Fabulous Function

The driving influences behind major appliance purchases have changed considerably in the last couple of years, due to economic factors and people re-prioritizing their wants and needs. And value, it seems, is more important than ever.

"Many consumers are in a ‘need' situation rather than a ‘want' situation, since they are being forced to buy a product due to a product failure or a need for an improved product," reports Robert McKechnie, manager of New Product Development/Engineer at Electrolux Major Appliances in Augusta, GA. "Value, with respect to energy efficiency and feature set, is key. So while style is still important, it is not the main driver."

However, McKechnie is quick to point out that value does not necessarily mean lower price, but rather the best set of features at a particular price level.

Scott Davies, marketing manager for Fisher & Paykel Appliances in Huntington Beach, CA, concurs that value has become very important. He notes that, while both the Fisher & Paykel and DCS brands are positioned at the premium end of the market where price is not as much of a driving factor, "given the economic conditions of late, customers still aspire and want premium brands, but are less likely to purchase if the return on investment is not there."
What this means is customers are still prepared to pay for premium brand names, but they expect to see real benefits for the features high-end brands employ.

Indeed, quality plays a vital role in providing value and return on investment. Consumers are now savvy about product features; they know how to collect information and make comparisons between different products.

"Consumers look for both quality and price, and they still want the latest product on the market," says Sonja Dettori, operations manager U.S. Market, Smeg USA in New York, NY. "However, they do not buy products just because of the brand name; they want to verify the quality."

Green Theme

In quality appliances, energy efficiency is now a given. With Americans taking a stronger interest in the environment, appliance shoppers are focusing on energy- and water-efficient appliances, with many demanding efficiency that exceeds just the minimum energy- and water-efficiency standards, reports John Farley, senior brand manager for Bosch Home Appliances in Huntington Beach, CA.

"It's been said over the past few years that, if you're not building sustainably, you're not building," says Terri Connett, senior manager, Marketing & Design Contract Channel, Whirlpool Corp. in Benton Harbor, MI.

The statistics back this up: According to a 2009 Whirlpool survey, conducted with Harris Interactive, more than two-thirds of respondents indicated they do their best to be green to the extent it fits their lifestyle and finances. The survey also reported that 72 percent of consumers look for an Energy Star label when purchasing an appliance.

Bosch has seen a strong demand for efficient home appliances based on two factors, according to Farley – the State Energy Star Rebate Program (SEEARP) and a greater awareness among consumers regarding the environment.

"SEEARP provided incentives to homeowners with rebates to replace outdated appliances with newer, Energy Star-qualified models," says Farley. He adds that everyone is taking a second look at how his or her daily habits are impacting the environment. "Why waste water and energy washing your dishes by hand when an energy-efficient dishwasher such as the Bosch 800 Plus uses less than two gallons per cycle and only 180 kWh/year?" he asks.

The Consortium for Energy Efficiency (CEE) publishes a list of super-efficient home appliances. The list is divided into three tiers – tier one, two and three (with tier three being the most efficient). Farley believes consumers are turning to the CEE ratings to help identify the most efficient products in a class, noting that several of the SEEARP programs require higher tier to qualify for appliance rebates.

In addition to the government incentive, consumers are just more aware of green appliances and LEED-certified products than ever before, according to Dettori. "Energy Star-rated dishwashers are considered environmentally friendly because they use approximately 40% less energy than the federal minimum standard for energy consumption and less water than a conventional dishwasher," she explains.

Broan-NuTone, which introduced the first Energy Star-rated ventilation hood a few years ago, is expanding its line this fall in response to the green building codes and the desire for these types of products. "Our Energy Star vent hood has been very well received," notes Karen Collins, APR, marketing communications manager, Broan-NuTone in Hartford, WI. "All of the green builders understand that indoor air quality is incredibly important to green building codes and programs. With the expanded line, we're just giving them the opportunity for more styles of Energy Star range hoods."

Other trends are developing that are actually ahead of consumer awareness. One example is Smart Grid integration. "Smart Grid integration allows consumers to actively monitor their appliances' energy usage, and to directly interact with the power grid based on peak demand and low demand cycles," says McKechnie.

"Inspired by visions of a more energy-efficient future, today's appliance manufacturers are beginning to develop new smart grid-compatible appliances," confirms Connett. She notes that Whirlpool Corp. recently committed to complete a suite of smart appliances by the end of 2011 – a significant step toward its larger goal to make all of the electronically controlled appliances it produces, throughout the world, smart-grid compatible by the end of 2015.

Now Featuring

Improved technology is also a hot trend, and consumers and designers are looking for products that offer the latest technology at the best prices. High-end products are generally the most technologically advanced on the market, but consumers pay a premium for them. As a result, they are either purchased by those who want the status of high-end brand names or by those who love to cook.

"The latter spend hours in the kitchen and are well informed about energy savings as well as the latest accessories/appliances in the kitchen," says Dettori. "Adding features and working on more efficient appliances is the least manufacturers can do in order to acquire and keep clients."

But today's technology isn't just about bells and whistles, it's about improved functionality for all users. For instance, one of Broan-NuTone's latest offerings, the Evolution vent hood, has twice the amount of lighting of any range in its category, according to Collins, with four halogen lights directed to the cooktop. "The range hood is used every day as a light source," she notes, "and as the population ages, people are becoming more and more interested in adding lighting to the kitchen." The range hood light is also used for safety at night, as most range hoods now offer a night light feature.

Consumer familiarity with LCD and touch screens as used daily on cell phones and ATMs has helped bring the same technology into household appliances. Refrigerator dispensers and washer/dryer control panels may now be seen with full-color interactive touch screens, either as the primary user interface or in conjunction with more traditional keys and buttons.

"The easy use of controls is a definite trend," remarks Collins. "More people want controls that are intuitive – they touch something and it works. They want to easily manage the operation of their appliances."

"Look for an increasing trend in LCD interfaces on more products, since expectations for many consumers – especially in the higher price points – include these technologies in newer products," says McKechnie.

Jenn-Air embraces this idea with its technologically advanced wall ovens, which are at the heart of the company's super-premium collection. "Some of our wall oven models are equipped with a 7" color ‘touch anywhere' control screen that allows homeowners to slide through options using only a finger," says Connett. The LCD screen provides access to food-specific convection modes, pan and rack suggestions, and the option of choosing levels of ‘doneness' for meat – from rare to well done.

Another technological advancement is a dual-fan convection element, which is rated at 6,800 watts. "It can evenly roast on multiple racks in significantly less time than traditional roasting methods," states Connett.

Flexible Options

Advancing electronics opens the door for greater product flexibility and product personalization, which is becoming more important to the consumer, according to McKechnie. By using functions such as "favorites," the consumer can select the best cleaning cycle for a washer, or the best cooking mode for a favorite meal. In many cases, the consumer can actually save several favorites.

Even microwaves now have features that allow much more simplistic use and flexibility. "Keys such as ‘melt' and ‘soften,' plus keys for various kids' meals, are eagerly sought by many in the market," says McKechnie.

Double-drawer dishwashers offer twice the convenience of traditional dishwashers while occupying the same amount of undercounter space, according to Connett. Two drawers pull out to reveal separate dishwashers capable of washing two loads simultaneously at different cycle settings. "Homeowners can wash smaller loads using less water and power, wash dishes in one drawer while temporarily storing clean dishes in the other or wash dishes separately in kosher kitchens," she reports.

While virtually unknown to the U.S. market five or more years ago, induction cooking has not only gained acceptance, but is actually sought by many consumers. The presence of induction raises the bar for cooking products with respect to safety (cool surfaces, pot and pan sensing), performance (very fast heating times) and efficiency (approximately 70% more efficient than gas).

On Bosch induction cooktops, SteelTouch replaces control knobs with a clean, modern stainless steel strip that lies flush with the cooktop's stainless steel frame. "In addition to its design appeal, SteelTouch utilizes touch technology so the user can conveniently control cooktop settings with a soft touch," says Farley.

Other trends that are becoming increasingly visible, according to McKechnie, are more glass-touch control panels, ever-improving oven and refrigerator lighting, and oven interiors that are in colors such as blue rather than the standard gray and black.

"Design configurations are evolving as well, with refrigeration increasing the French-door/lower freezer presence in the market, plus an increase in the share of double cavity ranges," he says.

Advances have not only changed the perceived needs of customers, but have also created products that are capable of far greater benefits. "CoolDrawer is a multi-temperature refrigeration drawer that can change depending on the user's lifestyle – from a wine drawer to a refrigerator to a deep freezer," says Davies.

Now that consumers are aware of the benefits of steam for washing/sanitizing and for fabric treatment in the dryer, it is gaining acceptance and is a desirable feature for laundry products.

"Virtually all major laundry product manufacturers must have a steam-assisted cycle or they will be at a competitive disadvantage," says McKechnie.

"In cooking, the health benefits of steam have been noted, and this is being demanded in the higher-end products as both a steam-assist cycle, and to a lesser extent, for a completely cook-by-steam oven," he adds.

On the Bright Side

Laundry appliances have witnessed a boom in the color palette, with hues and finishes that appear to match the latest automotive trends. "Greens, blues and varieties of silvers now fill showrooms, where white and possibly black and bisque were the general selection just four or five years ago," says McKechnie. "Even though many of these automotive finishes are placed in the higher-featured (and higher-priced) models, they are still selling."

Electrolux now offers laundry in Turquoise Sky, Mediterranean Blue, Silver Sands and Red Hot Red color options. Other brands also present a similarly wide choice. "Kitchen products are still somewhat limited, with stainless steel and stainless-look finishes still much in demand along with the staples of white and black," reports McKechnie.

Dettori agrees that colors and design are definitely playing a big role, but she stresses it's not limited to the laundry room. "Colored ranges and FAB28U fridges sold by Smeg catch the eye," she says. "Once people come to the showroom they end up buying a flashy color because they want something that stands out. Once you decide to go for something high design, it is not worth it to have a plain color!"

Smeg had two well-known architects (Renzo Piano and Mark Newson) design its product lines. "It's comparable to the haute couture of fashion houses," claims Dettori.

Best is also focusing on the high-design trend by introducing some of its distinctive European hoods to the U.S. market in 2011. "This may be the future of range hoods – they're very different designs," comments Collins. "It is about awakening the senses and saying, ‘wow, we can do something different here.'"

The designs being launched include Lipstick, a hood that is shaped like a lipstick tube; Chorus, which incorporates LED lights that change colors, and Double Vertigo, a contemporary swirl design.

"While in the past the kitchen was mainly the room in which to cook, nowadays people entertain in the kitchen and the room itself opens up to the living room," explains Dettori. "Appliances, therefore, become jewels to show to family and friends."

For more Kitchen Appliance, please visit Products Gallery.