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Green Products and Premium Goods Take Lead at US Houseware Show

With US consumers now willing to spend more on items of high perceived quality, exhibitors at this year's International Home & Housewares Show in Chicago were only too happy to demonstrate an array of high-end, eco-friendly goods.

Photo: More than 2,000 exhibitors attended this year’s International Home & Housewares Show.
More than 2,000 exhibitors attended this year's International Home & Housewares Show.
Photo: More than 2,000 exhibitors attended this year’s International Home & Housewares Show.
More than 2,000 exhibitors attended this year's International Home & Housewares Show.

With North American consumers demanding ever more for their money, many manufacturers at the International Home & Housewares Show went out of their way to find a winning point of difference. With consumers seemingly willing to pay more for quality, exhibitors at the three-day Chicago show clearly set out to justify higher price points and climb above the tight margins that characterise the cut-throat high volume/low value end of the market.

Green products, too, were well represented, offering a healthier user experience, a reduced environmental impact or both. As ever, novel labour-saving and energy-saving innovations were on show while, for some, designer-appeal remained the key to wooing greater consumer spend.

Saving on waste was another common theme. One product designed to cut down on food wastage, rather than save on cooking fuel, was the BluApple, produced by Utah-based Aureus. Fruit and vegetables give off ethylene gas as they ripen and the BluApple absorbs that gas via its levels of volcanic rock ash infused with sodium permanganate. This keeps food from ripening too quickly and sees it stay fresh for up to three times longer.

The company claims that, in a typical household, the pack will last around three months before needing a refill. What's more, the spent volcanic ash can be used as plant fertiliser.

One eye-catching product promising to cut fuel bills was the Flare cookware range, manufactured by Minneapolis-based Nordic Ware. According to Marcus Findlay, the company's Sales and Marketing Manager, the range was invented by Tom Povey, an Oxford University rocket scientist and keen climber, who was looking for a more efficient way to heat water at high altitudes. The patented fins surrounding the Flare range are thus designed to improve heat transfer, especially when cooking on gas.

Findlay said: "It's easy to have a pot that's composed of a different material, whether that's aluminium or copper or stainless steel or whatever, but to have something that makes a real difference is very rare. Flare reduces cooking time by about 40%.

"The traditional cookware buyer is, for want of a better term, a white, middle-class, thirty-something woman, but we hope the appeal of this product will extend to designers, architects and climbers, as well as the mass market.

"It will be priced at a premium level – about US$90 for the casserole. That's not quite Le Creuset prices, but not mass market either. As a result, we hope you'll find them in department stores and gourmet cookware shops."

Another product designed to reduce consumption was EcoWasher, a detergent-free laundry system, produced by an Ohio company of the same name. Explaining the concept, Gina Toth, a Partner in the business, said: "It works by creating ozone, hydrogen peroxide, then running it through a mixer to make oxidised water. You no longer have to use hot water, detergent, or fabric softener. Your clothes are softer, your towels are fluffier and your colours are brighter."

As well as cutting out spending on consumables, Toth was keen to point out the health benefits, saying: "It means no more chemicals. When you think of your body as a sponge, if you're using detergent then everything you wear is putting that into your skin.

"Everybody's washed their clothes, left them in the machine overnight, then had to wash them again because they smell. The reason for that is germs. Our system, though, actually sanitises. Hospitals have been using it for decades. What we've done is taken that and reduced the size for home use."

A healthier living environment was also the key benefit of another product on show. Karen Yeung, representing Unilution Inc, a water-based air filtration products company from Georgia, said: "Water has the natural property of absorbing odours. If you take a glass of water, then cut an onion in half and put them side-by-side in the fridge, the next day the water will smell and taste like an onion.

"The benefit is you don't have a filter that you have to scrub and clean – you just dump out the water, so the system is very eco-friendly. It also runs off a USB, so it uses very little power.

"It's great for people in a populated city where the air quality is bad, but we can all do better in terms of what we breathe. You think about what you eat and about how much you're exercising, but you don't think about what you're actually breathing in."

While the product has widespread applications, Yeung believes that certain US regions would prove to be better markets than others. She said: "The West Coast of the US is more forward-thinking, so they're just more aware of their [carbon] footprint and of the environment. They would understand this product and accept it quite readily."

This difference in preferences across the North American market was also noted by Bruno Louis, Founder of Ekobo, an eco bamboo-based dinnerware maker from France. He said: "There are huge differences between Europe and America. The US coasts are closer to European tastes. The rest of the States has other tastes or ways of purchasing. Obviously, they have these huge chains and department stores, something which is very different to Europe.

Photo: Nordic Ware’s Flare range.
Nordic Ware's Flare range.
Photo: Nordic Ware’s Flare range.
Nordic Ware's Flare range.
Photo: Turbine USA’s hubless pizza cutter.
Turbine USA's hubless pizza cutter.
Photo: Turbine USA’s hubless pizza cutter.
Turbine USA's hubless pizza cutter.

"If I go and see John Lewis, it stays in John Lewis. If I go and see Crate and Barrel or Williams Sonoma, it goes in all the US states. If you're too small you must be careful not to 'burn your wings', as we say in France, because it can go very fast and not always in the right way."

Louis also believed that having 'green' credentials alone was no longer enough to win business, saying: "We're a real alternative to traditional plastic, that's the idea – eco products that aren't too expensive. If you look at our kids' set, a regular melamine plastic will maybe retail for $19 to $25, but we are priced at $24/$25. Eco shouldn't necessarily mean expensive.

"People like our aesthetics, they like the colours and then they learn that it's an eco-friendly product and that's very important. I think the future of green is first of all to go through the aesthetic of the product, make it functional, and then you learn that it's a healthy material, rather than the other way around."

Overall, attractive design combined with good performance was a route favoured by many exhibitors. Product design company, Turbine USA, based in California, for instance, had on display several high-end kitchenware products, offering both improved usability as well as a high aesthetic sensibility. Grant Bell, the company's representative, said: "Our new pizza cutters are 'hubless'. The thinking behind this is that, for the same diameter blade, you can get a way deeper cut.

"The other thing, too, is you often get really beautiful knife sets, but the block is always an afterthought. So we took the block and redesigned it, using American walnut for the block. Our new concept allows you to look at the blade before you take it out of the block, so you know which knife you're going to be using."

A return to traditional materials, but with a modern twist, was also a theme for Larchwood, a Nova Scotia-based woodblock kitchenware maker. Sales representative, Kristine McCutcheon, said: "We make a particular type of cutting board, it's called a butcher's block. We only use one cut of wood – end grain. Aside from the aesthetics, wood actually kills bacteria rather than harbouring them in the way that plastic does. This has seen the informed consumer going back to wood.

"The other important thing is the end grain cut itself. A butcher's block doesn't allow material to penetrate because it squishes up to the top. Edge grain, by comparison, will gouge and create a cavity."

The look of the company's chopping boards have proven so popular that Larchwood says it has diversified its product range in response to consumer demand. Expanding on this, McCutcheon said: "Last year we developed a completely new line. This was because people found our boards so pretty that they wouldn't cut on them, they'd just serve on them. So we made a dedicated serving line.

"It's been received quite well, almost like it's a different market. We get some people who are really interested in the kitchenware and some who are really interested in the table top."

One company trying to break into the North American market for the first time was Addis, a housewares brand that is already well established in the UK and Europe, but with no brand profile in the US. Nick Lenkowski, Export Manager for the company, said: "There are certain products, such as ironing boards and airers, which we knew were going to be fairly strong in this market. With things like brushware and storage, however, if there's already a strong domestic presence or if there's high cost in shipping, then we know there's no point. There's only one US manufacturer of ironing boards, though, so we see a lot of potential there.

"The fact that we're a UK company with European designs is a very strong element in our favour. It's a point of difference. American consumers are used to products being brought in from China, so they see European imports as a little more stylish."

While European design may be more desirable for some consumers, an American-manufactured product is still seen as a positive by many others. Findlay of Nordic Ware says: "We manufacture in Minneapolis. That does make a difference to Americans. I think there are a proportion of Europeans who'd also prefer items made in America, rather than in the Far East, but so much is made in the Far East now that it's less important than people think.

"People like to think that they're buying something locally made. If everybody thought that, though, you wouldn't sell anything."

Bell of Turbine USA also agreed that the place of manufacture matters. He said: "It absolutely makes a difference to customers where things are made. You pay a premium if it's made in the US. Unless you're manufacturing yourself, though, it's very difficult to do.

"We manufacture in China, but we did try and get our wooden knife blocks made here. As soon as it's touched by US hands, though, it just drives the cost up too high. It's not feasible to manufacture here any more.

"These are retailing at about $720 or $740. If they were made in the US, you'd probably be looking at another 50% or 60% on top."

While the overwhelming balance of trade is in Asia's favour, some North American producers are now finding high-value customers in China. McCutcheon of Larchwood said: "We currently sell mostly in the US, but we also sell quite a bit in China. I think that Asian customers really like the idea of buying something from Canada. As it's a land that has an extensive supply of wood, it has become associated with excellent hand craftsmanship."

Photo: Big on quality: Exhibitors aim for the high-end of the market.
Big on quality: Exhibitors aim for the high-end of the market.
Photo: Big on quality: Exhibitors aim for the high-end of the market.
Big on quality: Exhibitors aim for the high-end of the market.

The International Home & Housewares Show was held at Chicago's McCormick Place on 7-10 March. The event attracted 2,000 exhibitors from 46 countries, displaying wares to more than 60,000 visitors from across North America and beyond.

James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, Chicago

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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