No Boundaries

The number and scope of products in the specialty appliance arena is vast – from point-of-use refrigeration and ice machines, induction cooktops and drawer microwave ovens, to high-end built-in coffee systems, outdoor kitchen appliances and trash compactors. The diversity reflects an ongoing desire for products that perform unique tasks while offering design options to create a one-of-a-kind kitchen.

But contrary to their predecessors, these appliances aren’t just for the kitchen. Rather, the specialty appliance category opens up a world of possibilities to designers and consumers as these appliances continue to migrate to other areas inside – and outside – the home.

The desire for products that make a statement – whether an antique oven in a brilliant color as a focal point in the kitchen, a trash compactor that promotes greener living or a fully equipped wet bar with refrigeration, dish drawers and a modular induction cooktop unit in an entertainment room – drives the trend toward innovative products that deliver top quality performance, according to manufacturers recently surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.

Trophy Appeal

While trophy-sized kitchens may be waning, there are still plenty of consumers who want their kitchen to have trophy appeal. Specialty appliances can provide that uniquely personalized luxury touch that sets a kitchen apart, manufacturers say.

“The biggest determining factor for these sorts of specialized categories of products is really the trophy mentality,” says Matthew Kueny, director of innovation and technology at Miele in Princeton, NJ. “First and foremost, anybody who’s really looking at this is trying to have something that their neighbors don’t have. They really want to have something that they can show off.”

Jeff Wimberly, director of sales and marketing at Perlick Residential Products in Milwaukee, WI, agrees. “People are looking to be the Jones instead of keeping up with them,” he says.

“I think there’s a growing situation where people are perhaps bored with the appliances they have and the appliances they are seeing in the showroom,” notes Tony Dowling, business development manager for Elmira Stove Works in Elmira, ON Canada. “There’s certainly more excitement with the colors,” he says of the antique ovens his company manufactures. “People love the fact that they’re different.”

The “wow” factor alone isn’t enough, however. Manufacturers say the products must also be convenient, easy to use and offer clear benefits.

“Quality is key,” says Larry Lozar, v.p./sales & marketing, Consumer Products, for Scotsman Ice Systems in Vernon Hills, IL. He adds that the specialty products are typically thought of as luxury items, and when people are spending more money than they would on a standard appliance, they expect it to perform well.

Scott Davies, marketing manager for Fisher & Paykel Appliances in Huntington Beach, CA agrees: “Customers are still willing to pay a premium for these appliances, but they really want to get something in return. Over and above the latest trendy things, they want some real features and benefits. So it’s important still for us to make sure the specialty appliances have the same level of innovation we put into all of our other appliances.”

Specialty appliances must offer convenience, including easy-to-use controls and functions. “Because the products tend to be a bit more exotic in nature, ease of use really becomes a key feature for the products themselves,” says Kueny. For instance, he says, with the steam oven, the user doesn’t have to know how to cook with steam – the person simply pushes a button telling the oven what is being cooked, and the machine does the work. “You really have to make sure the customers can easily utilize the technology without having to change their cooking habits,” he adds.

Russ Faulk, v.p./product development for Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet in Kalamazoo, MI agrees. “An overarching consideration is making sure all of the equipment is easy to live with,” he says. “If the outdoor kitchen creates a lot of extra work for the homeowners, they will use it much less often.”

Express Yourself

The trend toward customization also plays an important role in the development of these specialty products, according to manufacturers.

“When you get into specialty niche products, you have to be able to offer something that isn’t available by the big brands,” says Lozar.

Dowling agrees. “People very much want to express themselves in their homes. [They are] looking for something that stands out.”

Of course self-expression is as much about function as fashion, with products that work for the way consumers cook and live gaining in popularity. For that reason, drawer units are still very hot, and manufacturers attribute this to the design flexibility these appliances offer.

“[It] takes away the restrictions that a lot of customers had when designing their kitchens,” says Davies. “They’re used to taking their appliances and trying to design their kitchens around them. We want to take that away and let [kitchen designers] design kitchens how they want to, and then the appliances go wherever they might fit.”

Smaller drawer units also can work for multiple family configurations, from single homeowners who rarely fill up a standard size dishwasher and prefer the energy savings of a smaller drawer unit to large families who benefit from having multiple cooking and cleanup stations, or who may want a separate refrigerator drawer for children, or for entertaining outside of the kitchen area.

Paul Leuthe, corporate marketing manager for Sub-Zero in Madison, WI agrees that flexibility is important, and notes, “Our drawer units have been phenomenal for us. They answer a basic elementary need of having refrigeration where it logically belongs.”

The integration of specialty appliances into the cabinetry – whether it be drawer units, refrigeration or ice machines – is another continuing trend. “[Consumers] want to be able to put panels on these products and make them ‘go away,’” says Lozar.

Karen Formico, marketing manager, Specialty Products, for Broan-NuTone in Hartford, WI agrees: “From an aesthetic perspective, if the trash compactor is installed in the kitchen, a seamless integration into the cabinets is most often desired,” she says.

Just as there is a wide diversity of specialty appliances available, so too is there a diversity of popular features. And when it comes to what features are in the highest demand, both the nature of the product and the lifestyle of the user come into play.

One lifestyle factor that turns up time and time again is a desire to “go green.” Many of the specialty products, such as induction cooktops and smaller drawer appliances, offer greater energy efficiency, raising the appeal for those trying to live a greener lifestyle. “The greening of America affects every aspect [of] one’s life,” says Formico. She also says that using a trash compactor plays a very significant role in the efforts to positively affect the environment, and that the desire to do something positive for the environment is a strong driver in the demand for compactors. 

“Smart” products – such as ovens with sensors to simplify cooking – also appeal to consumers who are looking for easy-to-use technology that works for a time-pressed lifestyle.

Location, Location, Location

The days when appliances were confined to the kitchen are long gone. Manufacturers say appliances – in particular those in the specialty category – are showing up in bathrooms, in-home spas, entertainment and media rooms, and even closets.

“We’ve seen applications that I never would have expected or thought about,” says Wimberly. He notes that he’s also seen consumers order several units for a variety of applications. “That’s who we cater to, that’s how our product is designed. They are available to use anywhere.”

Kueny has also seen increased demand for appliances outside of the kitchen. In larger households in particular, he says, people will often have kitchenettes or bars in their bedrooms, where they set up a coffee station and perhaps a small dishwasher unit. Entertainment rooms might also have coffee systems, or even a modular induction cooktop unit, for ease in entertaining without having to stay in the kitchen.

This spread of appliances isn’t confined to the indoors. Full kitchens are being designed for outdoor use, and there is a demand for outdoor appliances that go well beyond the simple grill.

“Outdoor kitchens used to include little more than a built-in grill,” says Faulk. “Over the last few years, they have become fully functional, which means including not only the grill, but also a sink, refrigeration, storage units and prep areas. I think this was a case of simple evolution coupled with the trends toward entertaining at home and investing in the home. Today, outdoor kitchens are going beyond the basic features and becoming more luxurious. Popular entertaining options now include wine chillers, keg tappers and pizza ovens.”

Economic Impact

While economic experts believe the economy is on its way to a slow recovery, the economic challenges of the past few years have certainly impacted the appliance industry. This is particularly true of specialty appliances, where purchases are most often made out of want rather than need.

“Specialty niche products fall into a mindset of being a luxury item, and when you get into that, people are going to buy what they need right now,” says Lozar.

Kueny agrees: “These categories aren’t the everyday necessity of a kitchen. There are certain fundamentals that a kitchen is always going to have, and there are certain products that sort of fall out.” However, he adds, “There’s still that audience out there that really wants to set themselves apart and have something unique, and they’re willing to make that statement, regardless of the circumstances.”

Formico concurs that the economy has had a tremendous affect on the market. “Specialty appliances are purchased after the ‘must have’ basics are chosen. With the reduction in discretionary income, spending on luxury or convenience items has been hit hard, and with a skeptical country afraid to purchase more than what is necessary, this cautionary attitude will prevail for some time to come – even after recovery is recognized,” she says.

Wimberly adds another perspective, however, saying, “With the economy the way it is, you’re back to seeing more people cocooning, yet not necessarily wanting to give up their social lifestyle. So they’re in some regard investing a little bit in home entertainment.”

Leuthe says his company is finding that the mindset of the consumer is changing a little, causing homeowners to scale back their choices – even when they can afford a more expensive option. However, he also says Sub-Zero is seeing some slow, but steady, growth – evidence that the economy is turning

Faulk adds, “We are confident that the trend [of outdoor kitchens] will outlast the economic challenges we are currently facing, and there is agreement from designers, architects and builders.”

He states that a National Association of Home Builders Remodeling Outlook Study reported that demand for outdoor kitchens in upscale homes is predicted to rise steadily over the next 10 years.

“Kalamazoo has experienced 20% growth in pizza oven sales, and our outdoor kitchen equipment business as a whole has remained strong over recent years. We’re helped by the fact that we are at the highest end of the market,” he remarks.

Moving Forward

While trends ebb and flow, manufacturers are always looking ahead to the future to stay abreast of consumer demands, taking advantage of new technology that meets consumer needs and desires. Miele is doing this by looking at how to make appliances more convenient, says Kueny, such as having plumbed coffee systems rather than those with tanks that need to be filled regularly.

Leuthe also says it’s about seeing refinements to the products. In conducting analysis of what to do for the next generation of products, he says Sub-Zero has heard people say they may want bigger drawers. “[We] are looking at going to bigger drawers and understanding the dynamics of that,” he says.

Perlick also has a new model, an 18"-deep unit available as a refrigerator, beverage center or wine reserve. Because it is more shallow, it can be used in a lot of unique applications in a residence. “It opens up a wide variety of different design options and possibilities,” says Wimberly.

Davies says that Fisher & Paykel will be unveiling more 36" products in the company’s “modular family” of drawer units in the near future. In looking forward, “you have to be clever with what you do. You have to focus on the long term and the short term,” he concludes.

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