Home on the Range Top

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Forget that adage about too many chefs in the kitchen. In today's homes, you're lucky to find one cook slaving over dinner. In 1997, more than one out of five households said they used their oven less than once a week, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Roughly 32 percent say they prepare a hot meal two or more times a day, a drop of 4 percent from 1993. Fewer households make a hot meal once a day (44 percent in 1993 vs. 42 percent in 1997), and more are doing so less than once a week (1.9 percent in 1993 vs. 3 percent in 1997).

More women in the labor force, tighter schedules, and longer commutes have all contributed to a decline in home cooking. Who has time to roast a chicken for an hour and a half when mom and dad get home from work at 6 p.m. and the kids have soccer practice at 6:30? But what if you could roast that bird in one-quarter of the time? That's the sales pitch for the Advantium, a new super-fast-cooking oven debuting this month from General Electric that combines the speed of a microwave with the browning capabilities that a regular oven delivers. "Dual-income families are one of our main targets," says Julie Wood, a spokesperson for GE. "Now they can cook at home faster than going to the drive-thru."

That may be a stretch, but GE isn't the only appliance-maker racing to beat the clock. This summer, Maytag introduced the Gemini range, which has two ovens that can be set at different temperatures. The company also plans to launch a rapid-cook oven by year's end. "Most people don't cook just one item for a meal," says E. Kent Baker, vice president of strategic marketing at Maytag. "Our market research found that consumers compromised cooking times and temperatures so they could make several things at once and have everything ready at the same time. But then they felt guilty at dinner time when the little gourmet in the house complained that the french fries were soggy."

Home-cooked meals in a flash don't come cheap - both the Advantium and the Gemini run about $1,400. Still, high-end products like these that address consumer needs will help fuel growth in the market this year, industry experts say. In fact, the industry had its best year in 1998, hitting a record high of 56.5 million shipments, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, and projections are for 59.3 million shipments this year. A robust economy, low unemployment, and strong home sales have all been key drivers for the industry, says Evan Barrington, vice president of economic analysis at The Stevenson Company, a consulting firm in Louisville, Kentucky, that provides forecasting exclusively for General Electric.

Shipments are up, but that includes orders from schools, the government, and other institutions. Spending by individual consumers appears to be slipping. From 1987 to 1997, average annual consumer spending on major appliances dropped 25.2 percent, from $226 to $169 (in 1997 dollars), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Expenditure Survey. Why the drop? One factor is the price tag. In the past ten years, the price of appliances has risen less than the average rate of inflation, making fridges and dishwashers cheaper to buy today relative to the cost of other products and services. A more important factor, others say, is that consumers are spending their discretionary income elsewhere, on computers and other high-tech products.

Innovation might ratchet up spending - as long as it meets consumer needs. Consider Maytag's Atlantis washer, introduced earlier this year: The company says it does a better job of keeping whites white than standard machines. "We found in our research that people would bring home new white socks but keep them separate from older pairs and only wear them on special occasions. They were the `relatives are coming' socks," says Maytag's Baker. "Basically, they were compensating for their washer because it was doing an unsatisfactory job." Another new feature on the Atlantis targeted at time-pressed consumers: a 30-day detergent dispenser inside the washer. Now if they can only figure out how to transfer a load automatically to the dryer.

For more information about the Energy Information Administration survey, visit www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/ recs/recs97/contents.html.

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