San Antonio — The Progressive Retailers Organization was at the Westin La Cantera Hill Coun
Prodded primarily by the urgency of safety issues, the popularity of hands-free headsets has paid off with climbing sales, yet, at the same time, the category has been peppered with lower retails and narrower margins.
Virtually across the board, however, headset makers have answered this growing commodity image with a market basket of new and upgraded features — both firing back in response to profit-demand issues, as well as headset purchasers' interests in better sound and a more fashionable look.
"Ten years ago, if you used a headset for your mobile phone, people thought you were talking to yourself," said Eugene Lee, product manager for Body Glove cellular headsets at Fellowes. "Today, state governments are mandating that everyone use a hands-free device while driving. Because of this, you can buy a cheap ear bud for $10 everywhere.
"As more and more people turn to the convenience of cellular headsets, they will demand [product] with high-quality sound, a comfortable wearing style and something that makes them look fashionable and cool," said Lee. "In the future, a good-sounding headset with great comfort will be the standard."
In answer to product demands, Itasca, Ill.-based Fellowes has introduced the Body Glove Earglove Max and the Earglove Sport. The Max offers a 3-in-1 pod positioned on the cord of the headset that includes an answer-disconnect button, a mute button and a volume control feature. Suggested retail is $29.99.
Fellowes Earglove Sport, ideal for users who want a comfortable, snug-fitting and unobtrusive headset, features a soft, cone-shaped ear bud and three interchangeable ear hooks in blue, charcoal and silver. Suggested retail is $14.99.
"The leading hands-free solutions will continue to move in the same direction the leading handsets have — great quality, great design and feature-rich," said Chris Maddox, business unit manager at Belkin, about the critical trends driving the headsets business.
"At the end of the day, it has to deliver great sound and be comfortable to wear for hours at a time. If you can't do this, it doesn't matter how many laws are passed. Consumers aren't going to buy your product."
In line with this thinking, Compton, Calif.-based Belkin has introduced the Boom Hands-Free, model F8V920-POD. At a suggested $24.99, the unit offers a distinctive look that complements the latest mobile phone styles. It offers a soft, moldable ear hook and three interchangeable earplug designs.
"As more people adopt the use of hands-free systems, they will be looking for innovation and higher-quality products that offer better sound and functionality," said Richard Lee, product manager for wireless telecom at Gentec International. "Style will also become part of the decision-making process as it becomes a lifestyle item. Manufacturers will have to take all of this into consideration when launching new products to meet this growing demand."
New from Markham, Ontario-based Gentec is its Planet Wireless, model HFK117 "reverse sound" hands-free ear piece, which directs sound away from the ear canal. This results in an ear piece that won't harm a user's ear drum, while still providing a "surround sound" effect and superior sound clarity, compared with a regular ear piece. Suggested retail is $29.99.
Demand for cellular and cordless headsets will continue to grow by double digits in 2003, said Fred Creamer, retail sales director at GE/Sanyo. One reason, he said, is the increase in numbers of new cordless phone models with jacks that allow usage of headsets. "Consumers also are more aware of the advantages of hands-free communications and manufacturers' headsets have improved over time. They are offering more choices, better sound quality and ergonomic designs," he said.
Playing off consumer focus group input, GE/Sanyo, a segment of San Diego-based Sanyo Energy, has created the new Platinum Power Ear Clip that is "so light, it's like wearing nothing," said Creamer. For consumers who don't like clunky headsets that look like telemarketer's headsets, the product is small, lightweight and yet feels secure, he said. The Ear Clip will be available in the third quarter at a suggested $14.99 retail.
Jasco Products is rolling out a line of GE-brand hands-free headsets for cordless and mobile phones that combine the newest technology with maximum comfort and style.
The first of three models from the Oklahoma City-based Jasco is the Hands-Free Headset, TL96653, a 2-in-1 that can be used with either a behind-the-neck band or as an ear set with adjustable over-the-ear loop for added portability. The Universal Pro Headset, TL96652, offers a comfortable fit with a boom microphone for high- quality voice pickup and maximum sound. The MP3 Phone Headset, TL96654, has a behind-the-neck design and is foldable.
All three, which come with volume control and microphone mute, have a suggested $19.99 retail.
Building on the success of its MX100, Plantronics is releasing the MX150, which offers improved voice transmission in noisy environments because of its noise-canceling microphone with pivoting boom. The mobile headset, designed for the youth market, offers discreet style, combined with comfort and stability.
Available in July from Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Plantronics, at a suggested $29.99 retail, the MX150 offers the company's Flex Grip design, that provides the discreetness of an in-the-ear headset with exceptional stability and comfort.
The Sport Boom Headset with Changeable Color Sleeves, from Clifton, N.J.-based Gemini Industries is the first of numerous accessories the company will be introducing to round out the "style and fashion" demands of this product segment.
"Handsets and their accessories have begun a transformation from a solely functional device to a fashion accessory, with style and design beginning to carve out niches," said Divo Catozzo, Gemini's wireless product manager. "Gone are the days of gray and black phones and their boring accessories. Say hello to vibrant, trendy designs and styles to match any personal taste."
The Boom, model AX53158, offers four interchangeable colored sleeves in red, blue, orange and purple and features a single-piece design with a lightweight and comfortable ear piece. The short boom microphone is designed to reject extraneous noise and the Neoprene sleeves help to further improve voice transmission. Suggested retail is $14.99.
Also at $14.99, a "tremendous value for the consumer," according to Maspeth, N.Y. maker Coby Electronics, is the company's CVR80 hands-free cellphone accessory. Designed for people on the road, who have to fumble to write things down, the hands-free device has a 64-second digital voice recorder built in that can record conversations.
Coby's CVM157 hands-free accessory has a boom microphone and a soft and removable ear clip for a suggested $9.99.
The JH-F96, from Woodside, N.Y.-based jWin, is an ultra lightweight over-the-ear headset with a highly sensitive microphone and noise cancellation. Features of this hands-free communication aid for Nokia cellular phones, include one-touch talk/dial button with volume control, adjustable microphone and 4-section 2.5mm jack.
At a suggested $9.95 retail, the unit also features 1.2mm cord, 23mm Mylar cone speaker, frequency response of 20Hz-20KHz, sensitivity of 110db at 1KHz and impedance at 32 Ohm.
Busy mobile phone users have a superior option for everyday communications, according to Sennheiser, maker of the m@b18 in-ear mobile telephone handset.
The unit, which is the first in-ear headset from the Old Lyme, Conn.-based company, is said to provide uncompromising audio clarity. It includes a flexible microphone arm, cable clip and left or right wearing style and has a suggested $19.95 retail.
Building on the success of its UC-500, Unwired Technology is offering its newest hands-free speakerphone accessory, the UC-600, which accommodates all vehicles with a universal mounting system that attaches to the car headrest.
The UC-600, from Farmingdale, N.Y.-based Unwired, features a design that positions the speaker and microphone to avoid feedback and deliver optimal sound quality. In addition, the UC-600 allows users to speak and listen at the same time. It has a suggested $119 retail and July availability.
Not all headsets makers were happy with sales results in 2002. "The hands-free headset business grew last year, but not at as great a rate as we had anticipated at the beginning of the year," said Gordon Tetreault, national sales and marketing manager for accessory products at Maxell Corp. of America. Tetreault puts much of the blame for the slowdown on states shelving planned bills mandating the use of hands-free headsets when using a cellphone, because of their stepped up war and security concerns, reducing consumer incentive to buy.
"But the category is growing primarily at the opening price points," although Tetreault said Maxell's growth came with step-up models due to perceived value of a national brand. "The category continues to show steady growth this year, as the universe of cellphone users continues to expand, and as hands-free legislation becomes a consideration again," he said.
A best seller from Fair Lawn, N.J.-based Maxell is the NB/HF-210, a neckband, boom-microphone design hands-free headset with a superior noise-canceling uni-directional microphone. Suggested retail is $19.99.
In wireless headsets, "we expect to see further use of [Bluetooth] devices, as North American retailers introduce more multi-function and Bluetooth phones," said Jennifer Cauble, VP/marketing at San Diego-based Jabra.
In addition to its FreeSpeak Bluetooth wireless headset, Jabra offers corded product, namely its EarSet WindUp for mobile phones, which feeds the headset's cord through a lightweight, compact retractable device that fits in the palm of a user's hand, pocket or purse. Suggested retail is $39.99.
Another wireless headset, from Reason Products, allows mobile phone users to enjoy two more hours of talk time than today's Bluetooth headsets, as well as cordless recharging with standard AA batteries, according to the company.
Called by San Francisco-based Reason the industry's first truly wireless mobile headset, Unleash is designed for mobile phone users who want the convenience of wireless without compromising on sound quality or battery power.
When fully charged, the headset gives users up to four hours of talk time and seven days of standby time. It is said to offer better performance than 900Mhz headsets and, at a suggested $99 retail, is said to be a more cost-effective alternative to Bluetooth headsets.
Logitech also sounds the call for expansion of wireless headset sales. "We see continued growth in the cordless headset business and the Bluetooth mobile headset space," said Robert Jacobson, Logitech headset product manager. "As more Bluetooth phones become available, we see areas opening up to innovate in size, form factor, talk time and audio quality."
New from Fremont, Calif.-based Logitech is its Mobile Boom headset that includes the company's FlexLoop technology for keeping the ear bud in place and feeling comfortable. For a $24.95 suggested retail, the Mobile Boom offers a multifunction answer/end/mute button and a noise-reducing microphone for clear communication.