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The Digital and the Distressed Come to the Fore at US Hardware Show

Bluetooth-enhanced devices were the order of the day at the Las Vegas National Hardware Show, while the millennial generation of urban gardeners expected something of a more lived-in look from their outdoor products of choice.

Photo: Cooking with gas: Digitally enhanced products delight showgoers.
Cooking with gas: Digitally enhanced products delight showgoers.
Photo: Cooking with gas: Digitally enhanced products delight showgoers.
Cooking with gas: Digitally enhanced products delight showgoers.

A non-Bluetooth-enabled power drill would seem something of a Stone Age relic after viewing the latest gadgets on offer at the National Hardware Show. Beers were chilling and hamburgers and hot dogs were grilling nonstop in the parking lot in front of the Las Vegas Convention Center, home to North America's preeminent showcase for the home improvement and do-it-yourself sectors. Inside, smart tools, whimsical patterns and practical inventions of all stripes dominated proceedings, while many exhibitors proved notably upbeat.

Setting the tone, Rich Russo, Industry Vice-president for the National Hardware Show, said: "All our buying categories – from garden retailers to wholesalers – are up. The sentiment from exhibitors has also been extremely positive."

Commenting on just what was new this year, Russo noted that the outside Tailgate and Barbecue exhibition space had doubled in size compared to last year, with a variety of patio furniture and outdoor products now on show. The organisers had also made a noticeable effort to make it easier for retailers to find new products. With this in mind, they had introduced several curated areas, including an Inventor's Spotlight and a Featured Product Gallery.

The expansion of the expo is very much in line with the overall development of the sector. Mark Herbek is the Founding Partner of the Cleveland Research Company, an Ohio-based specialist in the home improvement sector. As part of his keynote address at this year's event, he said the industry had enjoyed an annual growth of 5% since 2012. He was also optimistic that this trend would continue over the next two to three years, even though the nonresidential and consumer retail markets are expected to experience slower growth throughout this period.

In order to capitalise on these promising times, Herbek recommended that retailers should focus on stocking brand name merchandise instead of private label products. In his final words of advice, he said: "Retailers should also focus on end-cap simplification strategies, such as choosing one to two SKUs at most, then selling on price rather than look."

Smarter Everything

While a screwdriver with a magnetic tip was state-of-the-art just a few years ago, a Bluetooth-enabled drill battery that tells your phone what its charge status is now de rigueur. Last summer, DeWalt, the global tool manufacturer, rolled out just such a battery. As well as indicating its charge status, it allows users to keep track of it on job sites, while it can also be disabled remotely to combat theft. Playing catch-up, this year saw the Milwaukee Tool Company launch the One-Key, a digital platform for jobsites that helps keep track of Bluetooth-enabled power tools and can even control torque settings remotely.

The new products from these industry heavyweights are very much in line with the overall move toward ever more smartphone-compatible devices. Briggs & Stratton, a Wisconsin-based engine manufacturer, for instance, was debuting its Bluetooth-enabled portable power generator at the show. This new system – the 8000 Watt Elite Series Portable Generator with StatStation Wireless Bluetooth – lets homeowners monitor fuel levels and run-time from their smart phone, ideal for those concerned about their power supply mid-storm. It can also send out maintenance reminders and tell users just how much power is being used.

Photo: Smoking: The Smoke Hollow Smoke-Tronix smoker.
Smoking: The Smoke Hollow Smoke-Tronix smoker.
Photo: Smoking: The Smoke Hollow Smoke-Tronix smoker.
Smoking: The Smoke Hollow Smoke-Tronix smoker.
Photo: The rustic look from Panacea Products.
The rustic look from Panacea Products.
Photo: The rustic look from Panacea Products.
The rustic look from Panacea Products.

Explaining the thinking behind the system, Dan Roche, the company's Director of Marketing, said: "Our adoption of Bluetooth technology came as the result of a tremendous amount of customer research. This showed us that consumers get frustrated when they can't find out the remaining fuel levels or the remaining capacity of their portable generator without going outside."

In happier circumstances, a digital smoker can also save you a trip outside. In view of the crowd gathered around the Bluetooth-compliant Smoke Hollow Smoke-Tronix smoker, this particular product has clearly found a ready market. Available from Missouri-based Outdoor Leisure Products, the unit can cook meat and vegetables with hot or cold smoke and can even get your chips ready in 10 minutes or less. It also comes with an app that tracks temperature and lets you share the results with your – inevitably envious – friends.

Company President Rick Davidson said: "It appeals to a new generation of smoking and grilling enthusiasts. As a result it is getting a lot of interest at the show."

Growing Power

Gardening supplies have traditionally been well represented at the National Hardware Show and this year was no exception. Fronted by an impressive line-up of wheelbarrows, a dedicated area reflected the growing interest in gardening – in all of its many forms – by the millennial generation. Despite their status as decidedly urban dwellers, many of them seemed genuinely interested in growing their own herbs in order to add a fresh note to their cooking, while also apparently keen on cultivating their own strawberries and tomatoes all the year round.

Highlighting this trend, a Sales Rep for Florida-based Plastec Products, said: "Our strawberry patch towers, in particular, are doing extremely well this season." The company recently also added herb dryers, herb snips and cutting boards to its line of mason jars for pickling, as well as its range of silicone trays suitable for freezing individual portions.

According a number of industry experts, consumers are particularly keen on handmade items in the garden category, especially if background information about the artisan in question is part of the marketing approach. Another popular option is products that look like they're handmade or have history thanks to the strategic use of rustic patinas and the adoption of a distinctly distressed look.

Michael Vaccaro, Sales Manager for Ohio-based Panacea Products, said "Anything with a touch of whimsy and things that look a little beat up tend to sell well. The ‘grow your own' consumer base has changed. It's not just your grandma anymore." At the show, his company's best-selling items were baskets and planters in a "rustic farmhouse" style, followed by handmade cabinet planters.

Young mums, in fact, were the target audience for Greenline Manufactory, a Hong Kong-based specialist in gardening gloves. Explaining the company's thinking, Sales Manager Grace Yip said: "When mum does something in the garden, her kids want to copy her. Now mum can get a set of gloves for her and one for her child. Our most popular patterns tend to feature flowers and embroidery."

Hot Topic

Overall, the success of the National Hardware Show has been built on the ingenuity of inventors, gifted individuals who transform their frustrations or personal challenges into viable products. This made it the perfect platform for Patrick Sherwin, President of Ohio-based Gosun Stove, a manufacturer of solar-powered grills.

Despite looking like miniature flying saucers, his products churned out a seemingly endless range of cakes, hotdogs and salmon steaks under the hot Las Vegas sun. A dedicated solar energy enthusiast, Sherwin developed the tube technology used in his grill after finding inspiration in the solar water heating industry.

Compound parabolic reflectors triple the amount of light absorbed by two layers of Pyrex glass, with the reflective surface of the inner layer turning light into heat, while the vacuum between the two layers has a thermos-like effect. Impressively, it can cook two chickens in just under an hour.

Photo: The National Hardware Show: Expanding in line with industry growth.
The National Hardware Show: Expanding in line with industry growth.
Photo: The National Hardware Show: Expanding in line with industry growth.
The National Hardware Show: Expanding in line with industry growth.

The National Hardware Show 2016 took place from 5-7 May at the Las Vegas Convention Center. It featured some 2,800 exhibitors and attracted 30,000 attendees.

Anna Huddleston, Special Correspondent, Las Vegas

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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