Perry Reynolds, vice president for marketing and trade development for the International Housewares Association, says consumers are looking for well-designed items that will last and are friendly to the environment -- and they don't mind paying a little more.
What they're not looking for, Reynolds said, is junk.
"There's been a steady upgrading of consumer expectations," Reynolds said. "Consumers want more efficiency."
That view appeared borne out on the floor of the IHA's annual trade show at McCormick Place.
Take Kevin Lee, one of the 2,100 exhibitors at the show, which opened Saturday and runs through Tuesday.
Lee refers to himself as the nutty professor. The 50-year-old Glenview, Ill., mechanical engineer and general contractor has come up with a device that will make you wonder why you ever swept a floor any other way.
The simple ring and handle fit over a typical broom, mop, rake, dustpan -- even a cane -- making them easier to use.
"I was making a toy for my kids and the place was a mess, sawdust everywhere. I was tired of bending over to clean up," Lee said.
In what he described as an ah-hah moment, he thought about the motion needed to sweep things up efficiently and voila, the RoboHandle was born.
So far Lee is only manufacturing a broom and dustpan but he can see the handle added to any number of tools. At the show, he kept grabbing maintenance workers as they went by and offering to trade his equipment for theirs. They all took him up on it.
"We're not cockroaches," Lee said in demonstrating how one has to hold a regular broom and dustpan.
The RoboHandle broom and dustpan currently are available on the Internet from siitools.com.
Lee said he's hoping Ace Hardware will start selling his invention. He's already placed brooms and dustpans in two independent Ace stores, selling them for $12 and $15, respectively.
"I got to get corporate to notice it," Lee said of his plans for getting into the whole chain.
For the kitchen, Galanz introduced a round microwave oven (it looks like R2D2) that already is selling well in China and should be available in the United States this year for $199. Spokesman Anson Pan said the 700-watt units cook more evenly than conventional microwaves.
For those who like beer-can chicken, Clay Design of Long Beach, Calif., has come up with a Zirconium glazed two-piece set. The flavor cone can hold 12 ounces of beer, wine or any other liquid. The drippings bowl also can be used separately for baking. The set will be available this year for $20. The cone also is sold separately and can be used on a barbecue grill.
Zyliss has fresh takes on a number of kitchen staples, including graters and mandolins. The Swiss company has a three-sided grater that folds flat and a hand-held mandolin that takes up much less space than older models. Also new this year are the Swap It Peeler and Knife -- a julienne or regular vegetable peeler and knife in one handle -- and the Fast Cut Herb Tool, which makes quick work of cutting cilantro, parsley, green onion or any other herb.
What's hot colorwise?
Believe it or not, the avocado, gold and orange kitchen of the 1970s is back, says Leatrice Eisman, a major influence on housewares designers and consultant to Pantone Inc. She recommends adding some claret red to freshen the look and perhaps even some macrame.
Despite the recent improvement in economic indicators, consumers remain tight-fisted, said Dough Huemoeller, president of Kitchen Window of Minneapolis.
"Consumers are being conscientious about what they are spending their money on," he said.
A.J. Riedel of the Riedel Marketing Group agreed, saying people are "worried about money, rising costs and what their future will hold."
"[People] have no confidence that the economy is recovering or that things are going to get better any time soon," Riedel said, adding that saving has become much more important than buying luxury items.
The mindset carries over to the green movement, which seemed poised to explode a few years ago. Though many people still espouse concern for the environment, they are reluctant to buy green products unless those products are cheaper and work well.
Instead, manufacturers are incorporating more sustainability into products.
"The most relevant sustainable materials come from nature itself, just as rice husks, coconut fibers and other plant-based materials," said Gabriella Vivaldi, marketing and communications manager for Material ConneXion Inc. "During harvesting phases, these bio-waste natural resources get discarded or incinerated, but we can use them as fillers in plastics.
"These natural fillers leverage the cellulose content of the plastic, making it stronger and reducing the amount of petroleum-based components used."
Spending on home improvement has increased 7 percent from 2009 but Kermit Baker, director of the Remodeling Futures Program and joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, said the money largely is going to smaller projects, with consumers still nervous about taking on larger endeavors.