- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 12, 2003

CHICAGO, Jan. 12 (UPI) — Uncertainty over the economy, possible war with Iraq and aging demographics are combining to keep Americans focused on their homes and families — a positive trend for the multibillion-dollar housewares industry.

With that in mind, some 1,700 exhibitors from 40 countries opened their displays Sunday for the annual International Housewares Show at McCormick Place Exposition Center. Some 60,000 people are expected to walk the 13 miles of aisles before the trade show closes Tuesday. The giant bazaar — some of it is pretty bizarre — is not open to the public.

Housewares annually account for $75.3 billion in sales nationally and $283.2 billion globally.

"The housewares industry is well positioned to continue the 7 percent average annual growth it has experienced over the last five years," said Philip J. Brandl, IHA president and chief operating officer. "With the consumer at home more often, a creative home and housewares products industry will be the beneficiary."

"When the economy was roaring, we were roaring along but not at the same height," IHA Vice President Perry Reynolds said. "As the economy dipped, housewares have moved along at an elevated pace.

Reynolds said a number of demographic factors appear to be driving the industry.

"Generation Xers and Generation Yers are committing to homes later than the baby boomers did," he said. "They're doing it now — and in fairly large numbers. They're fixed in a way where they can afford it.

"At the same time, the boomers are trading up in terms of quality. An item they may have purchased and replaced every two or three years — now they may have come to the decision to buy a really good one and keep it for 10 or 15 years."

Additionally, all three groups are looking for style as well as function.

"Even in a rather mundane function, the designed item will be purchased ahead of non-designed if the prices are close," Reynolds said. He cited such items as ergonomically designed kitchen tools.

"Housewares and especially electronics are doing well," said Ira Kalish, chief economist for Retail Forward, a management consulting market research and executive development firm. "These categories are being positively affected by the strength of the housing market. The decline in short-term interest rates has translated to an increase in discretionary dollars that is stimulating home-buying and products related to the home."

The watchword for this year's show is innovation — whether real or perceived.

"People who create innovative, compelling marketing positions will continue to flourish," said Peter Cameron, chief executive officer of All-Clad Metalcrafters LLC of Canonsburg, Pa. "It's not just product innovation but marketing communication concepts as well."

As an example, Graebner noted Tilia's line of smaller products and items designed for America's aging population.

"We're trying to make our buttons easier to push, make the machines more 'idiot-proof,'" she said. "Since I'm time-starved, I should be able to walk up to one of our products and make it work without opening the manual. I think consumers are going to look for that in all categories."

IHA's State of the Industry report says new products represent more than 23 percent of manufacturer's sales each year.

"The retailer has to put in something new to entice the customer," said David Sabin, chairman of Salton Inc. of Lake Forest, Ill. "If you're showing something new and you're innovative, you're going to get some (retail) shelf space."

Among the items being introduced is Wally the Whale by Custom Calculations. Wally runs on a 9-volt battery and keeps the bathtub from overflowing. "When the water reaches a pre-set height, he will stand straight up out of the water and whistle for you to come turn off the water," the company said.

Philips Electronics North America is introducing the HeartStart Home Defibrillator, the first of a new generation of defibrillators designed specifically for use in the home for the treatment of a sudden cardiac arrest.

In the cleaning category comes Debbie Meyer's E-Z Kleen'r by Housewares America Inc. It's a non-abrasive sponge that requires no detergent or chemicals. It's made of melamine foam and develops a strong eraser-like quality that deep cleans difficult-to-clean surfaces and areas.

Beerman BBQ is introducing the Beer Can Baster, which allows the backyard cook to attach a self-contained basting brush to a 12- or 16-ounce beverage can filled with sauce or marinade. The company says it eliminates the use of multiple cooking utensils for mixing and makes the process clean and convenient.

Some of the newest ideas come from the Student Design Competition, which in the past has produced such items as the travel toothbrush holder, a combination cooking pot-colander and indoor grills.

This year, 215 ideas were submitted. The winning entry was from Alison Barnsley, a graduate student at San Jose State University. Her "Delicato," a hamper-washer for fine hand washables, takes the premise of a salad spinner and applies it to delicate items. Clothes are put in a perforated basket that fits in a basin with a lid that has a push handle for spinning. The runner-up entry was from Sam Aquillano, a junior at the Rochester Institute of Technology, who designed the "Frio" countertop refrigeration unit.

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