One of the biggest, boomingest segments of the window coverings industry, vertical blinds, seems to be a product whose time has come.
While some manufacturers have been offering vertical blinds for as long as 35 years, the phenomenal growth of the business did not begin until the late 1970s. Since then, the retail dollar volume for verticals has risen at more than 50 percent per year, settling down to a respectable 35 to 45 percent increase in 1981.
Now in 1982, in spite of an unpredictable economic future, the mood of the industry remains indefatigably optimistic.
Most manufacturers believe that much of the interest in verticals has been simply a desire for something different.
APPEALS TO NEW MARKETS
"The post-war Baby Boom brought a whole generation of young people who were tired of looking at pinch pleats," said one fabricator, "especially after we gave them some new alternatives."
Others give the credit to the broad appeal of the vertical as far as its decorative value, cost efficiency and energy-saving characteristics.
Before the market took off in 1975, contract sales were the foundation of the vertical blind market. Aided by architects and interior designers who specified verticals for their clients, verticals became synonymous with a clean, functional look that boasted an easily maintained surface.
Contract verticals were generally perceived as strictly a commercial industry due primarily to the complicated hardware, the high-technical look of the products and the lack of public awareness.
The tracks for verticals were installed both at the top and the bottom of the window, which demanded precise measurements. A measurement that was off even a quarter inch could cause problems in the mechanical efficiency of the system.
New developments in hardware in the '70s introduced the single-track vertical, which was installed only at the top. New materials were designed that could hang straight and even without the bottom track. With these two developments came a totally new direction in marketing verticals—the residential market.
As one manufacturer put it: "The system was just more forgiving."
With only half as much hardware needed, room for adjustment and less specification as to the type of window the vertical could fit, the manufacturers knew a golden egg when they saw it.
THE EFFECT OF COMPETITION
A result of the increased competition has been its effect on pricing. A few years ago prices were increasing by 10 percent each year in the inflationary spiral. Now, due to the keen competition, many have held their prices and in some cases have decreased them. Only a few reported that they had increased their prices, and those increases were the first since 1979.
Discounting, according to many manufacturers and fabricators, has become the scourge of the industry. Primarily concentrated in New York, NY; Miami, FL; and Detroit, MI, most discount businesses are characterized as operating out of the back of a station wagon on weekends
"People buy from them, and then they can't find them when there's a problem," said one source, "and that gives the whole industry a bad image."
While discounting is described by most as merely disruptive, others point out that people are going out of business every month because they cannot afford to maintain the quality of service while meeting or beating the prices of the discounters.
The most conspicuous and positive result of increased competition is the creative energy focused on the product itself. Following the trends of fashion, energy consciousness and concern for maintenance, the industry is out-performing itself in new products and innovations.
A FASHION INDUSTRY
A typical vertical blind consists of an interlocking set of floor to ceiling vanes or panels, each vane varying between one and five inches depending upon the specific system.
A rigid material called poly vinyl chloride (PVC) has been a mainstay on the contract market. It was formulated basically for customers who wanted something tough, maintenance-free and inexpensive.
The residential market, however, has focused interest on new developments in fabrics and treatments.
The consumer has an almost unlimited choice of vanes from a sophisticated, high fashion look to the more traditional feeling.
One company boasts 368 different types of vanes. From the industry in general, one can choose from hundreds of colors, slide a piece of companion wallpaper or fabric into grooves in the vane, or have just about anything laminated to the vane itself. One manufacturer features scenic murals laminated on the vanes so that when they are closed another view is available.
Another interesting vane that is gaining popularity is made of solid vinyl and then perforated with one of several hole patterns. The perforated vane offers a high degree of energy loss protection, diffuses the light and when completely closed allows a very clear view through the vane.
Raw silks, raw Indian cotton, suede and ribbed corduroy are some of the industry's potential answers to the trend back to the traditional. Designers are concentrating on a softer look both in heathers and muted colors as well as in slub-textured weaves and knitted boucles.
Macrames are a top selling decorator item for many vertical manufacturers. With as many as 19 different weaves and featuring natural colors, they respond to the decorative needs of both traditional styling and contemporary simplicity.
Another trend has been noticed that combines vertical blinds with draperies for a softer touch.
Not only does the consumer have choices in choosing vanes, colors and styles, he has numerous track designs, vane attachments and controls from which to choose.
Some tracks are designed with an independent memory function where one or two vanes can be turned to different angles from the other vanes in the unit and still come back to the open or closed position where the entire unit is operated.
Track systems have been developed that follow curves, providing new applications for verticals regarding cathedral-type windows and skylights.
Controls for the systems span from simple manually-operated devices to solar-activated systems.
Archaeologists claim that the ancient Egyptians may have been the first to resort to blinds for controlling heat. Etchings on Egyptian tomb walls depict a primitive prototype of blinds—a horizontal contraption made of reeds over which slaves poured water to cool the passing air. While the slaves probably would have questioned whether much energy was saved, it obviously was one of the first attempts to make a window covering more functional than decorative.
The vertical blind industry has not been as loud and lively on the energy questions as it could be. Many manufacturers interviewed were cautious about extolling the energy-saving virtues of their products. They expressed concern that the products need to be adequately tested before making too many sweeping statements.
PVC, the most commonly used material in contract vanes, is the same material used to insulate water pipes and electric wiring. Other vanes are being designed that use a mirrored or reflective finish on the outside with the option of various fabrics or laminated finishes on the inside.
The solar activated control systems also allow for a more efficient adjustment of the blinds throughout the day.
The evident trend in energy designs indicates, though, that it will not be long before the manufacturer of verticals is saying much more than "they cover the window."
NEW PRODUCTS DEVELOPMENTS PREDICTED
To that end, the industry predicts more unusual product developments as it responds to the demands of the business designer and the contemporary family.
Other trends observed were changes to uncomplicate the hardware, and there are some departures from the usual manufacturer-fabricator-local dealer route of distribution.
During World War II, Venetian blinds were declared a "non-essential" item, much to the dismay of the blinds companies. By the time the window coverings industry made the fashion cycle back to blinds, only a few of the companies were still operating.
The vertical blind industry has committed itself to becoming an essential part of the window coverings industry and of the American consumer's budget. If imagination and optimism are forerunners to success, they are well on their way to meeting their goal.