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issue: June 2006 APPLIANCE Magazine

Appliance Line
Complicated Connections


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by Tim Somheil, Editor

Old challenges aren’t going away. New challenges are demanding more industry attention. To further complicate matters, consumers are beginning to clamor for appliances that are customized to their individual needs and tastes.

Consumers can buy custom skins for cell phones and MP3 players—and this customization trend is migrating to more traditional home appliances. In April, San Diego, California, U.S.-based SkinIt, Inc. launched customizable vinyl skins for iRobot Home floor care robots. Users can choose art from professional sports, movies and popular music. Customers can also upload their own photos to create appliance skins that are one-of-a-kind.

Presenters at the 2006 Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM) Annual Member Meeting, held May 1, 2006, attempted to define the challenges and opportunities facing the industry in North America.
The “Consumer Connections” panel discussion featured, among others, Karl J. Russ, Jr., director of research & development, Global Household Care, Fabric Care New Business Development, Appliance and Textiles, Proctor and Gamble (P&G). He spoke on key North American consumer trends from the perspective of a consumables producer, but his observations had clear implications for the appliance industry.
The first of three major trends noted by Russ was the need for even more convenience—consumers’ response to their busy North American lives. “Consumers today are busier than ever, and they’re demanding products that simplify everyday tasks,” he says, and notes that U.S. consumers spend, on average, 44 hours a week at work. “That’s 3 more hours than the work week in Japan and about 11 more hours than the work week in Germany.”
Consumers today are busier at home, too, Russ notes, and changing home behavior to compensate. Hand washing of clothing is down 19 percent in the last decade. Time spent ironing is down 40 percent. The average number of wash loads is down 12 percent, largely thanks to bigger-capacity laundry appliances. Even garment purchases are increasingly aimed at convenience, with 29 percent of consumers purchasing stain-repellent garments.
Speaking on the same panel was Jill Notini, AHAM’s director of Communications and Marketing, who presented recent AHAM market research that showed how the industry was addressing convenience needs. More prevalent, Notini notes, are convenience features like stain settings, detergent reservoirs and standby settings. In cooking, convection is more common and featured in 30 percent of new wall ovens. Dishwasher drawers are in more homes—AHAM sees dish drawer saturation (the number of households owning such an appliance) at about 1.3 percent.
Russ says the second big trend is customization. Consumers want to experience products that are uniquely designed for them. Blame the Internet for creating this expectation—and Starbucks. As Russ pointed out, Starbucks serves several million cups of coffee a day, each one of them attempting to be as individual as possible, down to the customer’s name on the cup in some stores.
“Customization creates a sense of being unique in a land of sameness and mass-market,” Russ says. “Customization delivers on personalization. Customization gives us just what we need, but with nothing we don’t.”
Notini says AHAM members have created a number of examples of customizable appliances, some displayed for the first time at the recent Kitchen/Bath Industry Show (K/BIS). Exhibitors showed customizable and convertible fresh and frozen food compartments in refrigerators.
AHAM research asked customers about humidity-controlled and temperature-controlled bins in appliances. “Both these features are ranked high in importance among owners,” Notini says. “They’re also ranked low in satisfaction.” That’s a notable point that may deserve more attention from producers, she says.
Color is an area where consumers want more personal choice. Stainless steel remains strong, however. While AHAM shows 67 percent of major appliances owned right now are white, recent purchase data illustrates a big shift. Purchases of stainless steel have gone from 3 percent more than 5 years ago to 10 percent. Black has increased slightly. Beige/bisque colors are on the decline.
The third trend identified by Russ of P&G is a bit less tangible. “It has to do with the consumers relationship with all things natural, and their search for complete wellness,” Russ explains. “It is the desire to achieve balance, physically and emotionally, and to be connected with the environment around us. It is the idea that there is security and pleasure in all things natural, and it extends to protecting our environment for today and…future generations.”
That’s good news when it predisposes consumers to buy higher efficiency products.
“Market incentive programs are working,” Notini says, and she points to AHAM statistics showing that shipments of Energy Star clothes washers rose from 14 percent in 2002 to 32 percent in 2005. The saturation of front load clothes washers is now at 14.5 percent. “Shipments of front-load access washers have increased from under 10 percent in 2001 to almost 25 percent in 2005.”
Twenty-five percent is an immense chunk of the laundry appliance category, and the speed of its growth truly proves the case for consumer demand for enhanced convenience and environmental wellness. These attributes can and do equal market success.
The customization trend may present tougher challenges to an industry that’s still geared to mass-producing large numbers of similar appliances. It will take some clever product and manufacturing engineering to merge large-scale production with customizable appliances.
However, if the demand is there, the product will be there, too. The only question is if it will be your company fulfilling that demand.

 

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