White Goods Bank on Tech-Trend Turnaround

Home-Appliance Industry Hopes to Use Product Innovation and New Government Rebate to Boost Sales

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YORK, Pa. (AdAge.com) -- White-goods makers may be feeling blue these days.

The appliance industry is down 15% year over year for 2009, and that comes on the heels of a 10% downturn in 2008. In fact, the industry hasn't seen a positive-sales year since 2005, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers.

But the industry is hopeful to turn that around using increased consumer interest in home improvement and eco-friendly products, more competition and a new government rebate program for more aggressive marketing.

This fall especially promises to be active, with the $300 million government appliance-rebate program, modeled after the Cash for Clunkers automobile program -- with nicknames such as Dollars for Dishwashers -- kicking into gear. It will offer $50 to $200 back to consumers who buy Energy Star-rated appliances, and manufacturers such as Electrolux plan to craft additional marketing plans around the rebates. "As exciting as the program is, I can see that manufacturers might want to start to drum up more promotions right now," said Jill Notini, VP-marketing and communications for the appliance industry association.

Of course, one of the best ways to drum up demand is with efficient products and innovation. "When people look at appliances today, they want it done faster and better, but they're not willing to sacrifice performance," said Bob Cunningham, Haier senior VP-major appliances. "That's our challenge."

So what happens when consumer desire meets manufacturer innovation? Check out our list below of the top appliance trends.

Top Trends in Appliances

ECO-WASHING: This Haier washer claims to waste less water and energy.
ECO-WASHING: This Haier washer claims to waste less water and energy.
The government's goal to push energy efficiency syncs well with manufacturers' and retailers' drive to be green, especially as more consumers claim they'll buy eco-conscious products. More than half of appliances sold now meet the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star requirements and use from 10%-50% less energy and water than standard appliances. The Energy Star label itself, introduced in 1992, is now recognized by 76% of consumers, while 40% of consumers knowingly purchased an Energy Star appliance in the past year, according to an EPA study. Ms. Liao said that manufacturer surveys show that "energy efficiency was the key driver in washer and dryer purchases."

Appliances are growing in size. Refrigerators for instance, used to average 18 to 20 cubic feet, but last year's average was 22 cubic feet with models ranging up to 26 cubic feet. Dishwashers are also upsizing, with many adding "tall tub" features that allow place settings to be washed on both the top and bottom racks. Driven by busy lifestyles -- more storage in the fridge for convenience foods, more dishes and clothing washed at one time -- expect even more sizable changes here.

KEEP IT CLEAN: Amana Side-by-Side refrigerator has antimicrobial protection.
KEEP IT CLEAN: Amana Side-by-Side refrigerator has antimicrobial protection.
Sub-Zero is leading the high-end health trend with technology such as an air-purification system for refrigerators that replenishes the air inside the box every 20 minutes. But others are also tapping germ and bacteria concerns. Dishwashers are boasting sanitization cycles using superheated rinsing water and certified by an NSF branded seal. Refrigerators are using antimicrobial shelving, such as Amana's side-by-side units with Microban technology built into its door bins.

Colors and basic black are the new stainless steel. While many are still choosing stainless as the new neutral, consumers who are done with gleaming but highly smudgeable doors are going with black or picking vibrant colors as the next hot "pop" in the kitchen. Ms. Notini said that colors are particularly growing in popularity because they're moving downmarket to less-expensive appliances now in a rainbow of choices. Kenmore front-loading washers at Sears for instance, come in blue, red and green and start around $1,000. Lots of color choices still fall on the high end, such as Blue Star ranges (starting around $2,500) which come in 190 hues. Side note: Amana's color fridge test will give you a fun personality profile after you help them choose which colors to make next (amanacolor.com).

IT'S WINE TIME: The Haier Wine Cellar is aimed at the in-house sommelier.
IT'S WINE TIME: The Haier Wine Cellar is aimed at the in-house sommelier.
Hidden underneath the trendiest countertops (eco-friendly concrete or recycled glass, of course) are the morphing appliances. That is, fridges, microwaves and dishwashers retooled as drawers. Warming drawers are also hot, as are ice- making and wine-preservation drawers. Blame the trend on open kitchen design and the lack of wall space. Even refrigerators are getting the drawer treatment. French-door refrigerators with bottom mount drawer-like freezers are growing in popularity, accounting for 27% of dollars spent on refrigerators in 2008, according to AHAM.

Make food faster, tastier and in dual modes with the latest technology. Appliance makers are adding convection (heated air circulated around the food), induction (electromagnetic) and dual fuel (gas and electric) cooktops and ovens to appeal to time- and budget-stressed consumers. It's estimated that 25% of new ovens sold include convection technology. Expect to more see combination appliances as well. GE markets a "speed-cooking" range and a wall oven with patented Trivection technology -- thermal, convection and microwave cooking all in one.

QUIET PLEASE: Kenmore Elite HE4t washer and dryer
QUIET PLEASE: Kenmore Elite HE4t washer and dryer
Dishwashers jumped on the trend first with some noise levels reduced to a simple swishing sound as low as 45 decibels. (Whispering is about 40 decibels, normal conversation is about 60.) Now washing machines and dryers are turning the volume down. Why? As laundry has moved out of basements and into living spaces, often beside a bedroom or bathroom, the need for less noise was clear. Samsung's ad campaign, breaking Sept. 30, touts its front-load steam laundry appliances and patented "vibration-reduction technology."

Every age group needs appliances, but every style doesn't appeal to both grandma and Joe College. So manufacturers like GE are rolling out different designs aimed at specific target demos. The GE Café line, for instance, is the young and hip styled grouping of appliances complete with its own contemporary stainless steel logo, while the GE Profile is aimed at an older, more affluent group. The GE Monogram label targets kitchen designers and architects building for the professional at-home chef or those who can afford to hire one. So-called Eve-tech design also plays here with appliance lines (curves) and handles designed for women.

NO SAME OL' STOVE: Samsung range has convection technology.
NO SAME OL' STOVE: Samsung range has convection technology.
Steam is all over the appliance industry with an abundance of uses. In washing machines and dishwashers, steam is hyped for better cleaning and sanitizing. In dryers, it's meant to remove odors and wrinkles (and save trips to the dry cleaners.) There are even steam ovens where food cooked by steam convection is said to be both faster and more healthful, with more vitamins and minerals retained. Introduced more than two years ago, Ms. Notini said steam appliances gained momentum in the past year.

Intelligent appliances are taking the guesswork out of consumer's hands. Ms. Liao said for instance, that as part of the energy efficiency trend, "We are seeing sensor technology being incorporated into appliances as a way, for example, to calibrate water and energy usage in washers and dishwashers to soil levels." And they'll get even smarter. She said many major companies (GE has a pilot program now) plan to offer units that can talk to a smart grid for added energy savings.

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