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February 1999 Issue
International Housewares Show, 1999
by Chris Schaefer
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Every year, small appliance manufacturers from around the globe get together to display their wares and services. As I write this, the show is coming to its conclusion; people are packing up and returning to whenst they came. I had the pleasure of attending this exhibition for a day, as a representative of my employer.

And what did I see? Little in the realm of new and exciting technology and much in the realm of business migration. As an international show, countries such as Germany, France, Italy, Korea, China, and Spain were represented. And they all seem to be making the same thing. The only differences: price and style.

As an American manufacture, healthy competition is a must. What becomes unhealthy is a migration from "Keeping it Home" manufacturing to forced cost by manufacturers of other nations. This forced cost, while on the surface represents cost saving to the end-consumer, is actually hurting the home-based manufacturer in the country where the products are sold. Since it is almost no longer true that other nations are putting out lower quality products, competition is fiercely raging on here in the U.S.

Before I get ahead of myself, allow me to describe with words what I saw.

It was a very "Candy Store-like" atmosphere. Not at all garish but still glamorous and exciting. Many retailers of kitchen appliances had food preparation and cooking demonstrations. From one end of the show hall to the other, the air was filled with smells of meats, coffee, bread, and stir-fry. Where I once was concerned what I was going to do for lunch, I lost all concern after only the first few booths.

So, what's new? Again, not much. Manufacturers are still producing bread makers, coffee makers, frying pans, cutlery, skillets, electric tea pots, and flatware. The technology behind the actual manufacturing has undergone little change over the years, as has the methods of cooking- electrical power and gas. Electrical appliances have seen some innovation in feeding electricity into the product and transferring it to the food. But technology like this is invisible to the consumer.

Styling - the art of catching the eye.
Manufacturers today sell their products not only on price, but on looks. And if it looks good enough, it doesn't matter how much it costs (to some). This year, I saw all of the extremes and everything in-between. Take, for example, the latest home espresso machine from Saeco/Starbucks. The "Barista" features a soft rubber handle, whose contour is molded to the shape of a person's closed hand. Likewise, manufacturers of griddles, skillets, and hand-held appliances (mixers and choppers) are moving into the ergonomics arena by shaping handles with sweeps and curves - delicate lines that meld into organic shapes.

On the exterior, I saw bold, blocky products whose garish lines stick out and yell. On the other side of this coin, again, very round and "friendly" shapes that force the eye to follow the product - that direct the user's attention to the parts of the product that gets used the most (for example, a carafe on a drip coffee maker). Colours, too, have changed. Moving away form the sterile whites and grays and the sexy black to brighter, cleaner shades. Neons are also making their debut to some extent. Still prominent to some manufacturers are the chrome-plated plastics. While it's shiny and, from a distance, looks "industrial", it serves no other purpose than to catch the eye. Cost is added at no functional value to the consumer. Yet, manufacturers still chrome-plate some products.

The State of Affairs
While your "everyday" appliances haven't changed, the gourmet industry seems to being moving ahead at a good clip. Specialty coffee appliances (espresso/cappuccino machines, press pots, stove-top brewers, etc.) are making their way into prominence. The larger and more popular manufactures are introducing products that are more user-friendly and push European design and styling onto typical American consumers. Ease-of-use was a chapter of that book. I mentioned above the migration of manufacturing to countries who can produce more for less. It is my honest opinion that an influx of these products may be the downfall of consumerism in today's market.

The solution - buy products manufactured on home-soil. Why totally neglect other nations? In business economy, it would be suicide to do so. Instead, a balance between imports and exports need to be made. I would, personally, much rather purchase a German-made knife. But a griddle made in the U.S. is as superior to any made elsewhere. Compromise and business-sense is played on two fields: the consumer and the manufacturing nation.

A level of support by the producing nation has to be given to the manufacturer. And when this support is given -- and a trust-based relationship is forged -- the manufacturer can better meet the needs and wants of its end-consumers. In the long run, every nation would benefit each other by supporting, first, it's home-based consumers.

The End of It All
It was very exciting seeing new products and designs. I hope it means that consumers still care about what they use in their kitchens and how well it works. While I'm still concerned about the future of manufacturing these products, I have a hope that the consumer won't let the manufacturer down.

Looking holistically at the products featured this year, I saw very unattractive products and very sharp-looking products. If manufacturers listen to their customers, my hope will not be diminished when it comes to serving the end-needs. The voice of the people should, in this area, be spoken loudly and heard by all.

The next time you go shopping for a new kitchen utensil or appliance, look for quality, functionality, warranties, guarantees, cost, and where it is made. Balance your needs and wants with the understanding of the end result and who will be affected.

  • Does it fit right and feel comfortable?
  • Is it good for you and your household?
  • Will it fit into your kitchen and its "space?"
  • Who else will benefit this purchase?
If all of these questions are answered to the best of your ability, you will almost always end up making the most responsible purchase that you can. And a responsible purchase is a happy purchase.


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