share of the U.S. market, we feel consumers should know what they are buying."

Gesquière agrees that confusion exists, but for different reasons. "Talalay and Dunlop products have advantages such as price, durability, and construction flexibility, which allows us to produce multiple zones without the need for glue – an important concern in Europe," he says. While he concedes that some manufacturers may have given Dunlop latex a black eye by cutting corners (e.g., inconsistent blends, limited washing), one should not assume that all Dunlop latex is inferior to Talalay. "Quality Talalay and quality Dunlop have their respective merits and trade–offs, and consumers should carefully consider the advantages of each."

To some observers, this definition debate is healthy for the industry. "All latex is not the same," says Coffey. "Talalay is more expensive, has more integral molds, but the end–products are better and there’s a smaller range of firmness, which helps in meeting specifications. On the other hand, the manufacturing cost differential could be as much as $100 for a queen–size mattress, which would have to be passed on to the consumer."
Steelman, however, dismisses the confusion as merely a marketing issue. "The quality of latex comes in its density," he says. "Regardless of the process, if you have weight and density, the quality is there."

In addition, some retailers may think they’re getting latex in the mattress when it is actually flexible polyurethane foam. "Calling a product ’latex’ when it isn’t does a disservice to the real thing," says Vaselli. "I think the problem is often one of the bedding manufacturer wanting to use it, and the supplier asking how much he wants to pay. In other words, cost dictates the quality of the mattress."

The bottom line, says Applebaum, is that too many consumers have too little knowledge about the material that has piqued their interest in the mattress. "Once the product is in the bed and on the floor, chances are that the salesperson won’t know the difference or how to explain it," he says. "I think the confusion will have to clear up if demand for latex bedding continues to grow."

The latex manufacturers are already on the case. "We’re working with bedding manufacturers to train salespeople and develop point–of–sale materials for consumers," says Stein. "The more they learn about the processes, they will be more confident about demanding a specific type of latex."

Gesquière has similar plans. "We hope to do kind of an ’everything you always wanted to know about latex’ brochure by end of year," he says. "I think our goals are compatible – to help consumers make informed decisions when evaluating and purchasing bedding products."

A more long–term issue on the latex front may be where it comes from. The majority of rubber trees (which produce the primary ingredient in natural latex) are located in southeast Asian countries with a reputation for government instability and, in recent months, terrorist activity. "Availability has always been a concern, one that has increased since Sept. 11," Coffey says. "Other countries with similar climactic characteristics are encouraging the planting and harvesting of rubber trees. Our hope is that availability will be able to keep up with demand."

Fire watch

Opinions are also mixed on some of the other challenges facing polyurethane foam and latex products. As with other segments of the bedding industry, the uncertainty surrounding the future flammability regulation dominated the foam market in 2002. Would all components be required to meet a standard, or simply the end product? Would there be a run on chemical additives, even though they compromise the feel and resilience of foam?

"We’ll work through these problems," Coffey says, "But so far, initial products with flame retardant additives don’t measure up."

Kayfoam Woolfson’s Technical Director Padraig Hackett believes that many in the industry are over–reacting. "If I was a manufacturer looking at the flammability requirements, I wouldn’t be worried from a technical point of view because what is coming is not as onerous as what we had to do in the U.K. and Ireland in 1988," he says. "There was no chemical shortage, even though we had less than a year to comply. U.S. manufacturers will likely have at least 12 months to meet whatever California and the CPSC come up with."

Hackett adds, "Five years after the California standard is introduced, people will wonder what the fuss is about."

Refining the future

What U.S. foam manufacturers may find on the horizon are stricter environmental regulations governing foam chemicals and processes. While the "green" movement is not as pronounced in North America as in some parts of Europe, Gesquière says it is only a matter of time.

"Some of it is government–driven, the rest comes from customers like Ikea, who like to work with companies that recycle water," he says. "Some countries encourage recycling of old foam mattresses. Here in the Netherlands, customers can trade in their old mattress, which we recycle into sports mats and similar products."

The struggling world economy is also a concern, particularly since so much of the industry’s success is linked to demand for high–end bedding products. So far, it seems that polyurethane foam and latex have been cushioned from hard times. "Our markets have held up well over the past 12 months," says Kayfoam Woolfson’s Michael Sanfey. "Naturally, we’re concerned. But the level of sales has been good so far."

Gesquière takes a more optimistic view. "All–latex products make up only 0.5% of the U.S. market," he says. "Even if the economy declines, this segment will increase because customers in the high–end market are likely to buy things regardless of the prevailing conditions. It’s the middle and lower segments that may experience problems."
One issue polyurethane foam and latex suppliers hope to avoid is another cost increase, such as 2002’s 16% price hike that suppliers attributed to prices for the primary oil–derived chemicals found in synthetic foam (see BEDtimes, November 2002).

"This was a volatile year for polyurethane chemical prices," says Bush. "Because the cost of bulk polyurethane foam is 95% raw material, chemical increases had a direct effect on the price of bedding foam."

He adds, however, that continuity of supply and stability of foam pricing have seldom been of major concern to mattress manufacturers. "With the shift of mindset by the foam industry’s biggest suppliers to a global economy and the overall poor performance of their publicly traded stock, the foam industry faces more uncertainty in raw material costs than ever before."

"Price increases always spawn ill–will and suspicion," Swicegood adds. "The problem is that while there are many foam suppliers serving mattress manufacturers, there are only a handful of chemical suppliers. We don’t have the kind of leverage with them that our buyers have with us."

Deciding whether to pass along the increase or absorb it is not an easy one to make. "The entire supply chain needs to understand that compromise may be necessary," Swicegood says. "It’s a matter of balancing your risk versus your customer’s risk."

Bouncing back

Even with these obstacles, the mood in the polyurethane foam and latex industry is decidedly upbeat. "Visco will continue to gain in popularity across the board," Hackett says. "I expect that all hospital beds in Europe will be visco in five years, and that the U.S. market won’t be far behind."

Some like Gesquière predict that demand for polyurethane foam and latex bedding in the U.S. could eventually match the 20% market share the products enjoy in Europe.

Steelman is not so sure, citing the cost of meeting the image of quality bedding in the U.S. "It costs a lot to build a foam and latex mattress up as high as an innerspring mattress, which drives the end product to a higher price point," he says. "Because of that, I doubt the market share will ever exceed 5%."

Steelman admits, however, that he has been wrong before. "I thought specialty foams like visco and other high–density upper–end products would be a flash in the pan, but they have taken off and are here to stay," he says. "No doubt there are more on the way."