By Lisa Johnston
New products on display at the American International Toy Fair, held in N
Higher-capacity alkalines, new designs in battery charging units and additional entries in the emerging category of low-discharge rechargeables are among the key trends retailers can expect to see in the battery arena for 2007. What's more, the outlook is bright for continuing strong sales across the category as a whole, manufacturers agree.
As Steve Levy, executive VP of Targus Digital by Merkury Innovations, stated, "The market is definitely trending upward on all types of batteries for consumer electronics. Demand is still very strong, and as newer cameras and MP3 devices are released, it will only continue to grow since most new devices are higher drain than previous models."
As a host of new products are poised to debut on retail shelves, manufacturers report that 2,700mAh still represents the top power rating in nickel metal hydride (NiMH) AA rechargeables for now, and AA remains the predominant player in round cells. Many expect AAAs to improve their share of market, though, as more manufacturers of portable electronics turn to the smaller size to further reduce the footprint of their devices. Lithium ion is also expected to take a bigger piece of the pie, particularly for the digital camera market.
At the same time, while no further reductions in recharging times are anticipated for the first half of the year, battery companies are launching products to make charging more convenient for consumers, including units that allow different sizes of batteries to be charged at the same time. In addition, a growing number of chargers that draw power from a USB port, vs. a wall or car outlet, are being launched.
Attracting much of the attention among the new introductions are several companies' low-discharge rechargeables — which combine the convenience of alkalines, with their ability to be used straight from the package, and the economy and eco-friendliness of rechargeables, with their ability to be recharged and reused hundreds of times. The technology was first unveiled last year with Sanyo's eneloop battery line, and for 2007, additional companies are entering the field, including Sony, Uniross subsidiary North American Battery (NABC), and DigiPower.
"NiMH is the area of most potential growth in the future," said Geeta Redkar, senior sales manager for Sony Magnetic Products of America, "and our development in this area is with our Cycle Energy brand of NiMH, which has a better discharge capacity and comes already charged for immediate use by the consumer. Sony expects this new battery technology to bridge the gap between regular alkaline 'ready-to-use' batteries and NiMH rechargeable batteries."
Priced only slightly higher than its standard NiMH batteries, the Cycle Energy AA cells maintain approximately 85 percent of their charge after one year, the company said, and can be recharged up to 1,000 times. The company is introducing a new, slim-design compact charger that comes with two AA Cycle Energy batteries. It will be available this month, selling for a suggested $19.99.
NABC, which recently became a subsidiary of Uniross, is rolling out its Hybrio low-discharge batteries under NABC's UltraLast brand. The batteries are available in both AA and AAA sizes, with suggested retail of $11.99 for a four-pack of AAs. A special charger kit, which includes four AAs, is priced at $19.99.
"The technology behind the Hybrio batteries is the biggest innovation to happen in a number of years," stated Bob Roth, NABC's sales and marketing VP.
Added Mark Dockser, global marketing director for Uniross, "People want a better solution than disposables, but with more convenience than standard rechargeables. So we think consumers will start to gravitate toward the Hybrio product. It offers four times the capacity per charge of an alkaline, but doesn't self-discharge as traditional rechargeables do at a rate of about one percent per day. My guess is that over time, this technology will be used throughout the category."
In addition to its Hybrio launch, the company is revamping its entire UltraLast line for 2007, segmenting it into a lower-end line under the UltraLast name and a higher-priced assortment under the UltraLast Professional name, according to Roth. The UltraLast Professional products will feature faster charging times and higher mAh ratings, including a 2,700mAh AA battery that will ship in the second quarter. The mass market line will be highlighted by more charging options, including DC car chargers and USB-powered chargers.
DigiPower will also begin shipping low-discharge rechargeable batteries, called the Endure series, this month, with four-packs of AA or AAA batteries selling for $14.99. A charger and battery kit, including four Endure batteries, will also be available at a $29.99 retail.
"The Endure batteries can be charged in any charger, but we're offering a special charger that is designed specifically for the new technology," said Maurice Mizrahi, president. "Initially, the low-discharge batteries offer a lower mAh than other rechargeables, typically 2,100mAh for now, but I'm sure that will rise as the technology matures."
DigiPower is also addressing the higher-performance segment of the category with a new non-rechargeable, primary lithium AA battery, which will launch in the second quarter and offer five times more power and a lighter weight than NiMH, Mizrahi noted. In addition, for the digital SLR camera market, the company is introducing a rechargeable power grip that attaches through a tripod and features a built-in lithium battery to make it more convenient and economical than traditional power grips that require additional lithium ion packs.
Doug Munroe, product marketing director for Gentec International, touts the low-discharge batteries as a new technology that will generate growth in the rechargeable market "at the expense of the alkaline segment."
"The major trend we're seeing is the emergence of this new, low self-discharge NiMH battery segment," he said. "The fact that they're usable right out of the box and have the ability to be recharged up to 1,000 times means that these batteries offer some obvious economic as well as ecological benefits."
Gentec is the exclusive supplier of Sony's Cycle Energy batteries in Canada. The company will also continue to offer a complete lineup of lithium-ion batteries for the newest digital cameras and camcorders in 2007, including products to power the latest Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, Olympus and Sony devices.
Even as low-discharge rechargeables are making their presence felt, the traditional rechargeable segment continues to grow, with retail dollar sales up 19.8 percent for the 52-week period ending September 9, 2006 — even before the holiday sales surge — according to AC Nielsen data cited by Energizer.
To meet the growing demand, Energizer recently introduced the e2 Rechargeable Easy Charger, a cordless, oval-shaped unit that charges up to four AA or AAA NiMH batteries. It features an indicator light to show when batteries are fully charged, an automatic on/off safety switch, and three faceplates that allow consumers to match the charger to their décor.
For spring 2007, the company will launch a new USB charger, as well as its new Family Charger, designed to charge AA, AAA, C, D and 9V size NiMH batteries. The unique design of the Family Charger enables consumers to drop in batteries, and as the door is closed, the charger's contacts move forward to adjust to the battery sizes in the charging bay. Since the contacts move independently, users can charge two AAs and two C batteries — or any other combination —at the same time. Suggested retail for the charger is $29.99.
Targus Digital by Merkury Innovations is increasing the overall capacity on its rechargeable batteries for 2007, as well as reducing the charge times on all its chargers, according to executive vice president Steve Levy. Included in the new introductions, all available this month, is the TG-CHUSB, a USB AA/AAA battery charger, which charges two AA or AAA NiMH batteries in any USB port. It comes with two 2,300mAh AA batteries.
Also new from the company is the TG-PBC rapid charger that charges AA/AAA batteries in about one hour via either AC power or its built-in 12-24V DV car charger, and the TG-CH2700 rapid charger that comes with four 2,700mAh AA batteries. Other new products include the TG-LCD2700, a two-hour power charger with LCD display; the TG-BCMN mini AA/AAA 90-minute charger; and the TG-CH800 two-hour charger that includes eight high-capacity 2,700mAh AA batteries. All provide both AC and DC charging, 100-240V for worldwide use, and indicator lights that flash red when charging and green when charging is complete.
The increasing trend to AAA is one cited by Raymond Saka, category manager for Sakar, who sees that segment growing by about 20 percent in 2007, while lithium ion is projected to increase about 35 percent in sales.
"This is all due to the new battery types being offered in the digital camera market," Saka said. "There is definitely movement from AA to lithium-ion batteries because digital camera companies find them longer lasting and more cost-effective for the end user."
For 2007, Sakar's battery line will include a wider variety of chargers that have the capacity for greater usage, such as 100-240V capability. Two of the new products will be a one-hour AA charger with LCD display (CH-1930), and a "smart" universal camcorder battery charger that will read the battery's current capacity and let consumers know the capacity as it charges up to 100%, Saka noted. The camcorder charger, model CH-4550, is available now and has a suggested retail of $69.
Sakar is also introducing a car charger (CC-100) designed to charge AA/AAA batteries in two hours, at a suggested retail of $9.99, and a USB charger (CH-121), which will charge AA/AAA batteries in any USB port in 16 hours, at a suggested retail of $6.99.
A number of specialized battery chargers are also being launched by companies including Technuity and Battery Technology.
Technuity is introducing an Energizer-brand universal digital camera wall-mount charger, the ER-DCW, which allows users to charge batteries from many of the major digital camera makers, including Canon, Casio, Fuji, Kodak, Konica Minolta, Olympus, Samsung and Toshiba. The 4.2v, 600mAh charger features a flip-out plug on the back and also comes with a car adapter.
Battery Technology (BTI) has improved the circuit board design and processor in its notebook computer battery packs to allow for a much slower drain on the batteries while they are on the shelf. The company regularly launches between five and eight new notebook computer batteries every month, to keep pace with the introduction of new notebooks from computer manufacturers.
"Sales of replacement batteries are definitely trending upward as both the installed base of notebook users and the number of notebook computer models sold increases," said Dave Sarazen, BTI's sales and marketing VP. "Also, one of our cell suppliers has informed us of a cell capacity increase as well as a new lithium-ion technology that will certainly increase runtimes once we integrate these components into our batteries."
On the primary cell side, companies continue to push for greater power to meet the high-drain demands of today's consumer electronics. Panasonic, for instance, continues to focus on its Oxyride Extreme Power batteries based on nickel oxyhydroxide (NiOOH) chemistry which double the number of digital photos as compared with Panasonic Alkaline Plus batteries, according to the company.
"The trend will continue with more and more portable devices on the market, and these devices will continue to be power-hungry," said Brian Kimberlin, director of Panasonic Battery Corporation of America. "We feel that our Oxyride technology is poised to grow within the battery category, and provides a strong solution for consumers who do not have the discipline to use rechargeable batteries."
Panasonic will also address the rechargeable segment with a new compact, two-position charger with a fold-out plug, as well as a child safety cover to keep charging batteries away from small hands.
Safety is also an issue being addressed by Fuji Novel, with its LR20 D size and LR14 C size alkaline batteries. The batteries now have special resin protrusions on the negative face, preventing two negative terminals from touching each other — and possibly leaking or exploding — if the batteries are inserted improperly. The company has also boosted the power on the C and D cells by 30 percent.
Providing consumers with longer usage of their alkalines is More Power 2U, which will continue to market its Battery Xtender alkaline battery recharger in 2007.
"We think alkalines will still be around as a mainstay of the battery market, since they offer good drain time and bang for the buck," said Ira Carlin, president. "The Battery Xtender offers the only safe way to recharge alkaline batteries, to make them even more economical. It has microprocessor technology and safety features that provide automatic shutoff when the batteries are brought back to their optimum charge, and accepts AA, AAA, C and D cells in any combination, as well as NiMH or NiCad batteries."
This TWICE webinar, hosted by senior editor Alan Wolf, will take a look at what may be the hottest CE products at retail that will be sold during the all-important fourth quarter. Top technologies, market strategies and industry trends will be discussed with industry analysts and executives.