Killer Apps

Killer Apps

An infusion of color and innovative appliance hybrids spark a stainless steel-dominated appliance market. 

By Daina Darzin Manning

The great variety reflects the wide range of consumers and their different needs. There are enthusiastic gourmet cooks who want the ultimate professional cooking experience; overworked two-career families who need their food fast, fast, fast (without resorting to actual fast food); city dwellers who desire advanced appliances that will fit in their tiny kitchenettes, and everything in between.

Manufacturers continue to design an increasing array of appliances to meet all of these needs and more, according to appliance manufacturers surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.

Cool and Clean
The greatest changes in the past year have occurred in the refrigerator category, primarily due to the changes in energy guidelines, which occurred in 2002.

"A lot of people had to go back to the drawing board [and] engineer new compressors," says George Tratras, specialty sales manager for Equator Corp., in Houston, TX. He notes that refrigerators across the board were required to drop from 10 - 35% in energy usage, depending on the model. Greater insulation requirements made refrigerator interiors smaller, and care has to be taken to provide enough venting in locations that don't have open air flow.

"It's made us drop some products that [had] marginal sales volume" rather than redesign them, confirms Larry Ferguson, director of sales and marketing for Marvel Indus-tries, in Richmond, IN.

The new guidelines do seem to indicate smaller refrigerators undercounter models are a growing market but Ferguson also says consumer buying patterns influence this trend. Before, "Americans tended to go shopping once a week and buy a whole bunch," he explains, whereas now families frequently shop more often; they desire fresher food, and/or don't plan meals far in advance. Thus, a smaller refrigerator will meet their needs. "The great big boxes [are no longer] what everybody wants," Ferguson says.

For those who still require a large refrigerator, the integrated door remains a strong trend, believes Ferguson, citing a consumer desire to make the bulky appliance disappear into the cabinetry. He adds that the integrated approach has made on-the-door bells and whistles like water and ice dispensers less popular at the high end.

"It's an interesting phenomenon," quips Kingsley Shannon, Jenn-Air brand manager, in Newton, IA. "Consumers buy a 48"-wide refrigerator and then they want panels on it so you can't tell it's [there]."

The "second" appliance is also a growing trend, manufacturers agree. This might take the form of a mini-refrigerator in the home entertainment or family room. Nolan Pike, general manager of GE Monogram, in Louisville, KY, cites GE Monogram's "beverage center" half refrigerator, half wine rack as a product that caters to this trend.

Ronda Collier, contract marketing manager for KitchenAid and Whirlpool brands, Whirlpool Corp., in Benton Harbor, MI, also points out KitchenAid's sink dishwasher as an addendum to a full-size one.

"It's a double sink, stainless steel," she explains. "The right side of the sink can either be a sink, or there's a small dishwasher rack that fits in there with a spray arm on the bottom, that turns it into a small dishwasher. You know how, when you have a big meal, you can never fit everything in?" The sink dishwasher handles the stray dishes without necessitating a second full load.
The in-sink approach is also a perfect primary dishwasher for people who live alone or rarely eat at home, from seniors, to workaholics, to city dwellers in tiny apartments.

For gourmet cooks who joyfully make a huge mess with big, elaborate meals, GE has a full-size second dishwasher especially designed for pots and pans, adds Pike. "The racking is different and it runs at hotter temperatures," he elaborates. The washer is also ideal for people who don't want to mix their fancy, easily breakable china and crystal with messy pots and pans.

Cooking Trends
Two schools of thought provide for a variety of products in the oven and range markets. Gourmet cooks like products they can interact with, says Dale Persons, v.p./public affairs for Viking Range Corp., in Greenwood, MS. "[They're] more hands-on, they're not looking for timers [and other automatic features], they like to touch it, feel it, control it. You're not going to see a progression into flashing lights and stuff," he quips. Instead, improvements will be "under the hood" niceties such as better valves.
Over-scheduled two-career couples with kids, however, want as many conveniences as they can get, just to make a home-cooked meal possible. A notably innovative new product in this category is Whirlpool's Polara, a free-standing range that also has a refrigeration function. The imaginative hybrid can be programmed to keep a raw, ready-to-cook meal refrigerated until a pre-programmed time, when it's cooked and then kept warm for an hour, then refrigerated again so it doesn't spoil. So, whatever time everyone makes it home, the meal is waiting for them.

Manufacturers caution, however, that while consumers welcome extra features on their appliances, they're sometimes overwhelmed by the controls required to work those features, and careful research has to be done to ensure controls "intuitively make sense," according to Shannon.

Gaggenau also espouses a single knob or touch control through glass, using international symbols that are universally easy to understand. "[Controls] have to be really easy," says Bettina Walther, marketing manager for Gaggenau North America, in Huntington Beach, CA.

High speed cooking which combines traditional and microwave technology is another convenience that was introduced with great fanfare a few years back, but manufacturers admit there's consumer resistance to the product. Anne Howard, marketing consultant to Sharp Electronics Corp., in Mahwah, NJ, emphasizes it's important to position the product as a speed cook oven rather than a microwave. "People know what a microwave oven is good for and what it's not good for," she explains. Consumers resist paying far more for a product they perceive as a glorified microwave.

Shannon points out that live demonstrations can often allay a consumer's fears about the quality level of high-speed ovens; once they realize the ovens' results equal a conventional oven rather than a microwave, they embrace the new technology.
Pike adds that GE's Avantium has gained widespread acceptance after the company started positioning the high-speed oven as part of a cooking center a trio with a conventional oven and a warming drawer. The combination assures consumers that they're not going completely away from traditional technology, but getting the best of both worlds. A high-speed oven also fits into the "second appliance" concept, for instance, aiding a family whose members have different dietary needs (on a diet vs. big eater, vegetarian vs. carnivore) but want to have dinner together.

A trend towards healthy cooking has spawned another "second" oven option Gaggenau's steam convection oven, notes Walther. The high-end appliance infuses non-pressurized steam in precisely calibrated proportion, resulting in moist food with its vitamins and nutrients preserved.

Traditional microwaves can also function as add-on appliances, manufacturers note. Howard cites wall-mounted, over-counter microwaves as the new, better alternative to locating them over the range, a harsh environment with a lot of heat and grease that can be particularly problematic with a high BTU pro range.

In terms of design, stainless steel is finally pervasive in microwaves as well, notes Howard. For traditional ovens, Shannon points out Jenn-Air's new curved front wall oven. "It adds dimension and texture to the kitchen," she notes. "It's very sleek, it adds texture without adding extra places to clean."

Color is Back
Conventional wisdom of the last few years says consumers want their appliances in safe colors that won't impede future remodeling plans or resale value. But manufacturers insist that the public is growing weary of a steady diet of black, white, biscuit and stainless steel.

"We're showing designer finishes in blue and burgundy," notes Persons, who also cites graphite grey with a metallic hint as another popular selection.

"Believe it or not, avocado is back," laughs Tratras. "Some of your colors from the 1970s are making a comeback under new names."

"Beiges and neutrals are going away," insists Collier. "We've introduced cobalt blue, which is extremely popular. In dishwashers, we've introduced all the colors our mixers come in," including bright red and yellow colors.

"We actually did a red kitchen this year," adds Shannon. "Red panels on a refrigerator, mixed with stainless steel." Ferguson also cites a new black interior for wine coolers, which makes a particularly stylish look when combined with a glass door.

While bright colors fit most naturally into a contemporary setting, Shannon points out it's not the only style that's compatible. "In the yellow kitchen we did, there were some hand painted tiles on a backsplash. It was more cottage-esque and traditional in flavor." Rustic, outdoorsy western and southwestern looks, or those with a Mexican influence, also work well with bright colors.

Still, stainless steel remains the staple of the high-end market. "Everybody's waiting for the next material," says Pike. "But, we don't see stainless letting up." The predicted infusion of other natural metallics, such as copper and bronze, hasn't really materialized in the appliance market though those shades remain a popular accent color for, say, a designer hood or faucetry.

Walther believes that aluminum is an up-and-comer as an appliance material, with its light, platinum-like, neutral metallic color.
Pike believes that stainless functions as a more easily integrated neutral than warm metallic shades. The uniformity of stainless allows consumers to put together a kitchen from a variety of manufacturers, and still achieve a matching look.

In terms of overall design, consumers follow one of two schools of thought: an integrated or a mix-and-match look. Some high-end manufacturers take care to provide an entire appliance line with matching handles, materials and overall look, for a sleek, well-coordinated kitchen.

But Collier counters, "You see houses with more of an eclectic taste like people who mix a modern look with antiques, not so matchy-matchy."

"Different is almost better," adds Shannon. "It used to be 10, 20 years ago, there was one ideal way to be; everyone was striving to achieve a certain look. Now, the more different you can be, the more upscale it seems. You're bringing new ideas into the kitchen. Differentiation is almost a sign of affluence."

Hoods & Chillers
Once an afterthought, the hood is increasingly being seen as the design focal point, especially when located above an island cooktop.

"Hood styling is often a statement in itself," says Persons.

"The hood becomes a centerpiece rather than an accessory," agrees Pike. "The hoods are becoming dramatic they flow, [they have] curves, they're not boxy."

Beautiful finishes and accents complete a look that's "a work of art," Pike adds. "You can do a lot more with the hood than some appliances."

"We've expanded our hood line," notes Viking's Persons. "Our
professional-type hood is typically boxy-looking, square lines. But we've come out with a designer series so we have a lot of new, sleeker looks."

In addition to steel and other metals, Walther also cites glass as an effective pick for hoods, for a light-weight, sleek and easy-to-clean hood.

Hoods aren't the only appliance category experiencing rapid growth. "We're seeing a lot more [sales] in the area of wine storage units and coolers," says Persons. "That's part of the Epicurean lifestyle, the better things in life."

However, wine coolers are also growing in popularity at lower price points. Upscale wine coolers have varying temperature zones, notes Persons, making them appropriate for both chilling white wine and storing red wine (which should be warmed to room temperature before drinking.)

Similarly, the outdoor kitchen is an exploding trend.

In the past, "outdoor appliances" mainly consisted of a grill and maybe that old refrigerator you keep in the garage to store extra beer and soda.

These days, however, the outdoor kitchen is the hot new way to impress your neighbors and that old garage refrigerator can be replaced by a specially designed fridge, Gladiator, with a rugged metal tread finish, especially for guys who like to putter in the garage, notes Collier.

Overall, Collier points out that the outdoor kitchen is part of the pervasive cocooning trend consumers are eschewing travel in favor of improving their surroundings with home theaters and other niceties. "People want to stay home and bond with their families more." This has led to the growth of the non-traditional appliance market, says Pike, which includes compactors and ice makers as well as wine coolers and undercounter refrigeration.

In addition to a large, high-end grill, the well-stocked outdoor kitchen can include ice makers, small refrigerators for drinks, a beer tap, cabinetry for storage, a sink, a warming drawer, a wok and more. Tratras cites Equator's Party Cooler, with 1-1/2 cubic feet of space for drinks, temperature control that can be set for cooling wine or ice cold beer, and mahogany shelves that can be used as serving trays.

While the outdoor kitchen is most popular in hot weather states such as Florida, manufacturers insist even northern climates are warming to the trend.

"You always have some nice days," says Persons. "We're finding that, more and more, [you see outdoor kitchens] where you least expect them." KBDN