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The Science of Appliances Woos US Home Gadget Fans at Chicago Expo

While smartphone-compatible, digital home appliances proved the biggest draw for affluent Generation Y consumers at the recent International Home + Housewares Show, there was still space for a small number of low-tech interlopers.

Photo: Unicorn mugs: Just one of the cavalcade of cup options showcased in Chicago.
Unicorn mugs: Just one of the cavalcade of cup options showcased in Chicago.
Photo: Unicorn mugs: Just one of the cavalcade of cup options showcased in Chicago.
Unicorn mugs: Just one of the cavalcade of cup options showcased in Chicago.

From unicorn mugs to smart multi-cookers, this year's International Home + Housewares Show was the perfect space to catch up on the latest innovations in this fast-moving sector. It was also the ideal opportunity to gain an initial familiarity with several entirely new product categories, some of which may – or may not – become future staples in homes across the US and beyond.

This year, the Chicago-based event was well-placed to capitalise on the recent upturn in the sector. This was led by strong online sales, which increased 18% across the US last year, according to figures from NDP, the New York-based consumer-research group. On top of that, many houseware manufacturers / distributors were keen to seize upon the opportunities emerging from improved Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity, while also looking to tailor new product lines to the needs of Generation Y consumers, the massive 1980s-1990s-born demographic that now wields tremendous purchasing power.

As ever, small appliances remained one of the show's key categories. It's a sector that has enjoyed robust growth of late, largely as a consequence of the innovative approach taken by many of the manufacturers active in this particular niche.

Outlining the current state of play in the sector, Udo Jansen, Global Director of the Retail and Technology division of GfK, the Nuremberg-based market-research group, said: "The positive trend continues, which means it's a good time to be a small-appliance manufacturer. Consumers are trading up, but they're not looking to buy additional appliances. Instead, they're replacing existing ones with more expensive models.

"In terms of geographic markets of particular interest, India still has huge growth potential, with many of its consumers only now discovering the benefits of small appliances for the first time. China, too, is interesting right now, especially on account of the opportunities emerging in its rapidly expanding e-commerce sector.

"Overall, though, innovation is driving both new products and new sub-classes in long-established categories in many markets across the world. Much of the sector's 40% growth is actually down to innovative products that just didn't exist five years ago."

One small-appliance sector that has been almost wholly reinvented in recent years is floor care, with improved batteries and technical refinements seen as sounding the death-knell of the traditional canister cleaner. This change has manifested itself in a number of different ways across several individual markets.

In the US, for instance, there has been a 40% rise in the purchase of rechargeable handstick vacuum cleaners. Chinese consumers, however, have taken a different route, with robotic floor cleaners now having a 50% market share in the country, compared with just 12% in 2015.

In terms of other national peccadillos, smart rechargeable toothbrushes are all the rage in Germany right now, while Dutch consumers are known to be particularly partial to personal digital scales. Some trends, however, transcend national boundaries, with any appliance boasting smartphone connectivity likely to do well on a global basis.

A product that has recently embraced smart technology and IoT connectivity is the beverage-maker. Singling out these app-friendly gadgets for attention, Jansen said: "In Germany and France, there's a huge demand for fully-automated coffee machines, with prices ranging from US$600 to more than $3,000. While all of these are clearly at the pricier end of the market, consumers are more than ready to spend on great design and great coffee."

In terms of what's waiting in the wings now the beverages market has succumbed to smart assimilation, a quick peruse of the showfloor suggested mobile nail printers, automated beer-brewing machines and self-cleaning juicers will all be making an appearance on Christmas 2018 wish-lists. They may also all be voice-controllable, as the spoken word – driven by the ubiquity of Alexa and other voice-assistant platforms – becomes the interface of choice for many manufacturers.

Photo: The Cubit digital level in action.
The Cubit digital level in action.
Photo: The Cubit digital level in action.
The Cubit digital level in action.
Photo: The Articulate Gallery range of kid-friendly frames.
The Articulate Gallery range of kid-friendly frames.
Photo: The Articulate Gallery range of kid-friendly frames.
The Articulate Gallery range of kid-friendly frames.

The Shade of Things to Come

For 2018, ultra-violet is apparently the Colour of the Year, at least according to the Pantone Colour Institute, the New Jersey-based colour-matching specialist. Explaining the thinking behind the choice, Institute Director Leatrice Eiseman said: "Ultra-violet speaks symbolically to our needs and aspirations, while also representing complexity through its embrace of reds and blues. It will remain strong through the course of the year and is likely to be paired with oranges and deep reds."

While clearly keen to keep Pantone's 2019 colour pick under wraps, Eiseman did share her thoughts on the tones and design trends she sees as likely to dominate home and interior spaces next year. Taking Focus on the Future as the theme of her keynote address, she said: "Look for extreme opposites being used together. Overall, the reused, recycled and rescued concept is destined to achieve a new level of sophistication. While reclaimed wood will be seen as a little passé, a chair fashioned from a reclaimed auto part would be very much on trend.

"While black and white are a given, they will gravitate towards interesting patterning and be used in combination with vibrant tones. Upbeat palettes – as in the bright red Tesla semi-truck – will be countered by softer yellow-greens. Fuzzy textures will retain their appeal, with the ever-anxious state of the world ensuring people still love tactile surfaces."

As part of her presentation, she also introduced the eight palettes Pantone is tipping to characterise the style and look of 2019 – Cherish, Meanderings, Proximity, Cravings, Syncopated, Paradoxical, Musings and Classico.

Cherish is seen as embodying memories of comfort, all expressed through romantic roses, opal greys and a frosted look, neatly offset by fuchsias or greens. Meanderings, meanwhile, harks back to a gentle wandering, with unexpected treasures found along the way, translating into tropical island greens, wild orchids and robust cabernet chai teas.

Proximity takes its inspiration from the fusion of nature and technology, expressed through sister shades of greens, blues and calming greys. By contrast, Cravings tempts with spicy reds, flamingo oranges and rich purples, while Syncopated pulses with brilliant whites, glowing yellows and Love Potion reds.

More unconventional couplings are expressed through Paradoxical, with its mix of the traditional and the modern, deep greens, bright pinks, plum wines and lavender crystals all garnished with a sprinkle of pale gold. The simple pleasures of a healthy lifestyle are behind Musings, a style marked by herbal garden greens, shadowy purples and shades of grey. Bringing up the rear, then, is Classico, which offers a trip back to basics via swan whites, deep teals, caviar blacks and apricot brandy.

From Smart to Whimsical

Moving on to matters less abstract, the showfloor proper was home to a vast range of connected appliances, with the aforementioned smart coffeemakers and beverage dispensers particularly well-represented. Over in the Smart Home Pavilion, though, it was the Cubit that was attracting particular attention.

Essentially a level with smartphone app compatibility, this handy little gadget – conceived and implemented by New Jersey-based Plott – allows users to take a photo of a room where they're planning to hang or otherwise arrange a number of items, including pictures, shelves and cabinets. The app then digitally designs the space to make sure all the objects are properly centred and levelled, even offering guidance as to exactly where each nail should be placed.

Commenting on the ubiquity of the system, Matt Cultrera, a member of the company's design team, said: "It allows you to design virtually before putting any holes in the wall. As a result, you can focus on the look and not worry about all the maths behind it."

Products that would segue nicely with Cubit were the children's art frames on offer from the UK's Articulate Gallery. Clearly pleased with their reception at the show, Director Colin Gilchrist said: "Kids love to see their art framed and it inspires them to carry on creating, while also helping to keep the kitchen tidy."

All of the company's glassless frames come in a white finish with an easy access side aperture. According to Gilchrist, this makes them suitable for framing a variety of artistic expressions and easy to update once a new masterpiece has been produced.

Staying with the low-tech, silicone seems to have returned to favour in the world of cooking and baking after several years on the naughty step. At the show, its FDA-approved formulation was put to work in everything from ice-trays to lime-squeezers.

Several companies were also offering silicone pouches as a supposedly more durable alternative to zippable plastic bags and other forms of storage. Counseltron, a Toronto-based product developer, however, had hit upon quite different uses for this rubber-like material.

Expanding upon this, Senior Buyer Ran Marduhaeve said: "Our most popular silicone products are glasses, largely because they don't break. We also do well with silicone cutting boards, which let you chop, bend and pour hot liquids on to as you see fit. In terms of kids' products, the safety and durability offered by silicone is always a big plus."

Photo: The 2018 International Home + Housewares Show: Packed with digital distractions and smart art
The 2018 International Home + Housewares Show: Packed with digital distractions and smart artefacts.
Photo: The 2018 International Home + Housewares Show: Packed with digital distractions and smart art
The 2018 International Home + Housewares Show: Packed with digital distractions and smart artefacts.

The International Home + Housewares Show 2018 took place from 10-13 March at Chicago's McCormick Place Convention Center. The event attracted more than 60,000 industry professionals across its four-day run.

Anna Huddleston, Special Correspondent, Chicago

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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