Housewares will be a slow-growth industry in 1997, according to the National Housewares Manufacturers Association.
NHMA officials predict a sluggish U.S. economy this year, and housewares firms will need to introduce new products and boost exports to combat the inertia.
``The [U.S.] economy will be in the finishing stages of a long up-trend and very possibly, the economy will soften right after the first of the year,'' Robert Parmacek, chairman and chief executive officer of Grainware Co. of Northbrook, Ill., said in a forecast issued by NHMA of Rosemont, Ill.
Industry officials believe housewares sales will be healthy at specialty stores and major discounters, but midpriced retailers are ``being pushed out,'' said Michael Roche, group president of Heller Financial Inc. of Chicago.
One analyst agreed with the low-growth prospects and expects that housewares markets will continue with many of 1996's problems. Producers will have no power to push up their prices, even if resin prices increase, said Justin Maurer, an analyst with McDonald & Co. of Cleveland. A major housewares producer cannot risk raising prices, Maurer said in a telephone interview.
Rubbermaid Inc., for example, lost shelf space in 1995 at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to Tucker Housewares when it tried to raise prices, Maurer said. It since has recaptured some of the business, he said.
Maurer and others expect resin pricing to be stable, alleviating some pressure among housewares producers to raise prices.
Retailers will continue to push suppliers to handle more inventory control and to provide more service, noted Eric Bosshard, an analyst with Midwest Research/Maxus Group Ltd. of Cleveland.
``Retailers keep raising the bar,'' he said.
Merger and acquisition activity among houseware producers was hot in 1996, but probably will be slow this year, Bosshard said.
Company ``valuations are high,'' he explained. ``There will need to be lower [company] prices before there is another big round of mergers.''
Big acquisitions last year included Selfix Inc.'s purchase of Tamor Plastics Corp., Zeta Consumer Products Corp.'s buy of Mobil Chemical Co.'s Tucker Housewares, and the Syratech Corp. and Lifetime Hoan Corp. joint deal to get most of Farberware Inc.
Also noteworthy was Tupperware Corp.'s rebirth as an independent company after its spin-off from Premark International Inc.
And several players expanded in this competitive industry, including Japan-based Iris USA Inc., which set up its second U.S. plant in less than two years at Pleasant Prairie, Wis.; and Sterilite Corp., which began molding at a new facility in Perry Township, Ohio, near Massillon.
NHMA claims housewares were a $57.9 billion market in the United States in 1995 after growing 6.3 percent over 1994.
Its broad definition includes appliances, household and personal-care equipment, cookware and many other categories in which it is difficult to discern plastics' importance.
A few exceptions are plastic dinnerware, a $157.5 million business in 1995, and plastics-intensive closet and storage products, which had sales of $824 million.