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Caskets & death report

Some news and information on caskets and the death rate in the USA Fiberglass Caskets - A U.S. Market Analysis, By John Schmidt Executive MBA Student University of Southern California, jvs@marshall.usc.edu
November 2000

Data in this document is not original and was compiled from the sources referenced at the end. Source attribution can be obtained from the author.
Literally, people have been dying forever. Yet it wasn't until the mid 1800's that the casket manufacturing and funeral industry emerged. The profession of taking care of the deceased evolved from furniture builders turned casket makers who also "undertook" the body for burial. In the U.S., these early, small companies were a single source for funeral services with casket manufacturing a part of their offer. Towards the end of the century attitudes towards funeral services changed, the market grew through not just an increasing population but also for greater demand for a higher quality product. The early 20th century saw the foundation of the first funeral industry trade groups, setting standards for care and aiming to improve the public's perception of the industry. While not entirely ethical, the trade groups also promoted greater cooperation among its members and to the detriment of the consumer, allowed for the setting of pricing standards for products and services. The middle part of the century also saw technology advance the casket manufacturing process to the point where the smaller, less sophisticated companies were squeezed out of business by the larger, regional casket manufacturers who, with the advent of improved transportation, could move the bulky caskets to customers more effectively. Casket manufacturing and distribution efficiencies also created an opportunity for the manufacturing process to separate itself from the funeral home and cemetery business although in some areas they are still linked.

Today, many fine wooden caskets are still manufactured by companies that also manufacture furniture. Yet with depleting natural resources and a higher cost, over time wood has been replaced by other materials in casket manufacturing, mainly metal. But in our high technology environment could there be even a more superior material? Fiberglass as a building medium has been around for over 50 years and caskets have been made with it for about 40 but in such small quantities that hardly registers as a percentage of all caskets produced (currently .0012%). But could that change? The answer lies in the customer's perception and acceptance of the product and whether or not long held beliefs about quality and appearance can be overcome.

Market Definition

The casket market is huge. Of the 2.3 million U.S. deaths in 1998, 23.75% resulted in cremation with almost all the balance being burials. Approximately 1.7 million caskets were produced that year. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the 1999 average cost of a casket is $2, 176.46. Quick multiplication will tell you that caskets are a $3.7 billion business. A full 1% share of the market would translate to a $37 million annual potential! But the key question is the market expanding, contracting or staying the same? A look at population trends explains the answer.

Appendix 1 shows population/death statistics and growth patterns. Except for a small percentage of deaths that result in neither cremation nor burial the trend is quite remarkable; deaths are forecast to increase at a rate of 11.3% over the next ten years with a total of 2,634,000 persons dying in 2010. The forecast for growth in the deceased continues each decade thereafter peaking at a forecasted 18.1% growth between 2030 and 2040 resulting in a whopping 4.1 million deaths. After 2040 the growth is predicted to level off and then decline but few industries can depend on such a consistent growth pattern for the next 40 years.

The increase in deaths is good news for the funeral industry as a whole but not so good news for casket manufacturers. The reason is that cremation as an alternative to burial is also going to continue it's consistent growth pattern. Appendix 2 shows the decreasing number of burials and the increase in the number of cremations as a percentage of deaths through 2010. Although a little less than 5% of all caskets purchased are cremated with the deceased, the number and percentage of cremations will out pace the number of burials and deaths, resulting in a slowly decreasing market for all caskets. The hope for the fiberglass casket segment resides in taking market share from the traditional manufacturers and the only way to accomplish this is through a change in the customer's perception of the product.

Customer Profile

Who are the typical fiberglass casket customers and what are they looking for in a product? Like taxes, death is a certainty and with it comes the chance that just about every U.S. citizen will face having to prepare services for a loved one. In other words, the market is open to just about everyone. However, the more likely casket purchaser is an adult over the age of 30 who is preparing services for a spouse or older relative. The likely fiberglass casket purchaser is someone who is not afraid to be different and break away from the traditional metal or wood casket. Fiberglass has proven to be a stronger and more durable material than either metal or wood. These are important characteristics to many customers who want at all costs to ensure their loved ones are encased in the most durable material available. The purchasers also tend to be scientific or knowledgeable about the qualities of plastic or fiberglass. From a purely scientific perspective fiberglass is actually the reinforcing fibers in an otherwise hard polymer (plastic) material. Therein lies the tremendous hurdle the fiberglass casket manufacturers must overcome; the perception that the casket is plastic, not the tested and proven metal or wood.

From the 1940's through the 1960's plastic became a less expensive material for constructing objects, and frequently the lower price also resulted in a lower quality of material. Early plastics were looked down upon as an inferior substitute and many of these beliefs are still held by a generation of older adults, many whom are casket buyers. Often funeral services are held before burial and friends and close family members closely view the casket itself. This results in the casket's appearance playing a prominent role in projecting an image of respect for the deceased. Casket purchasers don't want to be viewed themselves as providing anything less than the highest quality product and for an older generation, a "plastic" casket is out of the question. Also, often the choice of casket is made by not just one person but also a group. This can cause additional challenges for the fiberglass casket, as often a group member will speak out expressing reservations about deviating from the course of the tried and true metal or wood. There is little risk in going with the standard.

Casket purchases can be made in two ways, pre-need and immediate need. Preparing for the death of a loved one is something a majority of people discount and put out of their minds until it happens. That in itself is a problem for fiberglass casket manufacturers as currently the distribution and inventory infrastructure is not as developed leading to an under representation in the funeral homes and an opportunity to sell to the immediate need customer. On the other hand, typically the pre-need customers really take their time and examine all the alternatives and features of the different products available. Although they account for a small percentage, pre-need sales are currently the primary target for fiberglass as the additional time allows more opportunity to expose the product and its advantages.

Fiberglass caskets are slightly higher in cost than a comparable gasketed steel casket and about the same as the average hardwood one although cherry and mahogany can run much higher. However, to most fiberglass casket customers, price does not play a major role in the purchase decision. They are looking for the quality characteristics mentioned earlier and if those features can be obtained at a nearly equal cost to the other types then the decision is easily made. The few fiberglass casket customers who are price conscious can find their product through less expensive dealers who typically advertise on the Internet.

Demographics

Since making preparations for the deceased touches just about everyone at some point in their lives, the demographics at that scale include almost all adults. There are two choices in preparing the deceased, cremation or burial (bodies donated to medicine are eventually cremated). For those choosing burial, a casket is required in all cases. The identification of the demographics of the typical casket buyer, while not as challenging as identifying the demographics of all arrangement preparers, is still quite difficult because the population is so large and diverse. Nevertheless, patterns of who these purchasers are can be drawn.

Buying a casket when in an immediate need situation is very difficult for many people. Some buyers tend to withdraw and hardly focus on the object. Others are on the other extreme and examine every detail. Price is sometimes very important and other times not at all. The purchase can be a group decision with everyone's agreement or can be left up to one individual. These buying characteristics are distributed across all age groups, incomes, geographic and ethnic backgrounds. Demographically, as mentioned earlier, the lower portion of the typical buyer's age bracket begins around age 30, with an increasing likelihood of purchase as one enters their 40's and 50's. Widows and widowers in their 60's and 70's have been identified as the most likely of all casket purchasers and with men dying earlier on average than women, 67% of casket buyers in this segment are women.

In some states burial as opposed to cremation is very popular. Likewise in other states it is the reverse. Appendix 3 shows a state by state accounting of cremations to deaths. It is evident that in the South (Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky) 90 - 95 % of deaths there result in burial. On the other hand, in the Far West (Washington, Arizona, Nevada) less than 50% result in burial. The projected trends through 2010 shows that the cremation percent will continue to rise, across all states but particularly in the West. The population growth rate notwithstanding, it would not be a wise decision to focus on selling caskets in Washington State and expect the overall market to grow over the next ten years.

With burials being geographically concentrated in some areas more than others, other demographic data can be found. For example, across the entire U.S. but particularly in the south, the African American community favors burial over cremation. Likewise, in California, Texas and Florida, the Hispanic community prefers burial. These preferences can be attributed to strong cultural and religious traditions. Many Hispanics are influenced by the Catholic Church, which still frowns on cremation. Also, the Jewish community favors burial, and in their case they often choose a simple pine casket. Many Asian cultures, particularly the Japanese, resist burial and prefer cremation as well as Buddhists from India and other countries.

Targeting the demographics of the typical fiberglass casket purchaser finds a little different casket buyer. This individual's number one priority is a solid structure and longevity. With a fiberglass casket's cost being average between most wood and metal, purchasers are looking for a strong product at a competitive price. These people also tend to understand and know the characteristics of fiberglass and will request it just for those reasons. One could conclude that fiberglass purchasers would tend to be more scientific or possibly of a higher educational level but this is not the case. They are found across all education and income levels and are not concentrated in one area. Another conclusion that could be drawn would be that fiberglass purchasers tend to be younger than average, with older purchasers avoiding fiberglass because of it's synthetic image. But this also is not the case. Older persons also choose fiberglass, again looking for that primary benefit of resistance to the elements.

Industry Analysis

Excluding pre-need sales, which are not sales but a reservation for product, in order to understand the driver of demand for the entire casket industry one needs to look at the number of deaths. It is forecast that 2,367,000 will die in the U.S. this year. It is also forecast that 1,758,681 of those deaths will result in burial. It is assumed that every burial requires a casket so the market is 1,758,681 plus the number of caskets to be used in cremation. In 1996 there were 78,297 persons cremated with a casket or 15.9% of all cremations that year were performed with one. If the percent of cremations where a casket is required does not change, funeral directors can expect 96,722 additional casket cremation sales in 2000 and 159,900 in 2010. So the true total market potential this year for caskets is 1,855,403 and in 2010 it will be 1,788,239. This shows the entire casket market will decline at a rate of 3.8% over the next ten years if the cremation rate that has been predicted by the Cremation Association of North America reaches 38.18%. While the 2010 cremation rate is not certain, it is likely that even at a level somewhat lower than 38% the increase in the number of cremations will outpace the increasing number of deaths and lead to declining casket market. It has not been determined what the cremation rate and subsequently the number of burials will be after 2010.

At the expense of the traditional casket manufacturers, the fiberglass casket segment of the market is growing at a rate of 10 - 12% per year. This is due to a variety of reasons: new product awareness, an aging of the "anti-plastic" population, and new marketing strategies. Although he anticipates it will be much higher, Jim Kieszkowski, the president of fiberglass casket manufacturer Oak Grove International, predicts that the fiberglass casket growth rate will continue next year and the foreseeable future at 10% per year. If that same rate holds true for the next ten years the fiberglass portion of the market will grow from 2,200 units today to 5,800 in 2010. Assuming other market factors stay the same, it appears that fiberglass will raise it's portion of the total casket market from .0012% today to .0032% in 2010. Not great numbers as a percentage of all caskets but fiberglass is making its impact felt through innovative marketing efforts.

Fiberglass has been hindered in its ability to penetrate the market because of two reasons. First, funeral homes don't typically carry them and often don't make the customer aware that they are even an option. Second, because customers don't know they exist, they don't see the benefits and request them. Large, traditional casket manufacturers often create direct selling arrangements between themselves and the larger funeral homes. Often these arrangements require funeral homes to carry only their brand and offer discounts in order to secure the agreement. Without the product being out in front of the customer, particularly in the immediate need scenario, the opportunity for customer awareness and potential sales are greatly diminished. However the Internet has made communication much better and for pre-need customers it offers a portal to a better understanding of fiberglass' benefits.

With burials declining due to cremation, the total market for caskets is decreasing. The only opportunity for growth resides in shifting the distribution between types of caskets. Being a mature industry and rich in tradition, change comes slowly. Although a very small number are currently being manufactured in children's sizes, recent attempts have been made at the manufacture of injection molded plastic caskets. This segment of the market, like fiberglass, has an even more uphill battle against the perception of inferior quality. The past 20 years in the industry have seen little change on the traditional wood and steel side of the business and therefore it appears the greatest area of opportunity for growth lies in fiberglass.

Market Segmentation

Fiberglass caskets can be considered a segment of the entire casket market. Appendix 4 shows a breakdown of the different types of caskets available today and their portion of the market. Steel dominates the market with 75% followed by hardwood at 15%, other wood at 6%, bronze and copper at 3% and fiberglass, aluminum, plastic and other material at less than 1%. The current portions of the market have been relatively stable for the past ten years. The cost of wood, particularly hardwood, is expected to continue to push the price of wood caskets higher during the next ten years. Although there are no estimates, it is expected that the hardwood portion of the market will decrease. Buyers of wood caskets favor them because of their beauty and natural origin. It is unlikely that many price sensitive potential wood purchasers would be drawn to lower cost fiberglass.

There is much diversity in the pricing of caskets at casket retailers, funeral homes and on the Internet. A sample price page from the web site A Team Masters Casket Store shows the following models and their prices:

Wood Poplar Barkley $1498
18 Gauge Steel The Heirloom $1800
Fiberglass Emerald Velvet $1989
Wood Solid Maple $2598

Betty Brown, owner of A Team Masters, explains that the above models are comparable, in other words, the interiors and exterior hardware are about the same. She also lists other models but her outlet shows just a few models of dozens that are available from as low as $499 all the way up to a $20,000 custom model. The above fiberglass Emerald Velvet casket is an average priced fiberglass model, which also happens to be very close to the average price of the earlier mentioned average price of $2,176 for all caskets. Jim Kieszkowski purposely wants his products priced in the middle of the road, again to prove to the customer that greater longevity can be obtained at a average price.

Growth in the fiberglass segment depends on an increase in customer awareness and demand. Currently 70% of all metal and wood caskets are manufactured and distributed by three manufacturers. Then 70% of those are sold directly to funeral homes with the balance sold to independent distributors. The directors of funeral homes are traditionally very conservative and slow to change. Betty and Jim agree that the funeral home director's perception of the product as well as their relationships with the three large manufacturers have hindered fiberglass' acceptance as a viable alternative.

Customers don't often request caskets by brand name. The reason for this is because purchases are often years apart and customers forget a majority of their prior purchase experience. Also, funeral homes tend to carry only one brand and often don't promote the differences between brands. In reality caskets are a very generic product.

The fiberglass segment itself has just recently begun its own segmentation. Besides being offered in wood grain or just about any color the customer wishes, customization has been increasingly requested. Images can be painted or imprinted on any casket but fiberglass allows greater flexibility through the fact that fiberglass is easier to manipulate. Just recently Oak Grove has been offering a line of University themed caskets complete with the university logo or crest on the outside and custom embroidering on the inside. Of course the entire casket is painted in the deceased alma mater's colors. Jim claims that the recent display of a Ohio State University themed casket on campus during this season's homecoming game resulted in tremendous attention and a number of sales. Although these types of caskets consist of just 5% of all current fiberglass sales, they nevertheless instill customer interest in the alternative product. Betty believes the demand for these types of caskets will continue to grow.

Unexploited Opportunities

In addition to the University themed caskets, a great potential for fiberglass is the international market. Many developed countries mirror the U.S. and have an increasing cremation rate. However, in other less developed countries, particularly those that favor burial, just as in the U.S. there appears an opportunity to take share from the traditional manufacturers. A look at death statistics and trends internationally shows a tremendous variety in the percent of deaths resulting in burial. For example, in Japan the burial rate is a paltry 1.58% of all deaths but in Ireland and Italy it is greater than 95%. Already Betty claims a number of her current sales are for overseas customers. Cremation trends notwithstanding it appears that with some analysis countries could be targeted just as regions are here in the U.S. and efforts undertaken to increase customer awareness and subsequent demand.

Web based sales for all caskets are increasing and if the trend continues will create additional opportunities for fiberglass sales through better exposure of the product. Most customers don't think it is possible but freight costs are relatively low and most caskets can be delivered just about anywhere in the U.S. within a few days. Although they are bulky, fiberglass caskets don't weigh a lot. Betty Brown says she can ship a fiberglass casket just about anywhere in the U.S. from her Ohio warehouse for about $225. A greater customer awareness this fact could enhance sales.

Competition

The three companies that control 70% of the total casket market are Batesville Casket, The York Group, and Aurora Casket. The remaining 30% is spread among approximately 10 or so much smaller firms. A distribution of business is outlined in Appendix 5. Batesville Casket and their complete line of products are the most well known in the industry and control 45% of the entire market. Their success has been built upon manufacturing and quality efficiencies gained through product standardization. Casket customers particularly like a consistent product with high quality. Manufacturing efficiencies come at a cost however and the barriers to entry into the traditional casket market are great. A metal stamping machine required to produce a quality steel casket can cost $1 million dollars or more. The investments these large firms have made make them highly sensitive to the threat of market share loss, particularly in a declining market. If the demand for fiberglass grows substantially, it would be likely that they would undertake manufacturing the fiberglass product themselves or buy a firm like Oak Grove outright.

In addition to the competition from the traditional caskets and their manufacturers, alternative material caskets threaten fiberglass. As mentioned earlier, injected molded plastic has recently been introduced although it is yet to be seen what its impact will be. There have also been attempts at stone and ceramic caskets. In today's high technology environment the possibility of creating a casket out of other manufactured materials is always a possibility.

The ease of entry into the fiberglass casket market is itself a threat to the existing market. According to Jim Kieszkowski the development and creation of plugs and molds are the most expensive part of starting up a fiberglass casket manufacturing business and are low when comparing them to the traditional casket manufacturers machine costs. The labor required in the fiberglass lay up during the creation of the exterior shell is a common trade very similar to the labor in boat or spa manufacturing and is readily available. The subsequent assembly of the interior and hardware is also not particularly technical. Because of this there exists the threat of manufacturing in Mexico or other countries where labor is inexpensive.

Observations and Conclusions

The fiberglass casket market has opportunity for more rapid growth at the expense of traditional caskets. Its current slow growth is due to weak promotion of the product by funeral home directors. Also, because it is not steel or wood, the different image it portrays makes some customers feel uncomfortable with it, particularly when the purchase shows a final act of respect for the deceased. But times are changing and attitudes towards composite materials are becoming more positive especially with the younger generation. And diversity in the appearance through new marketing efforts could well pay off, particularly in those areas with a high burial rate. Finally, for those who want the longest lasting product available, there is general agreement that fiberglass is the best.

Because statistical data on death rates and burials as a percentage of them is so accurate and predictable, the demand for caskets is likewise also very predictable. Even though the number of deaths is increasing, the overall market for caskets is going to decrease for at least the next ten years. But there are other risks, particularly the state of the economy and the rising cost of funeral services. Like many other services when times are good people tend to spend more lavishly and when they aren't so good people pull back. With the average cost of preparing a body for burial now being over $8,000 people tend to get more price sensitive. And cremation and its greater acceptance into our society will also continue to make an impact. For the person who wants to enter into the fiberglass casket manufacturing business for the first time, the entry costs may not be that high but gaining sales at the expense of existing three large manufacturers is not that easy. In sum, unless a there is a fundamental change in the customer's perception of the product and there becomes an increase in subsequent promotion and demand, fiberglass caskets will continue to play a small, niche role in the overall casket market.

Appendix 1 deaths
Appendix 2 cremation stats
Appendix 3 - - Printable page here of below
Printable page here of MANUFState 1998 Cremations --1998 Deaths --1998 % of Deaths--- 2000 % of Deaths-- 2010 % of Deaths
Alabama** 2,409 --------43,989 ------5.48 --------------- 9.79---------------------- 65+
Alaska* 1,318 2,559 51.5 57.92 65+
Arizona* 19,578 38,395 50.99 53.66 65+
Arkansas** 3,241 26,817 12.09 14.58 37.28
California 98,218 234,852 41.82 42.36 45.19
Colorado** 11,835 26,638 44.43 46.32 57.03
Connecticut 7,051 28,748 24.53 27.39 47.59
Delaware** 1,538 6,676 23.04 24.64 34.51
District of Columbia** 1,041 5,694 18.28 18.65 20.62
Florida* 68,907 159,354 43.24 45.6 59.47
Georgia** 7,128 60,788 11.73 13.54 27.8
Hawaii** 4,693 8,011 58.58 61.07 65+
Idaho* 3,098 9,141 33.89 36.35 51.6
Illinois 19,771 104,153 18.98 20.17 27.33
Indiana** 5,807 46,333 12.53 14.21 26.59
Iowa* 3,684 28,320 13.64 15.44 28.67
Kansas* 3,897 23,928 16.29 19.91 54.37
Kentucky** 2,511 38,224 6.57 7.69 16.88
Louisiana** 3,415 39,672 8.61 10.15 23.17
Maine* 4,655 11,670 39.89 44.17 65+
Maryland** 8,326 40,792 20.41 23.73 50.36
Massachusetts** 12,647 58,364 21.67 24.44 44.64
Michigan** 22,925 86,292 26.57 29.2 46.88
Minnesota** 9,840 37,252 26.41 30.32 60.45
Mississippi 1,430 27,850 5.13 6.78 27.22
Missouri* 7,898 54,849 14.4 16.35 30.87
Montana** 3,642 7,960 45.75 48.7 65+
Nebraska* 2,454 15,181 16.16 19.65 52.15
Nevada* 8,762 15,495 56.55 59.12 65+
New Hampshire** 3,512 8,911 39.41 42.87 65+
New Jersey** 14,095 66,021 21.35 23.14 34.64
New Mexico** 4,519 13,410 33.7 37.07 59.72
New York* 29,455 153,175 19.23 21.76 40.34
North Carolina* 9,245 67,798 13.64 15.44 28.77
North Dakota* 596 5,911 10.08 13.1 48.56
Ohio** 18,687 105,709 17.68 18.43 22.68
Oklahoma* 3,348 33,840 9.89 12.19 34.58
Oregon** 14,705 29,529 49.8 52.51 65+
Pennsylvania** 23,653 126,957 18.63 21.41 42.86
Rhode Island 2,253 9,602 23.46 22.82 19.88
South Carolina** 4,083 34,208 11.94 14.69 41.54
South Dakota** 838 6,912 12.12 15.18 46.7
Tennessee 3,806 54,034 7.04 8.3 18.8
Texas* 19,815 142,398 13.92 16.04 32.63
Utah** 1,724 11,920 14.46 16.28 29.42
Vermont** 1,884 4,836 38.96 42.72 65+
Virginia* 8,917 54,274 16.43 17.6 24.86
Washington* 23,414 42,585 54.98 59.12 65+
West Virginia 1,142 20,890 5.47 6.52 15.67
Wisconsin** 10,851 45,843 23.67 27.42 57.23
Wyoming* 923 3,652 25.27 29.84 65+
United States 553,364 2,330,403 23.75 25.7 38.18
Source: Cremation Society of North America

projected deaths have remained stable throughout the years past
References

Schwartz, Jerry, 100 Years on a Plastic Planet, AP Online, Oct 1999

The Institute for Justice Media Center, The Right to Urn an Honest Living: Challenging Tennessee' Casket Monopoly, 1999

The Casket and Funeral Supply Association of America, Basic Information, www.cfsaa.org

The National Funeral Directors Association, Consumer Resources, www.nfda.org

Oak Grove International, Manufacture Process, www.ogicaskets.com

A Team Masters Fiberglass Caskets, www.burialitems.com

Elder, Laura Elizabeth, York Group Acquiring Casket Distributors, www.bizjournals.com

Cremation Association of North America, www.cremationassociation.org

United States Census, www.census.gov

Brown, Betty, Owner, A Team Masters Casket Store

Kieszkowski, Jim, President, Oak Grove International

This also can be said for designer caskets. A segment of the death care industry manufactures that is growing. The public doesn't know of them, has not been offered them much before. However, now as Baby Boomers, they want custom caskets, done their way. Many different styles are now offered - as one can get most anything they wish detailed on a casket, including golf scenes or race car victory flags - or painted NASCAR colors!


 


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