Efficient Equipment

It’s often said that appliances make the kitchen, both for their stunning visual impact and for the functional benefits they bring to the space. And the range of products available today can be a designer’s dream – there is likely an appliance perfectly suited to any look and capability a client is after. The trick is to know what’s new and necessary, and what might be superfluous or a passing fad.

While preferred features vary by appliance type, value, efficiency and functionality always top the list, according to manufacturers recently surveyed by KBDN.

Practicality is of prime importance, according to Zach Elkin, director of brand marketing for Thermador at BSH Home Appliances Corp., in Huntington Beach, CA. He notes, “The days of status and excess are behind us, so we’re seeing more people buying appliances they actually use to cook.”

“People want to buy appliances that are smart for the home and that fit their lifestyles,” agrees Blake Woodall, v.p. of Vent-A-Hood in Richardson, TX.

And, while technology continues to advance, many manufacturers say that the most popular innovations are less about the trophy bells and whistles than about improving functionality.

“There’s a tremendous amount of innovation going on,” says Juliet Johnson, AKBD, CAPS, Jenn-Air brand experience manager for Whirlpool, based in Benton Harbor, MI.

“There’s been so much improvement in how appliances perform their basic functions that much of this innovation is about giving consumers a better user experience. That can mean everything from improved interior lighting to controls that meet a very specific need, like rapid chilling of wine or cooking without the need to pre-heat.”

A Focus on Value

In a still-challenging economy, value is on everyone’s mind. Designers know that they must guide their customers to appliances that will meet their needs while standing the test of time, and manufacturers know that the products they offer must offer true value.

“Consumers are seeking to maximize the value they are getting from an appliance,” says Ellis Mass, director of brand communications for Englewood Cliffs, NJ-based LG Electronics USA. “Reliability is important, as consumers want to know that the investment they are making will last.”

Elkin says that appliances must also offer “smart value,” due in part to the trend of cooking more at home. “‘Smart value’ doesn’t necessarily mean low-cost appliances, but appliances that offer value in the form of practical cooking innovations that buyers finds useful in fulfilling their passions. This is especially true in the luxury appliance category,” he says.

Johnson agrees that even the luxury end of the market is searching for value. “It’s not enough these days to offer products that will look great and work beautifully for years and years. We’re now offering very generous promotions that reward consumers for their purchase of our products. That’s fairly new in the luxury appliance category,” she says.

Jeff Wimberly, v.p./sales and marketing for the residential and hospitality market for Perlick, based in Milwaukee, WI, concurs that in these tough times, the focus needs to be on creating quality, innovative products that provide long-lasting value.

“Whether it is based on cost, design, performance, longevity, warranties or a combination of everything, shoppers are more informed these days [and are less inclined to] make impulse buys,” Woodall notes. “So, to win that attention, there is an element of pricing competition.” Yet he also believes that companies like Vent-A-Hood – which survived the Great Depression and World War II’s metal rationing – will weather the storm by focusing on offering quality products and remembering the importance of value. As he explains, “We’ve witnessed enough swings in the economy to know how to stay focused and profitable.”

Functional Features

While consumers may be focused on value and practicality, that doesn’t mean they only want the most basic appliance features. Rather, they are looking for a variety of features that help them use their appliances better and that add convenience to their lives.

In refrigeration, that means products that keep food fresh longer. This is especially important, Mass notes, because the average American household wastes $500 annually on spoiled food.

In ranges and cooktops, Elkin says, consumers are looking for features that aid in cooking high-quality, home-cooked meals, while making the clean-up process as easy as possible.

For range hoods, another important consideration is the sound it makes – or doesn’t make. “A powerful range hood in the kitchen is attractive as long as you don’t have to shout to be heard while it’s running,” says Woodall.

Lack of noise is important for dishwashers as well, according to Micaela Shaw, brand manager for Bosch home appliances in Huntington Beach, CA. Shaw cites the Bosch 800 Plus dishwasher as a virtually silent appliance that appeals to designers and consumers.

“Kitchen designers have seen a shift. As homes get smaller, kitchens get bigger, often serving as a place for the family to gather. While the Great Room is not necessarily a new concept, consumers are demanding appliances that enhance their kitchen experience,” she says. This includes a dishwasher that allows the user to get the dishes done without disrupting the enjoyment of the busiest room in the house, she adds.

Brian Wellnitz, marketing manager for kitchen ventilation at Broan-NuTone LLC, in Hartford, WI, notes that while quiet operation is essential for range hoods, customers are also looking for great lighting, and a product that fits their lifestyle.

“With range hoods, this means that the demand for integrated products continues to grow, allowing the kitchen space design to be very personalized. When consumers are using focal point products, they want options that fit within their kitchen parameters such as flue extensions, which allow consumers to fit chimney hoods into various ceiling height applications. There has also been more interest in remote operation options to address reach limitations for aging in place,” he says.

Technology Trends

As modern technology advances, appliances can be programmed to do more tasks than ever, and these features are more readily available at many price points. As Wellnitz notes, “Current technology is making more features/designs accessible to manufacturers and consumers, taking ideas that once seemed a luxury and making them more practical.”

Popular high-tech features may include LCD and LED displays on control panels in kitchen appliances, quieter operation of the appliance and innovations that help with troubleshooting, such as LG’s SmartDiagnosis, which allows appliances to “talk” to customer service experts on the telephone using a series of diagnostic tones, limiting the need for costly service calls. While this feature is currently only available on laundry products, LG anticipates expanding to other categories, such as dishwashers, in late 2011/early 2012.

Indeed, appliances are getting smarter and more interactive and Maas believes that “eventually, these products will incorporate Wi-Fi capability so each appliance can be part of a home network. Consumers will be able to download recipes or other updates directly to the appliance. We’ve also included interactivity with smart phones and tablets so, for example, a consumer can check the remaining cooking time for what’s in the oven, or see how old their milk is when they’re at the grocery store. In the next iteration of SmartDiagnosis, consumers will be able to have a message sent to their phone or tablet in the event an appliance is having a problem.”

Lara Snyder, brand manager at U-Line in Milwaukee, WI, finds controls becoming more intuitive and user friendly. “The screen resolution is similar to what is used on smart phones due to the multiple options that are now available in the controls,” she says. These controls help the appliance function more effectively as well.

Other manufacturers see technology advancing the ability of the user. Elkin says, “The appliance technologies we’re seeing now have elevated home cooks to become more creative in the kitchen. As home cooks become accustomed to these features and technology, they start expecting more, which furthers the advancement of technology in the category.”

Johnson cautions that technology innovations can be a double-edged sword, however. “On the one hand, innovation allows consumers to get more from their appliances. On the other hand, it means consumers need to educate themselves on which innovations will make a difference in their own kitchens,” she says. “At Jenn-Air, we’re very conscious of giving consumers choices that fit various needs and lifestyles. Some consumers want every bell and whistle available; others want to pay only for those bells and whistles they’ll use.”

Drawer Appeal

Appliance drawers have grown in popularity over the past several years, and most manufacturers don’t see that trend waning. “Drawer appliances offer added convenience and accessibility while also providing new design opportunities,” says Snyder.

Johnson agrees. “They’ve gotten better with each new model introduction,” she states. “Being able to place a refrigerator, freezer, warming or microwave drawer anywhere in the kitchen opens up so many possibilities in terms of both design and practicality.”

Elkin sees a rise in warming drawers as people continue to cook at home more often. “Whether it’s used to warm dinner rolls, heat plates or other foods, the warming drawer has allowed for more convenience in the kitchen. It’s one of those features that you would never know you were missing until you had one, and then you couldn’t cook without it,” he says.

Perlick has also seen continued demand for refrigerator drawers due to the convenience factor, says Wimberley.

While Wellnitz agrees that the drawer trend continues, he says, “I have heard of some consumer dissatisfaction that may start to blunt this.”

Style Favorites

Manufacturers agree that stainless steel still reigns supreme for kitchen appliance finishes. “Stainless steel has always been the top choice among our customers. Its timeless nature and neutral color allow it to mesh perfectly with any kitchen design,” says Elkin.

But even as stainless steel continues to resonate with consumers and design professionals, there are other options on the rise, such as appliances that are integrated into the cabinetry.

As Snyder points out, stainless steel is still popular, as it fits easily with almost any style of kitchen, however, “The trend seems to be heading toward a more minimalist look, with appliances being integrated into the cabinets with matching wood panels.”

Shaw declares, “While stainless steel continues to be popular, consumers are looking for less ‘bling’ in the kitchen, and more function that is beautiful yet understated. For this reason, we’re seeing a larger interest in custom paneling that makes their appliances look fully flush.”

Woodall says that, for range hoods, they’ve seen an increase in the requests for custom finishes. “Our hammered copper has become a wonderful attraction for those high-end kitchens looking to make an impact in design,” he notes.

Elkin says appliance size has remained constant, and been dependent on the size of the kitchen and the needs of the user. However, he adds, as kitchens become larger and serve as the entertainment center of the home, he anticipates a growing demand for larger appliances, such as the 48" range.

Some manufacturers have seen an opposite trend, however. Johnson says, “The ‘bigger is better’ mentality has shifted quite a bit in recent years. There’s more of an emphasis on scale appropriate to lifestyle.”

Wellnitz concurs, stating, “There was a little bit of a shift towards smaller sizes, which is related to the economy and new home trends toward more efficient spaces.”

Shaw affirms a trend toward appliances designed for smaller spaces, as urban living spaces become more popular. “Smaller cooktops are becoming so popular, in fact, Bosch sells significantly more 30" induction cooktops than the 36" design,” she says.

Energy Stars

Energy efficiency is on the top of everyone’s minds. In addition to the altruistic desires to have less impact on the environment, consumers see real financial savings through the use of energy-efficient appliances. Additionally, companies are more mindful of reducing their carbon footprint through measures like recycling and reusing items, and creating products that meet or exceed Energy Star standards.

“We’re challenged every day to be more efficient, and that’s a good thing,” says Wimberly. “We are always mindful of energy use.”

Manufacturers are continuously moving towards making products more efficient, Wellnitz asserts. “I think that, at some point in the near future, energy-efficient Energy Star-qualified products will be the ante to be in the game. Consumers will expect it just like they expect four tires to be on their new car.”

Johnson agrees. “I see energy efficiency as something consumers have come to expect from appliances,” she says.

Cost incentives drive the trend toward efficiency in appliances as well. Mass notes, “Just last year the government offered millions of dollars in rebates to consumers who purchased new, energy-efficient white goods. That’s in addition to the tangible savings consumers receive on utility bills by upgrading to a more efficient model.”

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