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Softside luggage: Utility-focused styles spur R&D

Faced with decreasing exports, manufacturers enhance design and structure in models to emphasize function and convenience.

China makers of softside and hybrid luggage are gearing product development toward ergonomics and mobility to boost sales.

Suppliers are improving comfort in releases amid growing awareness of the health benefits of luggage contoured to suit the human form. Companies supplement these with utility features that offer more value than conventional ones. This is in response to buyer feedback, which indicates increasing demand for such.

Softside luggage
  Shanghai Epic Pacific's softside luggage set includes 19, 22, 25 and 28in uprights and a 15in tote bag.
Ergonomic structures reduce stress and strain, relieving a user's hand, arm and back, and heightening convenience.

Trolley handles, for instance, are made curved rather than straight, molding to the natural shape of the palm and lessening the tension from pulling and carrying.

Single-tube trolleys have thicker grips, measuring 3 to 6cm or more.

Double-tube models, meanwhile, can be set to a chosen height. The telescopic trolleys are able to rise three to five levels or higher.

When it comes to mobility, suppliers are introducing larger and thicker casters, which offer increased stability and abrasion resistance. This is because the contact area between the wheels and the ground is wider.

Moreover, the casters are embedded rather than attached to the bottom panel, lowering the center of gravity and improving balance. Further, China-made softside and hybrid luggage is more compact and easier to store.

To boost maneuverability, the latest releases have four wheels instead of two. Other versions adopt 360-degree pivoting types for multidirection movement, while several makers employ rubber wheels to provide elasticity and lower noise.

For better handling, suppliers reduce overall weight by using aluminum trolleys rather than stainless or plated steel ones. High-end designs, however, use stainless steel or imported aluminum alloy as they are more durable.

Some models are equipped with digital scales that show kilograms or pounds on an LCD screen at the top panel to help address concerns over airport weight restrictions.

Add-ons are also introduced to heighten practicality. Some products combine coded locks and buckles with zipper closures on request. Softside and hybrid luggage did not originally have these security features as such models were designed as carry ons. With current limitations on weight, however, they are now often checked-in, requiring sturdier locks.

ID tags and pockets, compasses, clothes hooks and mirrors can also be included.

Construction & design
Products & prices
Materials & equipment
Industry composition
Softside luggage
  This softside pigskin upright from Shanghai T&S comes in brown, black, amaranth or white. The model measures 49x31x22cm.
Construction & design

Apart from function, R&D efforts emphasize patterns, detailing and trimming.

Design specialists incorporate different geometric shapes, including arcs, semicircles and triangles. Most of these cutouts are symmetrical and can be converted into zipped compartments for small items such as magazines, maps, batteries and electric chargers.

Pieces are usually padded with sponge that doubles as shock absorbers. 3D cutting technology is utilized as well.

Softside and hybrid releases from China also have combinations of colored fabrics or trimming set against matching or contrasting panels.

Another design option is silk-screened or heat-transfer-printed patterns and logos, which are suitable for synthetic leather pieces.

Aside from the front panel, there are enhancements focusing on the overall form of the luggage body. To illustrate, products are no longer limited to rectangular structures but come in trapezoid and egg shapes. Both conventional and novelty versions have rounded edges.

Further, companies provide expandable types with extra storage. The best-sellers have fabric accordion compartments accessed through a zipper running along the panel seams.

Other releases are designed to suit niche markets. Variants geared toward women come in warm, bright hues such as red, pink, yellow and orange. Children's versions have vibrant pinks, yellows, greens or blues.

Unisex kinds, however, continue to dominate with neutral colors of brown, gray, black, burgundy and khaki.

Suppliers carry luggage sets, which are also among the popular exports. The models come in groups of three to five, often measuring 20, 24 and 28in.

Softside luggage
  The set of 20, 24 and 28in hybrid uprights from Shanghai Paloon come in 600d polyester. The models are reinforced with ABS and EVA molded panels.
Products & prices

Softside and hybrid luggage from China is mainly classified by the materials and parts used.

The best-selling softside models are in nylon and polyester. Versions come in canvas, tarpaulin, and PVC, PU and genuine leather as well.

The textiles are available in ripstop, jacquard, twill or honeycomb weaves, and can have quadrille or camouflage patterns. They are yarn-dyed or printed, or come in two- or three-tone color schemes.

The structures of most softside releases adopt EVA molding to reinforce the casing and make the body more compact.

Low-end types utilize locally sourced raw materials and accessories, and are between $5 and $10. Pieces come in 600d polyester with simple and basic unisex designs.

Midrange variants are priced at $10.50 to $15, and use 900d polyester, nylon or canvas. The components are mostly from Taiwan and Japan, but the trolleys are locally sourced steel or aluminum alloy.

Seams are sewn three times to ensure durability. Products for women, children and business use are available.

Models in the high end, on the other hand, adopt imported textiles and accessories. Quoted at $15.50 to $25, releases come in 1680d polyester, nylon, and PU, PVC and genuine leather. Trolleys are steel and aluminum alloy.

Apart from being ergonomically designed, upscale structures use 3D cutting technology.

Hybrid luggage, meanwhile, utilizes similar fabrics to softside versions, but incorporates tougher hardside materials for the rear and sides. Low-end types use PP or PVC panels, while midrange and high-end ones adopt PP or ABS.

As a result, models are priced 40 to 60 percent higher than softside products despite similarities in components and construction.

Materials & equipment

Although mainland China's softside and hybrid luggage industry has a comprehensive supply chain, the majority of textiles, plastic, metal and leather available are low-end to midrange. To meet the requirements of upscale models, makers are forced to procure quality fabrics, trolleys and wheels from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

Domestic raw material suppliers, however, have begun boosting output of high-end manufacturing inputs to counter the insufficiency. Factories in Guangzhou and other cities in Guangdong province are the main proponents of the endeavor.

A number of luggage manufacturers in Zhejiang province currently source from Guangzhou, but it may take some time before foreign buyers recognize these mainland materials.

Although the quality of locally made textiles and components is improving, most clients do not want to take a chance on such alternative providers, even with their lower cost. The mainland is still not regarded as a source of high-end materials, and extensive testing would have to be carried out to ensure compliance with product and safety standards. This kind of stringent evaluation is no longer required for long-term suppliers overseas because of their proven track record.

Softside and hybrid luggage companies invest in importing good-quality software and equipment such as CAD and PGM sample making systems from Japan and Taiwan. Moreover, the plants are outfitted with Juki and Mitsubishi computerized and high-frequency sewing machines.

Heightened standards are also pressuring factories to enhance safety and QC measures. A number of interviewed manufacturers certify having passed BSCI audits. In addition, many adhere to ISO 9001:2000 and SA8000 requirements.

Some providers offer a 1 to 5-year warranty.

Industry composition

There are about 1,000 companies in China specializing in softside and hybrid luggage, 80 percent of which are engaged in exports.

Nearly all suppliers carry out OEM contracts. More than half release their own designs as well, including several patented ones.

A few large enterprises also have the capability to market in-house brands overseas. Other makers set up their design centers in Japan.

In addition, businesses have long-standing relationships with foreign buyers. Their clients include retailers Samsonite, Kappa, Fila, Esprit, Disney, Delsey and Fat Face, and hyper- and supermarkets Wal-Mart, Kmart, Tesco and Carrefour.

Guangdong and Zhejiang are the two largest domestic sourcing hubs.

The latter hosts more than 600 manufacturers, 90 percent of which are small and midsize. Most engage in the low end and midrange.

Guangdong accounts for nearly half of China's annual overseas sales and the bulk of upscale softside luggage.

This article "Softside luggage: Utility-focused styles spur R&D" is originally posted in Global Sources.

Note: All price quotes in this report are in US dollars unless otherwise specified. FOB prices were provided by the companies interviewed only as reference prices at the time of interview and may have changed.

Disclaimer: All product images are provided by the companies interviewed and are for reference purposes only. Those product images featuring products with trademarks, brand names or logos are not intended for sale. We, our affiliates, and our affiliates' respective directors, officers, employees, representatives, agents or contractors, do not accept and will not have any responsibility or liability for product images (or any part thereof) which infringe on any intellectual property or other rights of a third party.

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