- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Travelers have no interest in lugging their luggage anymore. They don’t have to, according to experts.

A combination of consumer demand, design modifications and innovative materials has enabled manufacturers to switch gears to produce smaller, lighter and ergonomically friendly products, says Alan Krantzler, vice president of product management for Tumi luggage.

“The number one trend in the industry right now is about [being] lightweight,” he says. “It’s always been a consumer demand, but it has become increasingly important.”

The driving factors, he says, are an aging population that finds it difficult to pull around burdensome, easily tipped bags; airline fees, including charges by some airlines not only for heavy bags but for any checked bags; and the desire for business-leisure crossover items.

“People want a carry-on that could be a weekend bag, a gym bag and be able to put a computer in it,” says Mr. Krantzler, who also oversees merchandising. “People are looking to spend money smartly. They don’t want to give up quality but want value.”

Options include soft foam-frame bags — Tumi Light bags are, for example, made from the same foam as flip-flops — and hard-shell plastic.

“What affects weight is more the components of the bag, the fabrics, how it’s made,” Mr. Krantzler says. “It’s not really about the shape.”

The polycarbonate plastic is, essentially, a much lighter version of those practically indestructible suitcases of a few generations ago. (Remember the American Tourister ads with a gorilla tossing one around?)

“The fashion, lightweight, hard-side bag is a big thing in Europe,” says Stephen Cardino, fashion director for Macy’s home division. “It’s like featherweight. I’m not sure if the Europeans are enamored with the hard-side product or the look, which is so sleek. It looks great coming off the carousel.”

It has potential to catch on in the United States, Mr. Cardino says, but Americans also seem to like their softer bags, knowing they can always shove in that extra sweater. Maybe consumers will end up with a combination of pieces that are best suited to their lifestyles and travel destinations, he adds.

“Many people don’t buy luggage sets anymore. It’s more like furniture shopping, a piece from here and a piece from there,” he says.

Sales of suitcases and garment bags in the U.S. amounted to almost $950 million for the 12-month period ending in May, according to NPD Group market researchers. While total sales for those categories dropped 17 percent from the year before, carry-on pieces dropped just 2 percent; larger bags dropped 29 percent.

Mr. Cardino and Hyla Bauer, executive fashion editor of Conde Nast Traveler, agree that suitcases should last quite a while for a family that uses its luggage just a few times a year.

So, they say, buy the best you can afford.

“The durability-versus-price issue is pretty major,” Miss Bauer says. “After two or three flights, you might find out the cheap, lightweight bag is flimsy and you’ll just need a new bag.”

She also notes that some manufacturers are offering warranties for wear and tear.

Jeff Herold, founder of the Train Reaction luggage system, says he uses a light but strong nylon fabric made with high-tenacity fibers for his bags. The suitcases themselves are light, but he wants you to stuff them full, which helps with the nontraditional weight distribution that puts the bulk up against the bag’s telescoping handles. It works even better when the carry-on bag is attached, he says.

“Once I figured out how to lug 80 pounds of luggage with one finger, I felt like I figured out how to build the pyramids,” he says.

Tumi’s Mr. Krantzler says he favors a four-wheeled suitcase, which he says is “driven” more like a grocery cart than dragged. “There’s a lot less stress on the wrist - the bag can be upright all the time. The wheels spin independently.”

Miss Bauer adds: “Wheels are essential; that goes without saying. … The wheelies from 10 years ago to now are worlds apart. You’re now doing 360-degree turns and have turning handles.”

As a frequent flier, Mr. Krantzler also likes the flatter messenger-style bags for his laptop - a style that often seems to satisfy TSA screeners without the traveler taking the computer out of the bag.

In general, he adds, more people are eyeing those hands-free, cross-body bags for both business and leisure travel, including men.

“You’re seeing more men and women buying these bags,” he says. “The messenger bag got them into it, but now they have an iPod, BlackBerry, cell phone, and their clothes are slimmer with not as many bulky pockets.”

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