Gadgets Galore Grace Giant Gala

International Housewares Show displays long-term cultural trends as well as this year's consumer fads

Take comfort, America. Even if the makers of household goods have already met all your needs, they're very busy inventing thousands more.

The recent 100th International Housewares Show in Chicago flaunted the reassuring notion that even the most well appointed households have overlooked some glaring essentials:

* Riled by a fly? Grab for the "LeSwat Flyswatter" with an I-Beam handle packing "maximum kill force;"

* Worried about flotsam in your bottled soda? Screw on "The Taste Machine," a cap that filters a beverage while you drink;

* Revolted by fat on the surface of your soup? Sweep it away with "Skim It."

These and thousands more vital and not-so-vital products appeared before 60,000 buyers and sellers at the Jan. 12-15 trade show. The average household annually spends $567 on housewares, a figure exceeding that spent on education. It is a $57.8 billion industry, says the National Housewares Manufacturers Association (NHMA) in Rosemont, Ill.

The diversity of housewares - which range from kitchen, to livingroom, to pet care products - helps make the show a bellwether for the changing tastes of American consumers.

"This show tells us what trends might be occurring among consumers for the rest of the year," says Lisa Casey Weiss, lifestyle consultant for the NHMA, which sponsored the show.

The event seems an apt display of deep-running cultural currents as well as passing consumer fancies.

The NHMA would inspire future generations of anthropologists if it buried the 880,000-square-foot show as a time capsule. The hundreds of thousands of gadgets and gewgaws - the new twists on essentials like scissors and the urgent pitches for such "can't-do-without goods" like fleece-covered footrests - would testify to the values, prosperity, and eccentric entrepreneurship of Americans on the eve of a new millennium.

Today, US consumers are increasingly looking beyond price to durability. "Consumers have come to realize over the years that a few dollars in initial expense for a longer lasting product is a good investment - they have become smarter," says Ms. Casey Weiss.

Also, the population's increasingly older demographic profile has created greater interest in bathroom scales with larger than usual numerals, garden tools with better grips, and other products geared to more-mature consumers.

Moreover, American homes have apparently started to go at housekeeping with environmental protection in mind. Water and air filters are selling especially well.

Finally, homeowners apparently seek to have their cake and eat it too. "They are pampering themselves, but they are also taking care of themselves," says Casey Weiss. Gourmet cooking, massagers, and foot-care products are hot this year.

With more than 2,000 sales representatives displaying their wares in convention halls large enough to hold more than two dozen 747 jetliners, the show revealed in quirky ways how offbeat innovation acts as an engine of the industry. Some salespeople believe they offer the last word in bug bashing.

The "Shoe-Fly Swatter" features a brightly colored plastic thong sandal at the end of a stick. Punch Enterprises Inc. of Falls Church, Va. touts it as "The Bug Terminator with Sole."

"Using the bottom of your footwear is a very satisfying way of doing in a fly," says Rick Shadyac of Punch Enterprises.

The "LeSwat," the "ultimate flyswatter" produced by Bird Brain Inc. of Ann Arbor, Mich., "picks up where others leave off" with a set of removable tweezers set in the handle and a rake on the leading edge that enables the user to scoop up the fallen target.

"We have positioned it as the new standard," says Christine King of Bird Brain. "This is not one of your wimpy, flimsy swatters, it packs a real wallop," she says, swishing a "LeSwat" through the air.

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