It's back to basics for housewares

By MARCELLA S. KREITER  |  March 14, 2010 at 9:30 AM
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CHICAGO, March 8 (UPI) -- Like every other sector of the U.S. economy, the housewares industry appeared to be retrenching as its annual exhibition opened Sunday in Chicago.

Though the number of exhibitors is up from last year, manufacturers are holding back on the wow factor, said Lisa Casey Weiss, lifestyle consultant for the International Housewares Association.

"There is nothing that is spectacular so far this year," Weiss said in an interview in advance of the International Housewares Association trade show that runs through Tuesday at McCormick Place. "I haven't seen anything that's truly innovative. … There's definitely a back-to-basics push."

Weiss said previews in New York recently indicated manufacturers are holding back on introducing new high-end products, opting instead to improve existing products or modifying commercial and industrial items for the consumer market.

"Consumers are really focused on more frugal spending -- a simpler lifestyle, making things easier in the home," Weiss said. "They're not going out to eat as much. They're cooking more at home, entertaining in the home environment -- just spending more time at home … It's need versus desire."

Another casualty appears to be the push to go green.

"I don't know if it's because of the economy or the overwhelming push we had last year," Weiss said, adding part of the reason could be disappointment with the quality of the products themselves.

"The small number of consumers on our focus panels seem more skeptical of the claims. It says environmentally safe, but is it? Does it do what it says it does? A number of our consumers tried products and may or may not be happy. Some of the household cleaning products just didn't perform to the level they thought they would. So they're going back to traditional cleaning products like bleach and vinegar. They clean better than the green products," Weiss said.

The key is determining whether a company is practicing "greenwashing" -- over-promising environmental benefits -- or is truly green.

Aimee Heilbrunn of EcoScene, who reviews eco-friendly products and services, says sometimes the concept of "does it work?" has gotten lost.

"That's so fundamental … A product can be made with recycled materials, but if it doesn't work, it does more harm than good," she observed in a release.

Attention this year is focusing on the generation known as millenials -- people in their 20s just beginning to set up housekeeping. The industry estimates this group has $350 billion in spending power. Homegoods market researcher Robin Albing has studied millenials' brand choices and how they are reacquainting their parents with iconic brands.

"Millenials are savvy, sophisticated consumers with more information than ever before," the IHA said in a release. "Companies that begin to tap into this emerging demographic will find success."

The show serves as a showcase for inventors. In addition to products that already have found manufacturers, a number of ideas from college students are put on display. Among this year's student entries is one from Emily Maskey of Springfield, Ill., who attends the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Maskey designed the Fresco -- a refrigeration and hydration cookie jar-like device for fresh produce and other foods so they can sit on the kitchen counter.

Jenny Lawlor of BrainChild Marketing, coordinator for the show's Inventor's Corner and Inventors Revue, said the economy is making it more difficult for inventors to get an idea off the ground.

"Things that might have been a no-brainer to do before have to be carefully considered in terms of (return on investment)," she said "That's what is nice about Inventors Corner -- when you put 32 inventors with new products together, now you have a real destination for companies looking for new products."

Among the new inventions are a cutting board with extra cutting surfaces that fold in on themselves, a new design on plastic container lids so they can be stored easily and a device that steams hot dog buns while the wienies cook.

About 2,000 exhibitors are due to display their wares, up from 1,700 last year. IHA spokeswoman Debbie Teschke said 500 new companies are included in that number, as well as a number of companies that pulled out of the show last year. About 21,000 buyers are registered to attend and overall attendance is pegged at 60,000.

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