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The changing face of the towel market

October 11, 2010
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Many changes have taken place over the last few years in the carwash towel market.

While domestic towels are still popular, many carwash owners are now using imported towels.

Imported towels were always considered the cheap alternative, but technology has changed overseas and the quality of imports is on the rise.

Also, lint-free terry towels have been introduced to the industry, a product that at one time seemed impossible. Even microfiber towels, which were once considered too expensive, have gained popularity, resulting in lower pricing.

Trouble at home
Many factors have contributed to the changing face of the towel market, both overseas and domestically.

In the United States, some of the large towel mills have gone bankrupt and have been forced to shut down their domestic manufacturing plants.

One of the factors that contributed to the financial problems of the domestic towel companies was the increased competition from lower-cost imported products.

Several years ago, imported towels were only considered cheap towels, but now there are many more high-quality options available. Because many overseas mills are making towels for domestic brand name companies, they have been forced to improve the quality of their products.

Overseas manufacturers have learned how to make towels closer to American standards by using a higher quality yarn and better equipment. They are even packaging their towels differently in order to compete with the domestic towels.

Imported towels used to be only packed in compressed bales, resulting in towels with a very matted-down, flat look. Imports are now available carton-packed and bagged, so they appear fluffier like a domestic towel.

The outsourcing of domestic towels overseas has adversely affected the amount of American-made towels available to the carwash industry. The domestic towels sold to the industry are those that were originally destined for the retail market.

These towels consist of seconds, overruns and end-of–the-season colors. Domestic towels are still available, but the availability has decreased significantly.

Domestic towels are still superior in quality over most imports, but imported towels have many benefits for the carwash owner.

Import improvements
First, imported towels typically have a shorter break-in period than most domestic towels.

Since most domestic towels are destined for the retail market, manufacturers put “sizing” on them, which makes the towel shiny and stain resistant at the store.

Unless the imported towels have domestic name labels, they will have less sizing, making them quicker and easier to break in.

Every towel, whether imported or domestic, will have a break-in period. The darker the color, the longer it will take to properly absorb.

Washing new towels in the hottest water possible and fully drying them during the first few washes will shorten this period. Never wash old towels with new ones.

Secondly, imported towels can be ordered and stocked in the most basic/favorite colors.

Imported towels used to be available in limited weights and limited colors; usually either white, or a vat-dyed color (which tends to bleed). Imported towels are now made in many colors and thicknesses.

When a towel vendor buys domestic towels, they are told which colors and weights are available.

When a towel vendor orders imported towels, he can specify which color and weight he wants.

In turn, the customer can usually get the color they want every time.

Tighter weave, less lint
Another change in the towel market has been the introduction of lint-free terry towels.

These towels are made with special machinery which produces a tighter weave for a less-linting towel. Huck/surgical towels are lint free because they are a woven cotton with no loop or pile.

Although some terry towels are called lint-free, they are still by no means acceptable for a sterile laboratory or a clean room- type atmosphere. However, for all practical purposes (carwash use for example), the term seems fitting.

All terry towels, just like new carpets in a home, will go through a natural shedding process. The lint consists of loose fibers or residual lint that fell back onto the towels during manufacturing, whether the tag says lint-free or not.

Keep in mind that the standards of all companies can be very different, so what may be considered lint-free by one company, may not be considered lint-free by another.

Just like any other terry towel, lint-free towels need to be properly broken in, and never washed with old towels. Over time, they will begin to lint once the towel approaches the end of its life cycle, and begins to deteriorate.

Lower cost microfiber
The other trend in the carwash towel market is the decreasing cost of microfiber towels. At first, the cost of the technology was high and there weren’t many suppliers of this product.

Over time, the market became extremely competitive, driving down prices. The technology gradually advanced, which also drove down the overall cost of manufacturing.

Microfibers can now be found for about half of their original cost. The lower prices have led microfibers to be more competitive with huck/surgical towels.

Microfibers have the versatility to be used for cleaning windows, drying the car and wiping down the interior. Also, the same cloth can be used for a much longer period of time, beating out the terry towel and huck/surgical towel.

Variations in microfiber can be found in the construction of the fibers, the towel size, the thickness and the stitching quality. Some towels have been made exclusively for the commercial industry and are manufactured to withstand a high volume of washings.

The face of change
These changing trends in the towel market are beneficial to the carwash industry. Better towels are being manufactured, more options are available, and in some cases, prices are being lowered for products such as microfiber towels.

All these factors contribute to an advantageous situation for both vendors and carwashes.


Valerie Sweeney is the marketing/inside sales manager of ERC Wiping Products, Inc. in Lynn, MA. She has been with ERC for over 10 years. For more information contact Valerie at vsweeney@ercwipe.com.

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