No general merchandise department is as integrally tied to lifestyle trends as housewares, so it's little surprise that the sea change in how people will use their homes in the 21st Century is already spawning massive change in housewares product development, marketing and assortments at the nation's retailers.
The broad scope of these shifts is giving supermarkets an opportunity to revitalize their role in nonfoods -- particularly where it affects food storage, indoor environmental quality, home office organization and personal care.
Trade experts feel that if supermarkets won't carry state-of-the-art vacuums at $300 apiece, they can still make an effective play for high-margin HEPA filters and accessories in pursuit of ongoing replenishment business. Sales of water purifiers are on the rise, in parallel with the surge of bottled waters, as consumers watch what they consume. Food storage products for single-serve, on-the-go use are another option for food stores -- particularly as they build home meal replacement volume among people who want tasty, well-rounded meals in practically no time.
The ethnic diversity of HMR in supermarkets further paves the way for related housewares: spaghetti holders and casserole dishes go with Italian; woks are suited for Asian foods; and Mexican cookware moves with tacos, enchiladas and burritos. When people serve at home with these cookware and tableware items, they add fun and an extra touch of authenticity to their meals.
Moreover, the swelling ranks of telecommuters and at-home workers face the challenge of bringing their professions home and incorporating their work, storage and equipment needs into finite spaces that are already crowded. Functional, well-designed housewares keep these space compromises to a minimum, and allow for smooth and tasteful integration.
These are some of the societal issues that industry observers say supermarket executives should keep in mind as they attend the 2000 International Housewares Show at Chicago's McCormick Place this week, Jan. 16 to 19.
Long after the millennium sounds old and Y2K fades as a distant memory, the nation's food chains will continue to serve a populace whose mindset, priorities and resources are very different from even a decade ago. "National and global population dynamics are very interesting now, particularly among boomers and echo boomers," said Perry Reynolds, director of marketing, National Housewares Manufacturers Association, Rosemont, Ill.
"The children of boomers are leaving home. Boomers in turn are buying for more functional, long-term applications, and decorating with casual elegance. At the same time, many more one-person households are forming and people of the opposite sex are living together in new two-person arrangements. The Generation Xs and Ys are forming households, which they definitely don't want to look like mom and dad's house," he said. Housewares executives and consultants said people already appear more willing to spend on the quality they demand, the taste levels they seek, and health issues they want to abate.
In short, consumers are taking control of their environments -- shaping them based on better knowledge of what can help or harm them, designing them for greater satisfaction, and equipping them for greater convenience and ease.
"As a result, product designers today have diverse audiences who can appreciate the value they put into products [such as coolers with wheels, electrostatic dusters, easy-wringing mops, less-bending brooms, easy-twist jar openers -- and many driven by technology -- to name a few core supermarket items] and the broad palette of colors. You see a lot of color variety in housewares aisles today," said Reynolds. "That speaks to the human need for differentiation.
"It's a different zoo today in terms of the products available. None of the features are frivolous. There's an amazing variety of legitimate functionality in current product that has value added," Reynolds further noted.
Eying the aging populace, Bill Bishop, principal of Barrington, Ill.-based Willard Bishop Consulting, Ltd, calls them "truly schizophrenic on twin trends of indulgence and health. They feel they don't have much time so they deserve to indulge, but they have to start eating better to stay reasonably well. This is leading to a lot of attention on juicers and state-of-the-art vegetable crispers with CO2 jets. Pre-sliced fruits and vegetables are common snacks now. Baby carrots and broccoli florets require storing, freshness and easy access.
"In households headed by 25-to-50-year-olds, the undeniable pressures on time are leading to more and more cooking for multiple meals at a time and then freezing. Even with scratch cooking a rarity and the microwave as a tool of choice, this is a real win on several counts," he added. "The food prep is fast and simple. People need storage containers, including the portion-control disposables for spill-proof eating occasions on the run. They're the modern equivalent of lunchboxes for use in the car. People also need the capacity to store food at home.
"This also solves the multiplicity issue because mom, dad and kids all want something else to eat at the same time. With portion-control food storage, we're getting back to preparing individual meals as we used to use the old TV dinners," observed Bishop.
At mealtime, "we're still seeing a casual setting on consumers' tables, but it is more of an upscale casual setting," said Bob Coviello, founder and president of Housewares Tabletop International, a consulting group for manufacturers and retailers based in Rochester, N.H. "Consumers are using products that make a nice presentation but don't ooze formality, for example, porcelain stoneware versus fine china, or blown glass instead of crystal."
There's no denying the impact of technology on the way we shape our lives -- nor in the development of new housewares products that converge with this new emphasis. Futurist Glen Hiemstra, principal of Redmond, Wash.-based Hiemstra International, predicts on his futurist.com Web site that "houses will go back to the future and rapidly become centers for work, learning, entertainment and even health care." What will enable this, he said, is "the basic home computer in 2007 will have 4,000 megabytes of RAM and 300,000 megabytes of storage. Into this box will come a big pipe capable of data transmission at 28 million bits a second." This will reach many screens in the home connected to the Internet, enabling people to sell into and buy from a global market, he continued.
Houses may be connected, but information overload will drive people into housewares that make their homes safe havens from pressure and pollutants, and simplify their lives.
In the kitchen, for instance, water filters protect, microwaves quicken food preparation, and refrigerators may soon be tied to a local grocer's Web site to order food replenishments.
Throughout the home, air purifiers and cleaners and electrostatic humidifiers improve indoor environments. When people want to wind down, they're increasingly using massagers, sound therapy and aromatherapy. These are all selling and cross-merchandising opportunities for supermarkets. "This will broaden opportunity for retailers to participate in the burgeoning housewares industry," said Reynolds. "Remember, the store we most frequently leave our home for is the supermarket. That linkage is still vital."