Author Archives: Linseece

Value, style will get nod from retailers at NSF

Value and styling, rather than performance and high technology, are what buyers will be seeking in athletic shoes during the upcoming National Shoe Fair (NSF), industry sources reported.

In addition, hook-and-loop closures in most categories, which have been gaining acceptance in the U.S. after years of popularity in Europe, and three-quarter-high athletic shoes may be the most important trends to emerge at NSF, said resources surveyed.

“The retailers we’ve talked to say that at least in the children’s market, 75 per cent of retail sales are in hook and loop,” said Dick Meier, vice-president of Specs, Avon, Mass.

Although hook-and-loop straps have been shown on children’s footwear for several seasons in the U.S., they are just beginning to take hold in the youth and men’s market. The women’s market still shows some resistance to the trend, producers noted.

Aerobics or dance models with soft leather uppers and molded soles have outpaced joggers as the female market’s favored choice of casual footwear, they said.

Sources also reported major market gains in three-quarter-high basketball shoes that, in various colors and textures, have emerged as fashion statements, especially in the urban market. The children’s market, particularly joggers with hook-and-loop closures, remains strong, sources said.

Unlike the recent National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA) show in Chicago, where $100-plus performance models had a heyday, sources expected little interest in high priced brooks shoes for high arches at NSF. “If you accept that athletic shoe aficionados won’t stop in department stores or family shoe stores, there’s no place for $100 shoes in those stores,” said Mike Tate, sales manager, athletic division, Sporto, Readville, Mass.

With the NSGA and NSF shows literally back-to-back, most high-tech producers said they would simply move their Chicago merchandise to New York, but highlight athleisure styles, low-to-mid-priced joggers and court shoes for the NSF audience.

Resources said they expected buyers to be finishing up fall orders and focusing on joggeers and three-strap hook-and-loop styles for back-to-school business.

Prices of athletic footwear from Korea and Taiwan may rise 5-7 per cent, although the increases are expected to be manageable and may not be passed along to retailers, sources said. The top, high-grade factories are booked through the end of winter, but “B” grade factories are still accepting orders, sources said.

David Sullivan, general manager for New World, an athletic division of Rainbow Imports, Ltd., Woburn, Mass., said makeup business for athletic importers from the Far East is strong because of the continued depth of the athletic retail market. He noted that his firm’s Chinese footwear has been well received because it offers retailers quality and high profit potential.

Retailers who have tested the Chinese shoes found they sold well, particularly in women’s athleisure styles with vulcanized bottoms retailing for less than $10, he noted. Pigsuede Chinese joggers are performing well also because of their cost/value relationship, Sullivan noted.

Sporto will be featuring increased use of hook-and-loop straps and nontraditional fabrics, such as satin, on its athletic shoes, Tate said. An athleisure line of “Super Satins,” at $25, and a glove-leather upper aerobics shoe called “Cloud Nine” at $37, will be introduced by Sporto. “We’re seeing that the new street show for women from 15-mid-20s is the aerobics look as opposed to the running shoe,” Tate said.

Ciao!, Braintree, Mass., which markets a women’s high-tech casual line, will expand its offerings to the traditional athletic market and plans to open accoutns with some athletic retailers, according to Bill Cohen, president. Ciao’s new “apres-tennis” and “apres-jogging” shoes are designed to be worn “to get to and go home from” those activities. Sullivan said he expects the men’s plantar fasciitis shoes to sell well to athletic accounts who know the Ciao! fashion line but have not carried its athletic styles.

Diadora, the footwear division of Rossignol Ski Co., Williston, Vt., will make its NSF debut, according to Norm McElvany, footwear products manager. “We’re hoping to meet people we don’t normally see.” The firm hopes to reach smaller shoe stores and athletic buyers of department stores as a way of expanding its base. Despite its high echelon image, McElvany noted that the Diadora line, in fact, contains all price points in tennis and running shoes from $25.95-$80. During NSF, the firm will concentrate on marketing its fashion boot footwear, which is part of its after-ski line, he said.

During the NSGA shoe, Diadora introduced nine tennis shoes and a seven-model running shoe line.

Allsport, Sayreville, N.J., will introduce aerobics styles in nubuc and nappa leather, according to Bob Ranelli, sales manager. Allsport has dropped its use of the Pink Panther character because of the falloff in popularity of lincensed characters, he noted. The firm has added three new three-quarter height basketball shoes to its line in leather, mesh/leather, nylon/suede, and nylon/suede with hook-and-loop straps, and all-suede retailing from $22-$38.

Specs, Avon, Mass., has found so much interest in three-quarter height basketball shoes for bunions and flat feet that it has added an all-leather version to its Pro Specs line, company officials said. According to Meier, “Basketball continues to be on the rise and gaining a more substantial share of the athletic footwear market.” He added that professional players have welcomed the style because it gives them the same ankle support as a high-top model but has less weight.

Specs has added aerobics shoes in nylon and leather to its line and will introduce a pattern for women’s joggers — thin checks on white in blue and pink, he said. The firm will also introduce a cold weather boot line for fall, he said.

For S.B. Sports, division of BBC International, Secaucus, N.J., the NSF will be a testing ground for the year-old branded line that is just hitting the retail market, according to Deke Jamieson, marketing director.

Although S.B. Sports attempted initially to position itself as a youth-oriented brand, response to the shoes has warranted its broadening to “family” athletic footwear, Jamieson noted. “We’re now expecting orders in these new areas,” he added.

The shoes will hit retail this month of the East Coast, and four distributors in the Mountain States have been hired recently to expand the firm’s base to the West Coast. Distribution will be primarily through family shoe stores, major athletic chains and some major department chains, Jamieson said.

“This show will really be a solidifying of our entry into the athletic market,” Jamieson said.

In addition to its new joggers unveiled at the NSGA show, S.B. Sports will introduce a casual three-quarter-high jogger for men and boys to retail at around $33 at the NSF.

Pro-Players, division of Jack Schwartz Shoes, New York, will be concentrating on hook-and-loop closures and adding more colors, speed lacing and nontraditional uppers, such as quilting to their lines, according to Jack Schwartz, executive vice-president.

Jordache Athletic Footwear, New York, will introduce satin/suede combination fashion joggers in colors, according to designer Tina Kang.

High-tech manufacturers generally will emphasize the casual aspects of their lines during NSF.

Etonic, Inc., Brockton, Mass., will highlights its Tretorn line, particularly its beauties athleisure styles, which, according to vice-president John Larsen are “strong shoe store products.”

Jacques Hanssens, vice-president of sales, Bata Shoe Co., Belcamp, Md., said the firm will be showing its NSGA-introduced tennis line that includes its three-strap Velcro men’s Challenger, $45; the oxford, mesh men’s Court Champion, $40; the men’s Tourney III, $50; three women’s court shoestyles and an ankle-cut racquetball shoe.

Bata also will show its Tonic Dancer, a concept borrowed from Europe consisting of a colorful sock and shoe stitched together for dancing.

Asics Tiger Corp., Santa Ana, Calif., will place special emphasis on its first infants’ line introduced at NSGA, company officials said.

Adidas will bring its new NSGA-introduced basketball shoes to NSF in addition to its Ivan Lendl and Herschel Walker signature shoes, according to John Tieman, shoe product manager for Vanc/Adidas, the firm’s Midwest distributor. The firm also will show its Angel and Catalina women’s tennis shoes and its Lady New York running shoe.

Bruce Fendell, product manager for Libco, Adidas’ Northeastern distributor, said the firm has decided to split its new line into two yearly introductions. Product debuts will now be made in the fall and spring, rather than just in the fall, Fendell said. “It’s harder for the distributors, but it’s more timely for the dealers,” he said.

Adidas will unveil the top end of its basketball range in March during the NCAA playoffs, Fendell said.

Lyndon, Killeen, Eastern regional sales manager for Brooks Shoe Co., division of Wolverine World Wide, Rockford, Mich., said the NSF will be the proper showcase for the firm’s athleisure line. “The customer base is different (from NSGA) although our products are the same. We will sell more athleisure and more to department store people who cannot tell the difference between the Chariot and the Graphex,” he said.

Nike, Inc., Beaverton, Ore., will be concentrating on its leisure line, which includes new colors in its Vandals and Racquettes models. Also being shown will be Too-Highs, a ladies’ mid-high basketball-styled shoe in bright yellow. Nike’s casual shoes, the Brisbane and the Australia, which incorporate running features into a deck-type upper, also will be shown during NSF.

Autry Industries, Inc., Dallas, will be emphasizing its Autry Americans line during NSF, which the firm is promoting in conjunction with the summer Olympics. The shoes were shipped last fall, and reorders have been strong, said company officials. Autry also will introduce a basketball shoe with full-grain leather upper and removable insole, and show two new women’s running patterns of a shoe that was introduced for men in December.

Jack Hillerich: chairman and CEO, Hillerich & Bradsby

Hillerich & Bradsby remains at the forefront of innovations in the sporting goods industry even after 114 years in the business. The family-owned, Louisville, KY, company prides itself in a unique corporate culture where offices have no doors and even senior-level managers do not work in private. Although some of its divisions have been affected by changes in the industry, others are performing creditably, such as the Louisville Slugger division and the hockey division.

When visiting the Hillerich & Bradsby complex and the adjoining Louisville Slugger museum here, one can’t help but be struck by the smell of freshly-cut wood, a rich sense of tradition and the strange realization that there are no doom on any of the offices. The entire headquarters is dotted with curved walls that form little alcoves where even senior-level managers work without privacy. Employees said it was just one element of a unique corporate culture instilled by president Jack Hillerich. The family-owned company has built an internal reputation as a company where no one ever leaves (a 10-year veteran is considered a rookie, workers boast), while still being at the forefront of many cutting-edge product innovations. Hillerich was out of town during our recent visit, but SGB decided to track him down via telephone and find out just what’s going on through those openings that serve in place of doors.

SGB: I’m sure over the last 114 years this company has had a lot of ups and downs. How has the business been of late?

Hillerich: It’s been the best of times and the worst of times. Our Louisville Slugger division is doing very well. The Power-Bilt golf division has gone through some changes in the industry that have really affected it drastically. The hockey division is doing well in terms of products and sales, but in terms of earnings it’s hard-pressed to find what product line it is and stick with it and develop it as a real profitable line.

SGB: I understand you’re trying to reposition the golf business as more value-oriented but still as a high-end brand.

Hillerich: We think that Power-Bilt still retains quite a bit of appeal. The name we think is still good – now it’s a question of how can we go to the marketplace and say why you should buy Power-Bilt. The answer seems to be so [the retailer] can make money.

SGB: So there’s a margin structure emphasis?

Hillerich: Right. It’s like we know we’re not going to be selling to every Tom, Dick and Harry. We’re sure of that. So we’re saying, Hey, you’re going to have protection in your area. There’s not going to be a guy down the street knocking your margins down.

SGB: That sort of thinking seems to be at play in the diamond sports industry as well. There’s a lot more talk about team dealers getting more closely aligned with the vendors. Is the diamond sports industry facing similar issues to those found in the golf business?

Hillerich: I think it is. With the large mass merchants and the large boxes, you can look around and see that it’s not the same picture it was four or five years ago. And it’s not the same it was for us four or five years ago when growth came from just filling out the big-box supply line.

SGB: You initiated a lowest advertised price policy on your high-end bats at the Super Show. What necessitated that?

Hillerich: We were just getting killed by people saying, ‘Hey, I don’t need to buy that bat. I can’t make any money on it. Everybody has it at low margin and I had to pay a lot of money for that and I don’t want to risk my dollars.’ So they were buying a $110 to $115 bat and selling it for $120, and that just doesn’t make a lot of sense to us.

SGB: The price-slashing, was that led by catalogs or big boxes or both?

Hillerich: It was everywhere. One would start it and then the others would follow, and even the little guys would try to compete on particular items. They’d have to compete on particular items or they wouldn’t get anybody in the store.

SGB: What’s been the reaction from the industry, and the level of compliance?

Hillerich: We’ve seen a lot of our competitors follow us. We’ve seen some reactions from large retailers that they’re not too happy. There are the legal issues that are still maybe untested. We think we’re on very good ground. And then there’s the ‘Well, if we can’t beat you this way we can beat you that way’ mentality. What are you going to do when a dealer keeps the price up but throws in a ball glove with a bat? We just have to face those one at a time.

SGB: Let’s talk a bit about the corporate culture at Louisville. I know it’s pretty unique and cutting-edge in a lot of ways.

Hillerich: Our emphasis and my emphasis has been mostly on how to improve the quality of management within the company. And that includes how we manage, how we put teams together, who’s on these teams, what responsibilities they have and what tools we give these teams to solve problems. So we do an awful lot of teaching. We go to an awful lot of schools all related to what are the good management tools out there. And that’s really been the backbone of what led to how we reorganized our golf department and our hockey areas. It’s putting those tools to use and saying, ‘What is the customer really telling us to do?’

SGB: I know you’re involved in a group of corporations that are studying some Japanese methods in terms of corporate culture and management.

Hillerich: We formed a chapter in Louisville of an organization based in Boston called The Center for Quality of Management. And it’s really large companies – the Xeroxes, the Hewlett Packards, the General Electrics, the Fords – who put this organization together. Basically, they went to Japan. and said, ‘What should we bring back to the States, and how do we improve it or how do we make this work in the States?’ Basically, we learn the tools developed in the Center for Quality Management and we teach them to each other.

SGB: What are some of the internal changes that have come out of it?

Hillerich: What we offer in golf. Everything you see in our current program in golf came strictly from the customer’s voice. The tools that we learned and developed at CQM helped us do this. Ten years ago, we would interview a customer and come out with a few notes. Today, it takes two people to interview a customer and it takes probably a week to untangle what you’ve developed from every single word that the customer said – and we do that with 14 different customers. It’s a very lengthy process, but it’s a tool we didn’t have before.

SGB: Visiting your offices a few weeks ago, I was struck by the lack of doors, your office included. Is that also part of this emphasis on management and corporate culture?

Hillerich: When we asked everybody here three years ago before we built our new complex what it was that they wanted, they said, well we want an office with four walls, a door and a window, and of course the latest computer. We went out and we drew all that up and we had a beautiful beehive of hallways and boxes. And then we selected a vendor and we met with their thinkers, their developers, and their R&D people, and we said, What do we need to do to have teams work better in our company? They showed us some films of their vision of how teams in the future will work – and it definitely wasn’t with doors and hallways and walls. We didn’t know how to explain the theory carefully, so we just came back and said no doors for anybody. It sort of blew them away, but I think they have the idea of what we were trying to create.

SGB: Have you received many calls over the years from larger companies in our industry in an acquisition mode?

Hillerich: That comes and goes. Back in the ’80s and early ’90s it was a big thing. Today people are not just conglomerizing like they did. I had one person who wanted to talk and then called and said, ‘Well I don’t think we appreciate the baseball/softball business. We’re going to back off.’ So I think it’s quite different today. We don’t hear so much about it today.

SGB: There always seem to be rumors going around that the big footwear companies are looking at team sports companies, and then the acquisition never seems to happen. Are you saying that you think the largest players in the sporting goods industry are not focusing their attention on team sports for acquisitions?

Hillerich: I really can’t answer that other than they’re really specific about what they want to target. They want your golf business and not your athletic goods business or vice versa. But to come in and just pick off a Hillerich & Bradsby, we don’t see that.

SGB: If somebody came with the right price, would you ever consider having the company change hands?

Hillerich: You’d have to ask my son or my daughter. I’ve made my commitment to them that it’s their decision.

SGB: We hear a lot of talk that baseball is a sport on the decline. The participation numbers have certainly dropped off, and the whole industry is wondering whether it’s just a cyclical thing or whether today’s fast-moving culture has simply not chosen baseball as its sport. Do you think that baseball is facing a challenge in that area and a potential long-term decline in participation and interest?

Hillerich: Oh, absolutely. I think baseball/softball is in a real precarious position. But when I go to the college level, these kids are as intent – they are as dedicated as I’ve ever seen. So they’re getting more focused because there’s not that many of them.

SGB: Do you think that MLB really needs to improve its marketing and its getting in touch with fans in order for baseball to thrive as a sport in general?

Hillerich: They have so many things to work on that they need to start yesterday. One of the big things that I keep hearing when I talk to owners is, ‘Where’s the talent going to come from? How are we going to handle expansion? We can’t get kids into baseball. They’re going into other things. How do we get these great athletes to stay in baseball?’ So it goes deeper than just the fans coming to ball games. They’re concerned about who’s going to be playing it.

SGB: Looking at the super-alloy bats and some of the technology that has come in, that seems to be the saving grace of the industry over the last two years. What has been the impact of the really high-end technology in aluminum in the bat market?

Hillerich: It’s helped drive profits up. It’s helped drive the competition up. We hear feedback from the players that they love to play the game. They can get an average now. They like playing it. We hear from the coaches that they wish it would go back to wood. The safety issue that was really loud has not proven from what numbers we see as being a problem. I think baseball is still the safest collegiate sport in terms of injuries and accidents. So it’s a whole mixed bag of players liking to get better and coaches concerned about how it’s changed the game. But the college level is as good as it’s ever been. In softball it’s allowed C and D players to really improve their game. I think they enjoy it. It’s probably gotten out of hand as far as the super players when scores are 100 to 96. So it’s been a blessing, but there have also been a lot of problems with it.

SGB: Price points keep going up, but is there a point where this market is going to cap out just became everyone’s already spent a lot of money on 16 inch softball bats and they’re not going to keep updating the bats at higher and higher prices?

Hillerich: Obviously that’s going to happen, but I keep hearing people around here saying there is no number two. You either have the best bat out there or you don’t exist. But I’m sure it’s going to balance out somewhere.

SGB: You alluded to coaches wanting to go back to wood, and obviously the NCAA and various governing bodies have taken a hard look at these products and have been somewhat at odds with manufacturers on them. How big of an issue is that, and what kind of stance has Louisville taken?

Hillerich: We love baseball. We’ve loved baseball for 114 years. And we want to give baseball what it wants. So we don’t have a real stance on whether we prefer high performance or whether you tone it down. It’s whatever the people that really control the game decide they want to be. We can be anywhere in that spectrum. High, low. We’ve been both.

SGB: There’s certainly been criticism that the NCAA has never really stated why it’s so concerned about bat performance and that there isn’t the data to back up a lot of the claims they’ve made. Is there a serious rift going on in the industry?

Hillerich: The manufacturers are really struggling to find out what the true agenda is. I think we should do whatever they want done, but we can’t figure out what it is they want to do. They want to put in rules to reduce the performance, but I don’t see how that’s possible. Whatever you put in there’s going to be someone out there trying to improve upon it. And they can improve upon it. I think if they can figure out what it is they really want to do, we can help them design a product that you can’t cheat with.

SGB: With changes always possible at the NCAA level, how much of a problem does that pose in terms of R&D and inventories – in terms of just planning your business?

Hillerich: That is a big problem. You can’t make a rule today and implement it in six months or even a year without really hurting what the coaches and what the teams already have in play. It would be great for us as manufacturers if they change the rules every year, so that everything would be obsolete. But I don’t think that would please the public.

SGB: Do you have any sense of how it will all shake out?

Hillerich: I assume that over the next year or two we will work with the rules committee as an industry and say, OK, we agree this makes sense. If the rules committee just laterally hands a decree down without really working with the manufacturers, we won’t have any kind of order at all. I go in the direction of order. It just makes sense.

SGB: What does the future hold for H&B? You talk about how baseball is in a precarious situation. How do you envision the direction of the company and its future strengths or weaknesses?

Hillerich: I see us changing our products, maybe significantly. Questioning why are we in hockey? Why are we in golf? What do we need to do there? Where in baseball and what part of softball do we want to be in? How strong do we want to be in protective equipment? How strong do we want to be in gloves? And focusing more on what our customers really want us to do. We have tried, in the past, to determine what our customers want us to do for them without talking to them. Now I think we have a much better set of tools to work with them on building what it is they really want.

Absolutely fabulous

The fashion business has suffered from a poor economy and other issues, but positive developments continue to bolster both retailers and manufacturers. A brief overview of retail and manufacturing developments is presented. Information is included on designers, the Passy retail area of Paris, new developments in body shaping garments, the Kathie Lee Collection of Wal-Mart, Olympic Games licensing, retail areas of Chicago, IL, and New York, NY, and the popularity of denim clothing and T-shirts.

They come, they go, they rake in the dough. An exuberant trunk show climate points to what many see as a solid resurgence in the designer business.

For Escada, it was $2 million in five days at Lilly Dodson. For Chanel, two blockbusters in less than a month: $1.7 million in only two days at Bloomingdale’s and $1.8 million at Bergdorf Goodman in three days. Richard Tyler, it was $244, in one day at Nordstrom in Seattle, and $325,000 in two days at Ultimo in Chicago.

Chanel is leading the charge, breaking trunk show records at Bloomingdale’s and Bergdorf Goodman. The Chanel event at Bergdorf’s in May was described by store chairman Stephen Elkin as the best ever for a single vendor, with just under 200 units selling in a price range from $1,295 to $5,200.

Several styles sold out, including a tweed pantsuit and a double-breasted navy pantsuit, each with 14 units sold; a popcorn black and white suit and a single-breasted black crepe skirt suit, each with 24 units sold, and a notch-collar black wool crepe jacket with 18 pieces sold. In dresses, 14 of 16 units in three styles sold in the $4,500 range, he added.

The Escada trunk show, held at the Lilly Dodson store in Dallas, sold 1,840 units of apparel and a few hundred pairs of shoes — including 27 of the signature patchwork jackets that were a visual nod to head designer Todd Oldham, at $1,450 a throw.

“We are putting our eggs in the designer basket — it’s ahead 30 percent this year,” said Bill Dodson, president of the women’s specialty store and its adjoining Escada boutique. With a few exceptions, like Laurel, Escada Sport and a few others, we’re definitely cutting back on bridge. We experimented with bridge and diffusion for two years, thinking it would offset the economy — it hasn’t been successful.” The store stages between 20 and 25 trunk shows yearly, with 22 planned this year. That business also is ahead 30 percent.

“The customer is very responsive to special events — she loves to see an entire collection,” Dodson explained. “Pricewise, she’ll go up or down from Escada — but mostly up.” The Gazebo, Dallas, a women’s designer store, is setting a few records of its own this spring, too.

A two-day Michael Kors fall show last month racked up $243,800, with 344 pieces sold. The results topped last year’s fall show by over $100,000.

Bestsellers included a three-quarter-length shearling coat, six sold at $2,400; a black leather and matte jersey dress, nine sold at $785; and a group of pastel doubleface wool sportswear.

The Tyler trunk show in Seattle, held earlier this month, included such bestsellers as a white silk zip quilted jacket, 11 at $1,995; 11 tuxedos at $2,590 and eight black beaded stripe double-breasted jackets at $1,750 with matching pants at $920. In Chicago, best-sellers included five navy duchesse satin off-the-shoulder tops, $850, with matching skirts, $1,200, and six navy chalk stripe double-breasted jackets, $1,895, with matching pants, $795, and vest, $895.

To retailers, all this vigorous activity is indicative of a healthy rebound for the designer set.

“This is about true value at a high level,” said Charles Bunstine, president of Barneys New York here. “We’ve had high, high, high double-digit increases. There’s a consistency of quality and design, and the customer is responding to it from both a fashion and financial perspective. It’s a great investment.”

Armani and Jil Sander continue to be star performers in the designer area, he added. “They have just been tremendous,” he said. “They both continue to grow. The customer’s purchases are growing not only in number of customers buying, but also in depth.” The lure of shapers is far from over. First it was the cleavage-enhancing bra phenomenon. Now retailers are reporting enthusiastic response to waist-definers.

Merchants said the growing popularity of items designed to provide a wasp waist and hide midriff bulge is being fueled by the new breed of shaped suits and dresses for summer and fall.

Hot items range from high-waisted one-piece cincher briefs made of nylon and Lycra spandex and control waistbands with hooks and eyes, to long line busters and merry widow corsets that also contain the hips.

But that doesn’t mean the bust is being neglected. For fall, vendors are coordinating an abundance of padded, push-up bras to go with waist-defining items.

Paula MacDougall, merchandise manager of foundations for Federated Merchandising Corp., said, “Waist shaper corset briefs are what’s really hot, and we’re very bullish. Right now, my shapewear business is 15 percent up over a year ago, and it’s being generated by waist-cinching items.”

MacDougall singled out the number-one selling item over the past two months: an all-in-one high waist cincher and brief by Flexees by True Form, called Instant Slimmer.

“We’ve been selling 2,000 units a week,” said MacDougall.

“The entire shapewear business is hot at Saks Fifth Avenue,” said Kerri Gakos, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of intimate apparel.

“We felt that the whole emphasis on the waist, and belted looks and shaped suiting would give us the opportunity to put waist-cinching items in more Saks stores. We are making it a focal point of our assortments.”

Gakos added that waist cinchers have become an important merchandising segment of “shapewear focal areas” within foundations departments at all Saks units.

A spokeswoman for Sears, Roebuck said, “We have two fashion items that are firm control waist cinchers. It’s a very hot category, but it’s not in all of our stores. We are addressing our Sears customers to this product, and we find them to be very enthusiastic about it.”

However, the key to Passy’s future may lie in Franck & Fils, a big, rambling specialty store on Rue de Passy’s western end, which was acquired last year by Bernard Arnault, president of LVMH, Europe’s largest luxury conglomerate.

After a decade of decline, Franck Fils is long overdue for a recovery. If it happens, Passy will have the locomotive for its future that it reeds.

Chic Streets

Designer streets are buzzing again. Among those whose real estate is once again at a premium are New York’s Madison Avenue and Chicago’s Michigan Avenue.

In New York, designers and national chains are scouring for space from the East 50s up to the 70s on Madison Avenue, which had been in a slump the last five years. At the same time, rents on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue have hit an all-time high.

New projects on Madison include Calvin Klein’s flagship store on the northwest corner of Madison and 60th Street; Italian accessories manufacturer Etro’s store between 63rd and 64th Streets, on the west side of the street; Prada’s upcoming flagship on 70th Street, just off Madison, and Giorgio Armani’s two-level, 12,000-square-foot store on the northwest corner of 65th Street.

While megastores are giving streets like Fifth Avene and 57th Street a more populist flavor, the national chains moving to Madison Avenue have not detracted from its cachet — nor are they likely to, since realtors report there’s virtually no space available.

Retailers and brokers trace Madison Avenue’s turning point to the opening of Barneys New York in September 1993. They said it helped lure a well-to-do young customer to the street, which had traditionally been a prime shopping area for older, no-less affluent customers. Meanwhile, everybody wants to be on Michigan Avenue, from upscale tenants like Malo Cashmere to off-pricers like Filene’s Basement.

The former is opening a boutique in the Westin Hotel, while the latter recently took over the I. Magnin space on North Michigan Avenue.

“People who’ve established themselves in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles are realizing that this is a vibrant street,” said Stanley Nitzberg, a principal of Mid-America Real Estate in Chicago. “People are realizing there’s seven million people and $1.1 billion in retail sales in 10 blocks along Michigan Avenue. There’s a market here.”

According to Nitzberg, there is virtually no available space on Michigan Avenue. Rents have reached $150 to $175 per square foot, “which is unheard of here,” he said.

Since February, Borders, Victoria’s Secret and Ghirardelli Chocolate opened stores on Michigan Avenue. Levi’s, Eddie Bauer, Marshalls and Linens n Things and a Viacom/Blockbuster corporate theme store with movie theater are scheduled for next year.

Denim and Baby T’s

Powered by aggressive advertising that targets all demographics, the denim machine just keeps going and going.

Five-pocket jeans, items such as skirts, vests and shirts, short and long dresses — it’s all selling, with steady double-digit increases every season.

Recently, J.C. Penney, whose own Arizona line is approaching $900 million in annual wholesale sales, uncovered a new trend — the scooter skirt, essentially a pair of shorts with a flap over the front The retailer sold 25,000 units of the style inside a few weeks this spring.

And the denim phenom isn’t confined. to the moderate market. They are getting interested, too. Calvin Klein, one of the most enduring names in designer denim, is revving up his jeans business with European licenses as well as a new separate company here. Arnold Simon, president of CK Jeanswear, said business will rise 500 percent this yea

On the juniors circuit, the T-shirt continues to be the star. Whether sunflowers week and military emblems the next, the junior customer has yet to tire of the look Design 90, a junior knitwear firm here has been shipping baby T-shirts for about nine months. “It’s still happening, and going forward, shine has been incorporated into the baby Ts with rayon yarns and shiny polyesters,” said Robert Cesaria, vice president.

Cesaria estimates that he’s shipped over 450,000 units since he started with the item, which wholesales from $5.50 to $9.75.

Models squeeze the most speed from submicron cells

Accurate circuit simulation is necessary to get the most speed from submicron chip technology. This is also true for NCR Corp’s newest cell library which include submicron-feature devices that fall and rise 40 percent quicker than larger-feature devices. Accurate model techniques are needed to simulate the gate delays of the new Application-specific integrated circuits. The new VS700 line of cells are also 40 percent denser than NCR’s VS1500 cell library. Designers can simulate gate delays caused by rise and fall times down to 0.1 ns with the precise modeling technology.

Accurate circuit simulation is essential to pulling the highest possible speed from submicron chip technology. This is no less true for the latest cell library from NCR Corp., Fort Collins, Colo., which boasts submicron-feature devices that have much faster rise and fall times than their large-feature counterparts. And because gate-delay times vary with the rise and fall time, precise model technology is needed to accurately simulate the gate delays of these new ASICs.

Specifically, NCR’s new VS700 family of cells are 40% faster and denser than the company’s VS1500 cell library. These increases promise small, fast, and powerful end products. The submicron process produces features that are 0.95 [micrometer] drawn and have a 0.7-[micrometer] effective-channel length.

Simulation becomes difficult with submicron technology because second-order effects in a large-feature process assume first-order proportions at the submicron level. With this library, workstation models calculate each cell’s delay time as a function of rise and fall time and load capacitance. Accounting for load capacitance is a feature that makes the library especially valuable for improving critical-path performance.

With the precise modeling technology, designers can simulate gate delays caused by rise and fall times down to 0.1 ns (see the figure). In contrast, its competitors model delays from 1- to 1.5-ns edge times–a significant difference for submicron chips.

Lightly loaded critical paths have fast rise and fall times, and precise models accurately represent the faster delay times that result. Models are accurate enough to unmask circuit race conditions, giving designers a chance to correct them.

Another helpful feature of the new cell family’s design system is its set of high-level macros and compilers. Memory compilers, for example, are so flexible that designers can select word width as well the number of words. For example, designers can configure a RAM compiler to an exact bit width, and not have to settle for predefined blocks that may be larger and consume more die area than needed.

Customized symbols and models for simulation are automatically generated from the designer’s workstation input; there’s a faster time to market and no waiting for the vendor to configure high-level functions. And post-layout as well as prelayout routing capacities can be simulated. As a result, chip real-estate is assigned only for the amount of memory actually needed.

Automated assembly line builds power modules singly or by the hundreds

Vicor Corp, Andover, MA, uses a robotic assembly and overall automation to produce power-converter modules on printed circuit boards. Each module consists of a printed circuit board with small passive, active and magnetic components. A metal base plate that is automatically assembled holds the TO-220-housed FETs and diodes. Some stations along the assembly line still require off-line mechanized handling, including insertion of the chokes and transformers and coil-winding. Automation of these functions will come later, increasing the number of robots to nine. When the automation is completed, the line will produce approximately two modules per minute.

Robotic assembly and overall automation have set one computer-controlled production line apart from others in the power-supply industry. Over the past few months, this line–which produces power-converter modules–was phased into production at Vicor Corp., Andover, Mass. It handles any mix of Vicor’s modular units, from lots of hundreds to “batches of one,” according to Patrizio Vinciarelli, founder, president, and CEO of the fast-growing firm.

Each of Vicor’s modular converters consists of a pc board that carries small active, passive, and magnetic components, plus a metal baseplate that holds the TO-220-housed FETs and diodes. The baseplate is automatically assembled in a final assembly cell, where one of the line’s six robots joins it to the pc board.

Some stations along the way still require off-line mechanized handling, including coil-winding and insertion of the chokes and transformers that form the module’s magnetic components. Automating the production and insertion of those components will come late this year. For that, the number of robots on the line will increase to nine.

When completed, the line will churn out most variations of the company’s products at a rate of two modules/min. A duplicate line, to be installed late this year, will boost the rate to four modules/min. (The first line, which stretches 155 ft. across the back of one building at the Andover headquarters, underwent extensive shakedown tests at a systems-integration firm before being installed.)

A dedicated HP 9000 minicomputer controls the line, but takes its cues from an HP 3000 business computer. Orders are entered on the business computer, which tells the HP 9000 the amount and type of models to produce, and what components to select for the various lots.

Vinciarelli says that Vicor’s eventual goal is to manufacture all of its modules on the automated line with little or no operator intervention. Once each step is automated, he expects the line to process orders from start to finish in about four hours. Comparably, a manual assembly line that’s now running in tandem with the automated setup takes up to a week. The manual line will eventually be phased out.

Vicor’s wide product mix and the need to turn out high volumes precluded offshore assembly. For example, the VI-200 power-conversion module alone comes in about 300 variations.

“Our long-term strategy of high-volume and high-mix lots lends itself to automation,” says Vinciarelli. That’s why he committed $5 million to implementing the line, an investment that will roughly double with the second setup.

The first station in the line swages 40- or 80-mil pins through the small circuit board. The pins supply an electrical path when the finished module is in use. A robot then positions the pc board and the pins (see the figure). Then the robot transfers the pinned board to a second station, where the board is placed on a pallet that will convey it (pins facing up) along a moving belt until the pc board is mated to its baseplate.

A solder-dispensing station is the next stop on the line. Using a video inspection system, the station checks the board’s alignment against fiducial marks. Then it dispenses solder paste onto the pads where chip components are to be placed, inspecting the dispensed solder using gray-scale techniques to assure that no bubbles are present.

Next on the line, at the surface-mounting device (SMD) station, a robot takes active and passive components from movable vehicles. The vehicles get the components from as many as 300 feeders. Each component is tested and those that pass are placed on the solder-pasted pads, as directed by the computer, using five vacuum SMD pipettes for placement. Two such SMD stations work side by side.

A second visual inspection assures that all of the components are properly placed before the pallet-borne printed-circuit module travels to the reflow-soldering station. At the reflow-soldering station, solder paste is heated to the reflow temperature to complete the component-bonding process.

After the magnetic assemblies are placed on the board, the loaded assembly passes through a cleaning station before final assembly. In the final assembly cell, the separately traveling metal baseplate is automatically fitted with alumina pads. These pads serve as thermal conductors for the TO-220-housed power devices that are also mounted to the baseplate.

The final assembly cell also trims and forms the TO-220 leads. In addition, the alumina pads are cemented to the baseplate. Finally, the pc board is carefully mated to the baseplate so that the TO-220 leads feed through the pc board. A reflow-solder step follows to secure the pc board to the baseplate.

The finished module is then ready for electrical testing, epoxy encapsulation, and final testing. These three phases are accomplished automatically in the test, encapsulation, and test (TET) machine. All of the steps before the TET machine take just 15 min., including testing the TO-220-housed power FETs and diodes, and checking the entire assembly for characteristic outputs compared to what the lot order calls for.

Most of the TET machine’s processing time is for oven-curing the encapsulation material. A second TET machine will be installed in the second quarter of this year, with each machine drawing assemblies upstream of the line as needed. A final station prints bar-code and other identification information for the module.

Too soon for deep-UV steppers

Because Perkin-Elmer Corp may be bought by Japanese interests, the situation for VLSI integrated circuit production technology in Japan and the US is becoming more interesting. Japanese manufacturers have bet on deep-UV technology for manufacturing VLSI integrated circuits, and have pursued development of deep-UV steppers, photoresists and lasers.

Meanwhile, US manufacturers’ gradual transition to I-line for submicron technology has proved unexpectedly successful. The Japanese had maintained that I-line was not practical to use. The key for US companies is to push I-line technology as far as possible before the Japanese make deep-UV equipment ready and available. Perkin-Elmer Corp, which may be bought by a Japanese firm, is a US company developing a deep-UV stepper.

Now that Perkin-Elmer Corp., Menomonee Falls, Wisc., is for sale and may be bought by Japanese interests, it makes for an interesting situation regarding VLSI IC production technology in the U.S. and Japan. While equipment manufacturers in both countries press on toward the next technology level, Japanese chip makers may have waited too long to pursue an interim step that many U.S. companies took. The result: U.S. chip makers may find themselves, for the meantime, with an unexpected technology edge.

As recently as 1985, 1-[micrometer] design rules were considered state of the art for advanced VLSI production. Optical equations predicted that 0.5 [micrometer] was the resolution limit. Today, however, manufacturing is shifting from G-line lithography, with its 436-nm exposure source, to I-line, which sports a 365-nm source.

These new frontiers in line widths for VLSI circuits are the result of polymer chemistry as well as the associated optics. Polymer chemists are now placing the limit at 0.25 [micrometer]. They’re making no promises, though, because theoretically, the line widths can’t go beyond the wavelength of the I-line exposure source, which is 365 nm, or 0.36 [micrometer]. The next level is a deep-UV exposure source, which is 254 nm. In theory, this could take lines and spaces down to about 0.25 [micrometer]. But it’s probably a year or two from viability.

Apparently, Japanese manufacturers of VLSI ICs are looking to 0.25 [micrometer] for next-generation VLSI devices, which is a factor-of-four density increase compared with 0.5-[micrometer] I-line. Those companies have bet heavily on deep-UV and have hotly pursued development of deep-UV steppers, lasers, and photoresists. Meanwhile, I-line has become unexpectedly successful and gained a new life. Essentially, it was written off too soon, especially by the Japanese chip makers who maintained that I-line was unpractical due to its 0.5-[micrometer] limit. Meanwhile, deep-UV became more difficult to develop than was believed.

Concurrent with their drive toward deep-UV, the Japanese tried holding their technology edge by pushing G-line lithography to its limit by improving the optics. Indeed, they took G-line farther than anyone thought possible and achieved much tighter production parameters than U.S. companies. But because U.S. companies weren’t able to push G-line as far as Japan, they promoted the more gradual transition to I-line as a viable strategy for submicron lithography. As a result, U.S. companies gained a small technology edge. The key, now, will be to get as far ahead as possible with I-line before deep-UV is ready and viable, and before the Japanese shift gears and catch up in I-line.

But Japanese manufacturers are already on the move. Nikon, San Bruno, Calif., is one Japanese-based company that got to market with an I-line stepper by recently introducing its NSR-1755i7 A. Moreover, Nikon claims to have the largest exposure area available in an I-line stepper (17.5 mm square) as well as a production resolution of 0.58 [micrometer]. European companies are also joining the I-line parade. ASM Lithography, based in Tempe, Ariz., but owned by Philips, the Netherlands, rolled out its PAS 5000/50 I-line stepper and claims 0.50-[micrometer] production resolution and 0.35-[micrometer] resolution for research work. ASM also has a deep-UV machine in progress.

Among U.S. manufacturers, Perkin-Elmer is developing a deep-UV stepper. GCA, Andover, Mass., is marketing its AutoStep 200 I-line stepper and is working on a deep-UV machine. Sematech, the Austin, Texas-based consortium, is concentrating on I-line lithography, but is committed to transferring a well-characterized 0.5-[micrometer] process to its member companies by 1991.

KTI Chemicals, Sunnyvale, Calif., (a Union Carbide subsidiary) already offers its 895i I-line photoresist product. It’s betting that I-line will be the way to go because deep-UV will require a massive equipment investment. But just in case, KTI has a deep-UV photoresist in the works.

VHDL simulator supports 100% of the DOD standard

Silicon Compiler Systems (SCS) introduces Explorer VHDLsim, an IEEE 1076-1987 VDHL standard-compliant simulator. VHDLsim is integrated into SCS’s Explorer Lsim mixed-signal, multilevel simulation environment, giving engineers transparent access to resources including the Mach 1000 accelerator and Spice simulation. VHDLsim provides both the M and VDHL languages for engineers who choose to use analog and digital behavioral modeling. Mixing analog and digital modeling in the same simulation enables the inclusion of VHDL in mixed-signal designs. Explorer VHDLsim will be available in second quarter 1990 at a cost of $30,000 if purchased as an option to Explorer Lsim. A standalone version will be priced at $42,000.

Because of its heavy backing by the U.S. government and the IEEE, VHDL should make its mark on the CAE industry during the next few years. That’s made clear by the flurry of VHDL activity among simulation vendors. The latest to announce VHDL simulation support is Silicon Compiler Systems (SCS).

SCS supports the IEEE’s 1076-1987 VHDL standard with Explorer VHDLsim, a simulator that’s integrated into the company’s Explorer Lsim mixed-signal, multilevel simulation environment. The new simulator’s most important feature is its 100% support of the language, including behavioral, structural, and data-flow levels. Moreover, users can simulate VHDL models from any source.

Another key feature is the simulator’s meshing with the larger Lsim environment. That means, for example, users can have transparent access to resources such as the Mach 1000 accelerator and Spice simulation. Because the Explorer Lsim environment can simulate from the architectural level all the way down to the Spice level, the top-down design process need not stop at the gate level. Structural VHDL models may be simulated at the gate-, switch-, and circuit-levels in Explorer VHDLsim. This is possible because users won’t need to change simulation environments to get their designs in shape.

In cases where designers choose to use analog and digital behavioral modeling, the simulator gives them both the M and VHDL languages, respectively. M is a superset of the C language and is used for both digital and analog behavioral modeling. Because M is a full programming language, proprietary simulation algorithms may also be added. Translations from M into VHDL will be supplied where possible for those users with extensive libraries written in M and who need to document these models in VHDL.

By mixing analog and digital models in the same simulation, designers can include VHDL in mixed-signal designs as well as in pure digital designs. In addition, with VHDLsim there’s no performance penalty for using the VHDL language.

For accurate timing simulation, users will be able to run mixed-signal simulations using device-level representations where that level of accuracy is needed, and VHDL behavioral or gate-level models everywhere else. This includes mixed-signal simulation using HSpice and VHDL by means of the Lsim/HSpice interface that SCS has developed with MetaSoftware Inc., Campbell, Calif.

SCS’s Explorer Lsim environment comes with an interactive, source-level symbolic debugger that will be used for both VHDL models and models written in the M hardware-description language (see the figure). Other benefits of the tight integration with SCS’s design-automation products include schematic capture, synthesis, and other front- and back-end tools. “Integration is something that SCS can bring to the party that other standalone VHDL suppliers can’t,” claims James Griffeth, director of product marketing for SCS.

As if 100% support of the standard wasn’t enough to make VHDLsim stand out, it’s also distinguished by its performance. The simulator uses SCS’s direct-compilation technology, which is much faster than simulators using interpretive-language technology. This is because the VHDL code is compiled directly into C rather than a proprietary hardware-description language.

As a result of its alliance with CAD Language Systems Inc. (CLSI), Rockville, Md., VHDLsim includes CLSI’s VHDL Tool Integration Platform (VTIP), a set of front-end design-capture tools. As far as users are concerned, a simple pushbutton operation compiles source code into an executable circuit model. First, the code comes in through the CLSI VHDL parser, which parses it into the intermediate format. After that, the code is automatically accessed and optimized by VHDLsim, which compiles it directly into C. The resulting C object files are then further optimized by the C compilers native to the designer’s workstation.

Explorer VHDLsim supports the ability to do incremental compiling and dynamic loading. During a given simulation, designers may wish to modify one of the behavioral models in the hierarchy. An incremental compilation recompiles just the model that was changed, which is much faster than recompiling or reinterpreting the entire environment. Those recompiled models can be dynamically loaded without having to leave the simulator, which saves a great deal of time. That’s because users avoid simulation start-up time as well as the overall compile time or reinterpretation time.

According to Griffeth, SCS achieved 100% support of the VHDL language so quickly because of its four years of active participation in the IEEE’s VHDL standardization movement. As a result, the company had access to many of the leading-edge VHDL concepts as they took shape and heeded their architectural implications.

Surface mounting will sweep leaded components from market

The 1990s will see a continuation of the changeover from leaded to surface-mounted devices, which save money because of their small size, which cuts costs by saving space on computer boards, and through greater reliability and lower handling costs. Currently, surface-mounted devices account for 50 percent of the passive components used in Japan. That figure is 13 percent in North America and 10 percent in Europe. Leadless passive component use in North America will pass 50 percent over the next five years, and Europe will not be far behind. Surface-mount devices will continue to improve, offering ever-better tolerances, capacitance-voltage product, stability, and higher frequencies.

The most important component trend in the 1990s will continue to be the worldwide changeover from leaded to surface-mounted devices. As component users get smarter, they inevitably switch from leaded components to surface-mounted devices, wherever possible, for the simple reason that they save money. Because of their small size, surface-mounted devices save space on pc boards, which cuts costs. In addition, they’re more reliable and they cost less to handle. I also expect them to become less expensive than leaded components.

Not surprisingly, Japan is the leader in the use of surface-mounted devices. Whereas only 10% of the passive components used in Europe are surface-mounted devices, over 50{ of them are in Japan. In North America, the figure is about 13%. Over the next five years, I expect that leadless passive components used in North America will rise past 50%, with Europe to follow suit. The overwhelming trend is toward surface mounting, and anyone who hasn’t made the transition should plan on starting soon.

For potential users of surface-mounted devices who aren’t sure how to start, there are assembly operations that do subcontracting work. Many small and medium-sized companies go to such assemblers to get their designs established, and later they bring the work inside. Large companies also use outside contractors to smooth out the peaks and valleys in their production schedules. High-speed equipment for placing surface-mounted devices is somewhat expensive, and not even a giant corporation wants to have this gear just sitting around.

As time goes on, I expect these devices to get better and to become more popular and less expensive. For the components that I’m most familiar with–tantalum capacitors–“better” takes on many definitions. It means more reliable parts with tighter tolerances and better stability; packing more CV (capacitance-voltage product) into a given volume; lowering the cost per CV; and the ability to work well at ever higher frequencies.

When I went to school, the basic electrolytic capacitor was an aluminum device with a tolerance of -20% and +50%, or even +100%. Today, we’re routinely making tantalum units with tolerances of [+ or -]5%, even [+ or -]2% can be done on special order. Tighter tolerances can be expected in the near future. These capacitors can be used for timing and waveform-shaping applications, not just for power-supply filtering and decoupling. That was simply unthinkable for an electrolytic capacitor in the past.

We’re also making specials in which the variation of capacitance with temperature and frequency is tightly controlled. That capability is opening up new applications for tantalum capacitors–both in displacing other capacitor types and in areas that never existed before, such as fiber optic communications. We can expect other types of electrolytic capacitors to also open up even more applications.

The latest tantalum electrolytics are also maintaining their capacitive nature at increasingly high frequencies. They present a lower equivalent series resistance (ESR) and remain reactive at frequencies up to about 1 MHz, a figure that will undoubtedly increase during the next decade. Therefore, they can better serve their intended function–decoupling.

A major function of the electrolytics is to filter out power-supply noise. With today’s switches running at 100 to 500 kHz, they’re often operated near the limits of their capabilities, but they continue to deliver their intended outputs.

Working at the edge, however, can be tricky. Applying electrolytic capacitors at high frequencies requires expert knowledge, which brings us to another important element for the next decade–service. Component makers not only need to make better components, they need to deliver them precisely when the customer wants them. They also must supply all of the required technical support. To help with the latter requirement, we’re writing and compiling a series of simple capacitor application programs that can run on a PC. Our intention is to make those programs available to users along with our catalog.

Then designers, at their own leisure, can choose a part from the catalog, key in their operating parameters, and get, for example, a plot of ESR vs. frequency. The whole objective is to make it easier for people to use and understand the components.

Giving Futons A Better Name

If Sean Pathiratne has his way, the word “futon” will gradually fade from the home furnishings lexicon.

Pathiratne is president of Lifestyle Solutions Inc., a major manufacturer of futon frames. His choice of words: “sofa-bed convertible.” In fact, that’s what he now calls his product in his promotional literature. To Pathiratne, “futon” too often conjures up the image of the disposable, cheap contraption used by college students.

Low-cost futons will continue to occupy a niche on the floors of mass merchants and warehouse clubs. But if the futon category expects to gain acceptance with high-end consumers and traditional retailers that have so far shied from this category, the products and image will have to be more upscale — and challenge the cumbersome fold-out sleeper sofa, according to Pathiratne. Other manufacturers of futon products are starting to think along those same lines and devoting more effort to quality workmanship and the promotion of style.

Furniture stores are a key part of this plan, according to Pathiratne. “Furniture stores are the next frontier,” he said. “For furniture stores that sell sofas and sofa beds and move the customer up, this is perfect for them.”

Some of the more forward-thinking furniture stores, such as R.C. Willey and HOM, are starting to offer futons as potential alternatives to these best sleeper sofas. The appeal for a consumer? Easy conversion from sitting to sleeping; high-style, hardwood frames; a mattress that rivals a conventional bed; a rainbow of covers that can be changed with the seasons. Add to that the fact that a futon is lighter and less cumbersome to move and suddenly the whole aging boomer and retirement categories are interested.

Tony Wolf, president of Wolf Corp., a futon mattress manufacturer, launched a Serta-licensed futon line last year, which could add to both consumer and retailer appeal. He sells to the retailer both a frame and a futon mattress, which is then sold under the Serta name. A retailer eager to limit its suppliers now has the opportunity to buy these two components from one source

Bob Naboicheck, president of Gold Bond Mattress Co., a family-owned manufacturer of futon mattresses and conventional innerspring mattresses, expects futon sales to continue to climb. He cited the “bang for the buck” factor during a soft economy.

“In any soft or down market where customers are looking more for value, futons will excel,” Naboicheck said. “I think futon sales will continue to outpace upholstered sleep sofas, daybeds and the other alternatives that one would have for a convertible sit-and-sleep product. Our futon business has been phenomenal, especially in the upgraded, better [futon] mattresses. You can go from a Yugo to a Rolls Royce in a futon for maybe a hundred dollars.”

But making that same jump in quality in the innerspring category would be several hundred dollars, he added.

Advantages for the retailer? He enjoys the sale of a product that rivals a $499 sleeper sofa in price, and the easily removable fabric covers offer a constantly changing floor display.

And those covers are a big part of the push. John Christiansen, customer service manager at SIS Covers Inc., a manufacturer of futon covers, has seen a sharp upswing in the quality of covers demanded by consumers. Leather covers, for the first time, are making a dent in the market. A consumer can get the look of a $3,000 leather sofa for a fraction of that cost. Fabric covers, too, offer fashion statements, as contemporary patterned fabrics with a rainbow of colors and hues take off. Futon stores still have the lion’s share of business, but the improved quality and styling of the covers has turned the heads of a growing number of mainstream furniture stores and mattress shops, Christiansen added.

Assuming the futon industry does go more upscale in 2003, who’s going to get that business? Independent futon shops have been the innovators and spear carriers for quality futon products thus far, but, according to one vendor, “they can’t rest on their laurels.” Dilution at the retail level for quality merchandise will continue to grow, and the same independents that have been the anchors for the futon industry could see their business erode if more retail furniture chains sell the big-profit, low-inventory, high-end products.

Otis Bed Manufacturing Inc., a producer of futon mattresses as well as conventionally shaped foam mattresses, broadened its retail presence by going into Costco warehouses, as well as continuing its existing retail base at the middle to upper price ranges.

“It helps bring more positive awareness of futons to consumers,” said Karen Day, director of sales and marketing for Otis Bed. As a board member of the Futon Association International, she is trying to give the word “futon” a more upscale connotation.

“I think there needs to be more awareness that they really are a viable, functional piece of furniture you can have in your home for years,” Day said. “Dealers should not be afraid of the price. They should just go for it. Try it. But if they do jump into it, they should get a good mix and don’t be afraid of the higher ticket items because you will sell it.” Retailers also need to understand that the three-component makeup of a futon (frame, mattress, cover) with its array of options for a consumer can work for them.

“They find it a little bit difficult to put the whole thing together,” she said.

For 2003, Day expects futons to continue to get more upscale, as latex, viscoelastic foam and other premium products get used more. She also thinks that better-engineered futon frames, such as Otis’s Futonic adjustable electric massage unit, will gain in acceptance.

Digital technology will govern power control

Digital technology will be the focus for power control in the 1990s. Digital control is nearly twice as efficient as linear control and offers savings in size and weight of end products. Transformers required for linear control are practically eliminated in digitally controlled off-line switchmode supplies.

Digital control of brushless motors is much more efficient than linear control. Integration of a control IC and a MOS power transistor on a single chip, called ‘smart power’, could lead to the development of a complete switchmode power supply on one chip by the end of the decade. High-voltage ICs will bring about major changes in components such as motors, relays and sensors that have remained unchanged for years. The 1990s will see the development of smarter electrical products, such as electrical outlet boxes in homes that can be programmed from a central computer, and household products with built-in temperature sensors to prevent dangerous heat levels.

Power control in the 1990s will see design emphasis shift decidedly from linear to digital technology. One reason is that digital control of power devices is about twice as efficient as linear. Second, digital techniques allow for a tremendous reduction in the size and weight of the end product. By the end of the decade, digital control will dominate–just a few isolated linear applications will remain.

Digital technology impacts power-supply design and load control. For example, the big, heavy step-down transformers required by linear supplies can be virtually eliminated in off-line switchmode supplies under digital control. A 100-W supply that fits into a desktop PC would be impossible to build using linear technology. Beyond switchmode supplies, IC technology can power chips directly from the ac line.

Control of brushless motors is made more efficient by digitally switching the motor voltage on and off rather than varying it linearly. Digital control also can result in a dc-variable stepwise approximation to a sinewave. Varying the power to any kind of load is more efficient than applying a steady ac voltage. Ample savings in system power consumption can be achieved by applying one level of power to actuate a relay or solenoid, and then reducing the power to hold it. With less power, the voltage to the device can be increased above its rating, enabling faster operation. This can increase the productivity of machinery without adding capital investment.

An idea that’s taking hold is the integration of a control IC and MOS power transistor on one chip, a concept now called “smart power.” By the end of the 1990s, smart power will probably lead to a complete switchmode power supply contained in one IC.

At low voltage–up to about 60 V–a smart-power IC is more cost effective than an IC plus a discrete power transistor. A perfect example in bipolar technology is one of the original smart-power devices called a three-terminal regulator.

To operate at higher voltages (200 V and more), you need a mixed process–an MOS output with either a bipolar or CMOS input. Up to now, it wasn’t easy to build these smart-power structures. You need large silicon areas to isolate high- and low-voltage devices and you must use IC processing, which is more expensive than discrete processing. Moreover, you can’t use some of the processing tricks with ICs that can be employed in discrete processing.

At Power Integrations, we’ve developed a high-voltage processing technology that overcomes the aforementioned problems. We can build a high-voltage smart-power IC using the same processing steps that are utilized in a conventional IC, and the integrated power transistor is not larger than an equivalent discrete. This process finally makes high-voltage ICs for power control practical.

With this advanced high-voltage process, designers can control power directly from the ac line without the need to step-down the voltage in the power section. One such application is in stepper-motor drives, which currently require a 40-V power supply that’s larger than the motor and its controller combined. The process eliminates that supply by allowing the stepper to be powered straight from the ac line voltages. A PC that controls a burglar-alarm system can also be considered. Designers can now get an IC that links directly from the wall outlet’s 120-V ac to the computer’s 5-V dc control logic.

Historically, new markets are created by each new innovation in semiconductors: transistors were responsible for compact radios and audio products, and microprocessors brought about the age of computing. High-voltage ICs will revolutionize the way we think about the electro-mechanical world. Such components as motors, relays, and sensors have remained the same over the years, but applying modern electronics to them will create major changes.

As we proceed into the 1990s, we’ll see smarter electrical products. For example, electrical outlet boxes in future smart homes will be programmable from a central computer. Not only will they turn on appliances and lighting fixtures, but they’ll have built-in intelligence to protect themselves against unsafe power drains from appliances. Temperature sensors will be built into common products, such as cooking utensils, to protect them from dangerous heat levels that could cause a fire. Using digital techniques to control power will lead to many innovations that we haven’t yet thought about.