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SW Bell, Conair Fine-Tuning As Retailers Trim Selection

Conair will continue to pursue a more traditional but higher-end approach with its Southwestern Bell brand and continue to stress styling innovation in its Conair line. But the Stamford, Conn., company is fine-tuning its approach this year with certain objectives in mind.

“Retailers are shrinking the number of SKUs they carry,” said marketing director Jerry Rutigliano. “So we will no longer offer a good, better, best line in the Southwestern Bell line. The industry can no longer segment SKUs as they once did. It’s important to hit the market with a strong leader and a strong inclusive product with all of the popular features.”

Southwestern Bell’s refined strategy includes the long-term objective of strengthening the Southwestern Bell name and supporting all channels of distribution to become an industry leader. The brand also plans to focus on growing categories such as 900MHz phones with digital answerers and caller ID and on creating new packaging to enhance its shelf presence.

Rutigliano sees an opportunity to build the Southwestern Bell brand in part because of what he said is uncertainty over the future of the AT&T brand. The AT&T name is licensed by Lucent through January 2000 for Lucent’s consumer products business, which Lucent plans to sell off.

“There are a lot of questions about AT&T this year,” he said. “Retailers need a quality Bell brand.”

Under the strategy of concentrating its selection at opposite ends of the market, Southwestern Bell is offering only analog 900MHz cordless phones before stepping up to 2.4GHz models.

“Analog will be dominant this year,” said Rutigliano. “So our focus will be in analog, and then we will go directly to 2.4GHz. Consumers can recognize the difference between 900MHz and 2.4GHz. They see it as a new category.”

Marketing VP Anthony Solomita said the company plans a $99 2.4GHz product later this year.

As for 900MHz pricing, Rutigliano sees the entry-level price point going to $29 and is hoping it stays there, although “it could go lower. This time last year, the entry-level price point was $59, and by June it was $39.”

Southwestern Bell is adding two 900MHz models and new colors for ’99, bringing its line to eight models, up from four last year, said product manager Lisa Black.

New for this year is a forest green version of the existing $39 FF906, and coming in June is a white version of the existing $79.95 FF-915 900MHz model. “White is becoming a more popular color,” said Black.

One of the existing models in the line, the FF-925 with a digital answerer, features a voice-help guide to make it easy to set up and operate. “It acts as a built-in instruction manual” and has helped reduce the number of help-line calls and returns, Black said.

Also new this year is the FF-930, at $119.95 with a digital answerer, caller ID with call waiting (all of the company’s caller ID is type 2), and speakerphone. It includes a message call-back feature that announces the number and then allows the user to call back by pressing one button. This feature can be accessed remotely to get the number of the caller.

As for 25-channel cordless, Southwestern Bell plans to continue to be a player, even though “it’s a market that is shrinking,” said Rutigliano, who expects to see pricing starting at $19.95. In June, the company is introducing a white step-up model, the FF-688 with digital answerer, caller ID/call waiting and message callback, at $79.95.

In the corded category, the company is adding the $39.95 FM-2555 with caller ID/call waiting. It features the new Southwestern Bell family look and a distinctive curved handset.

In other news, Southwestern Bell plans to add shopping to its web site in the second half. It will use the same everyday pricing as its retailers.

In the Conair line, the company is focusing on fashion and design at very competitive pricing while also adding popular features such as caller ID/call waiting and digital answerers. “We are also strong in colors,” said Rutigliano.

New Conair caller ID products to ship in June include: a clamshell-packaged big-button trimline-style phone with type 1 caller ID at a selling price of $19.99; a corded platform-style phone with caller ID at $24.99; and a wedge-shaped stand-alone caller ID/call-waiting box with 11-minute digital answerer at a suggested $39.99.

In other areas, Conair is launching its first Internet phone and Family Radio Service (FRS) handset.

The Internet phone is a corded phone that connects to a PC’s sound card to make Internet phone calls. The handset and CD-ROM software (featuring Micro-soft Net Meeting, Pow Wow and Delta 3) are slated to be introduced in the third quarter at less than $20.

Conair’s first FRS product is a 14-channel Expedition model, scheduled to ship in the third quarter at a selling price of about $69 for two units.