Ironically, the unintentional force behind this transformation has been the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). In 1994, the federal agency focused its attention on a disturbing number of accidental child strangulation deaths involving the looped pull cords on window coverings. Shortly after voicing its concern to the industry, the Window Covering Safety Council (WCSC) was born. Working in cooperation with the government, the council voluntarily developed a massive, industry-sponsored program to:
• Educate the American public about the potential strangulation hazards posed by looped cords.
• Provide consumers with the opportunity to retrofit their existing looped-cord window coverings.
• Redesign all window cord products to eliminate or reduce the looped-cord hazard.
Safety Program Launched
Because hundreds of millions of window coverings with looped pull cords were already in American homes, WCSC's first Herculean task was quickly to design, produce and drop-ship to its member retailers some five million retrofit tassels for free distribution to consumers. Brochures and safety posters depicting how to install the retrofit tassels on two-corded horizontal blinds, pleated and cellular shades also were created.
To provide consumers with easy access to safety information and materials, a toll-free telephone number was established for consumers wishing to find the nearest retail location for tassels or for ordering tassels directly by phone. The toll-free hotline [(800) 506-4636] eventually would become the heart of the program's consumer contact efforts.
In early October 1994, the public outreach portion of the cord safety campaign was officially launched with a press conference in Washington, DC. As the cameras rolled, CPSC Chairman Ann Brown urged consumers to check and childproof their window cords with free replacement tassels from participating retailers or through the WCSC hotline. A public service announcement featuring Brown also was produced and distributed to television stations around the country.
On the technical side, WCSC members began focusing on how to quickly redesign two-corded horizontal blinds, pleated shades and cellular shades for safety. These products, representing some 75 percent of the looped cord market, could be modified easily by cutting the pull cord loop and attaching two separate tassels on the resulting two ends.
Working at full speed, WCSC members moved to alter production methods and soon were able to assure the federal government that all earmarked two-corded products manufactured in North America after December 1, 1994 (or arriving at U.S. Customs after January 1, 1995) would be loop-free. Industry designers then set to work on finding ways to eliminate or reduce the looped-cord hazard on the more complicated multiple- and continuous-corded products.
For most of 1995, the council's public education efforts focused primarily on increasing public awareness of the looped-cord issue through article placements and interviews with leading magazines, newspapers, radio and television stations across the country. In addition, thousands of safety posters and brochures were distributed to pediatricians offices, public health clinics and public housing authorities.
At the close of 1995-only 15 months after the program's launch-WCSC reported impressive gains: industry modification of some 40 million two-corded window products, hotline responses to more than 50,000 consumer phone calls, and distribution of more than 100,000 posters and brochures. In addition, public awareness of the strangulation issue has risen from less than five percent to 34 percent nationwide.
Year Two Momentum
With its public outreach campaign set into motion, the council had to develop ways to continue the momentum for 1996. Because the bulk of two-corded products with looped pull cords now were found in consumer homes and not on retailers' shelves, WCSC shifted distribution of free replacement tassels and safety information to its toll-free hotline and added tie-down devices. In-store posters continued to promote the council's safety message and hotline number, while the launch of an Internet site (www.windowcoverings.org) and another round of article placements with family-oriented media outlets broadened WCSC's consumer reach.
Just as this expanded cord-safety program was picking up speed, a consumer scare over lead in vinyl mini-blinds captured the media's attention in mid-year, sidetracking many of the council's efforts to publicize the cord-safety issue.
A Safety Standard
If 1996 was a somewhat checkered year for the council's outreach efforts, it was a year of exceptional progress on the technical side. Despite the competitive pressures within its membership, WCSC was able to spearhead a cooperative solution in the form of an American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard to reduce or eliminate the looped-cord hazard from all horizontal, vertical and roll-up blinds; cellular, pleated, roller and Roman shades; and traverse drapery rods.
In essence, the standard-sponsored by the Window Covering Manufacturers Association (WCMA)-called for the use of safety devices to eliminate, separate, shield or pull tight any looped cords on window coverings. This included individual tassel cords, release cords or shear devices to eliminate or separate cord loops; tension and retraction devices to keep looped cords taut; sheaths or shrouds for shielding exposed cord loops; and a series of warning labels and hang tags to be affixed to all window covering products. In November 1996, the safety standard (ANSI/WCMA 100.1-1996) was officially approved.
Cooperative Efforts in '97
While manufacturers and importers worked feverishly during most of 1997 to implement the ANSI standard, WCSC's public outreach efforts were being fine tuned to better reach first-time parents and caregivers. Because public awareness levels of looped-cord hazards now exceeded 86 percent nationwide, many reporters and editors viewed cord safety as a non-story. Unwilling to back down from its public-education commitment, WCSC sought the cooperation of allied groups rather than the media to disseminate its safety message.
Recognizing that young parents actively sought the child-rearing advice of medical and safety officials, WCSC contacted leading health professional groups to see if they would be willing to send cord-safety information to their memberships for sharing with parents and patients. Subsequently, the council was able to place more than 60,000 of its cord-safety posters in doctors offices, waiting rooms, health clinics, examining rooms and nursing stations around the country through the cooperation of such prestigious organizations as the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Nurses Association and National Association of City and County Health Officials.
To reintroduce the council's safety message to television viewers, especially first-time parents, a new TV public service announcement was produced with a cast member from the highly popular "ER" medical drama television series.
Impact on Today's Products
As 1998 unfolds, the impact of WCSC's three-year-old safety campaign on today's window coverings industry can't be underestimated. Consumers seeking new window coverings not only expect the latest in fashion, but now demand the inclusion of the latest safety features, materials and design efficiencies. Their everyday questions about size and color now have been expanded to include cord configurations, vane and headrail systems, types of materials used, country of origin, manufacturer name, warranties, and more.
Perhaps even more astounding is how far and how quickly the industry has advanced its technology to meet these changes. Less than two years ago, industry designers were wrestling with how to engineer safer cord-loop configurations. Today every importer, manufacturer, fabricator and window coverings retailer is expected to be in full compliance with the industry-developed ANSI safety standard.
In turn, those early industry efforts to develop the ANSI standard have brought about many of the design innovations capturing the imagination and interest of today's consumers. Consider the various pleated and cellular shades now available without any cords whatsoever, or the built-in tensioners and cord sheaths that have dramatically streamlined the look and operation of continuous-loop products. Similarly, efforts to reduce access to the cord loop have accelerated the entry of remote control and motorized closure systems to the popular market, while attempts to devise alternatives to corded controls have led, in part, to the growing popularity of wands, headrail lift systems and fabric-encased vane products.
Many of these innovations are highlighted in "Accent On".