Millennials are known for dumping traditional household products such as paper napkins and canned tuna. But for now, irons are still staples in most homes, even if they are gathering dust on a shelf.
"I never iron," says Keturah Kennedy, 37, a Washington, D.C., hair stylist who lives in a townhouse and buys only no-iron clothing. "I can’t remember when I owned an iron, but just in case, I’ve always lived with someone who did." Her solution to wrinkles is popping something in the dryer for 10 minutes just before she wears it. "Sometimes I have to touch up my clothes with my hair dryer," she says. "Just spray a little water on and quickly blow it dry."
Elyse Moody, 33, a senior editor at Martha Stewart Living, loves to iron, but she knows she’s an outlier among her crowd. "I asked around, and pretty much all of my friends, especially those with small children, said they do not iron. They use a steamer or the wrinkle-remover settings on their dryers. But they all own irons." Meanwhile, ironing is a pain point with her boyfriend because she loves the look of a crisply pressed men’s shirt. "He never irons his shirts and it drives me crazy," she says. "Now you know."
Consumers are taking the chore of ironing and figuring out easier, faster and often cheaper ways to accomplish it. They are turning to wrinkle-releasing sprays instead of costly dry cleaning. They’re buying multitasking products that can save space. There’s even something called "Febreze ironing": sprinkling a funky-smelling piece of clothing with Febreze and running it through a short dryer cycle. Anything to avoid hauling out the ironing board.
Besides, wrinkly cotton shirts and rumpled linen tablecloths are now stylish. No need to iron the family heirloom tablecloth for Thanksgiving dinner. "We love tablecloths that have not been ironed and have wrinkles to catch the light and look prettier," Amanda Hesser, co-founder and chief executive of Food52, a home and cooking website, told me in December.
All of these lifestyle changes have caused irons, like print newspapers, to experience a slow slide in sales. And millennials are leading the slump, according to Joe Derochowski, home-industry adviser for the NPD Group. The overall sales of irons have declined over the past three years, with the decline in the 18-to-44 age group outweighing growth in the 45-plus age group, according to the NPD consumer-tracking service.
In 2018, iron sales in dollars were down seven per cent from 2016 while steamer sales were up 19 per cent during the same period, according to the NPD.
The popularity of irons has waned as consumers buy clothes made of non-wrinkle fabrics and casual Fridays have morphed into casual every days.
One curious factor slowing the decline? People still buy irons because they think they’re supposed to. "When you go out on your own, you might think you should buy an iron, even if you may not use it," Derochowski says. An iron is like a toaster: although many people are avoiding carbs, they feel as though it’s something an adult should own.
Irons are still a popular wedding registry item. "Since registering is about getting the basics you need to complete your home, an iron is a sort of hallmark of a registry," says Alyssa Longobucco, senior style and planning editor for the Knot. "It’s one of those traditional gifts, like china, that is popular with some subset of the older generation that feels lost donating money for honeymoons or for pet adoption."
High-end steamers are also wish-list staples. "A professional-grade steamer is great to have on hand. Women love to get them for bridal showers so later they can steam their wedding and bridesmaids dresses," she said.
Julianne Snyder, 29, a preschool teacher in Madison, Wis., bought an iron when she moved in with her boyfriend (now husband), Nick, four years ago. "I just thought it was something every house had. And we probably needed one once and didn’t have one," she says. Snyder says her husband, a music marketer who lives in band T-shirts and hoodies, uses the iron several times a year when he presses a formal shirt to go to a wedding. She might iron a tablecloth and napkins a few times a year. "My mom taught me to iron, and when I was little, I loved the smell of the steam and spray starch," she says. "As I got older, I realized it was just another chore."
Snyder’s mother, Pamela Norum, 61, happens to know a few things about garment care. Norum is a professor in the department of textile and apparel management at the University of Missouri. "With the changes in fabrics in our clothes today, there is less need to iron, which is a good thing," Norum says. Over the years, the fashion industry has switched to more easy-care fabrics that look good without extra effort. Norum says it’s been about a year since she has used her own iron. She prefers a steamer, though in the laundry room of her millennial offspring, she’s seen a product called Downy Wrinkle Releaser Spray, marketed as "an iron in a bottle."
Norum, however, thinks that there is no other way consumers can achieve the polished result that an iron provides at home. "I still have to iron my tablecloths, as there is no other way to achieve a smooth and crisp-looking cloth unless you send it out to the cleaners," Norum says. "You just can’t achieve that from a steamer or a spray."
Because fewer customers are ironing, however, the makers of irons and the products that go with them are thinking of ways to re-energize sales. They’re posting how-to videos online to educate them in case their parents didn’t teach them fabric-care basics.
Last year, Reliable, a maker of irons and other garment-care products, introduced Ovo, a cute little portable combination iron and garment steamer (US$49) that can easily be tossed in a suitcase. "Many millennials, and being one myself, we don’t have time to iron or like to iron. You can plug this in and it’s ready in less than a minute," says Peter Vallas, Reliable’s marketing manager. Vallas says he doesn’t see irons going away any time soon. "It’s still a staple in people’s homes, he says. "They might not care for ironing, but it does make them look good."
Ixeo, a clothing-care product targeted toward apartment living and the millennial lifestyle, was introduced in March by Rowenta, a German company known for its powerful irons. The Rowenta unit (US$249) combines an iron, steamer and an ironing-board unit on wheels that folds compactly to fit into a closet.
The spray-starch industry is having its own makeover. It’s repositioning the traditional ironing aid that keeps clothing smoother and wrinkle-free as "ironing spray." "The sales for our category over the last several years have been in a slow decline," says Rob Persaud, chief marketing officer at Faultless Brands, the largest maker of spray starch in the United States. His company has been regrouping as baby boomers leave the workforce in greater numbers and millennials and their wrinkle-free clothing or wrinkles-be-damned wardrobes take centre stage. "Our challenge is to educate (consumers that) if you are moving up through your career and trying to make an impression, your appearance is something you should care about," Persaud says, adding that pressing a shirt at home "is cheaper than taking it to the laundry." Niagara Starch even has its own Instagram page (about 400 followers so far).
There’s still something appealing about a freshly ironed cotton skirt or a nicely pressed pair of khakis. Norum’s youngest son, Jimmy Weagley, 26, who lives in St. Louis, says he uses his iron every once in a while. "I ironed (fiancée) Amy’s pants for some interviews and then a few times when she went to work." he said in a text.
"I should do it more though."
— Washington Post