Motorized mops. Pet-crate cooling fans. Leopard faux-fur toilet plungers. These are just a few items displayed at the International Housewares Show last month that might be coming soon to a store near you. That is, if they attracted enough attention from the 18,000 buyers in attendance.
This annual trade show, which filled massive McCormick Place in Chicago, is prime time for exhibitors to roll out innovations to everyone including the big guys - buyers from such national chains as Wal-Mart, Target, and Kmart. Displays are planned months ahead. Salespeople lure attendees into booths with hot chili, fried shrimp, and fresh-fruit smoothies.
All day long, bikini-clad women and muscle-toned men take turns soaking in hot tubs. A baby tiger named Asia draws a crowd around its cage, appropriately located next to the Tiger Corp.'s latest vacuum. And even Julia Child and Emeril Lagasse show up to pitch their favorite cookware, causing almost as much commotion as a Backstreet Boys concert.
It's all part of the big sell.
Not there to cut deals, I have the luxury to roam the aisles without being wooed, and to calmly assess what's in store for the new year and beyond.
Comfort and convenience are the buzzwords of the show, and indeed, most products cater to these consumer cravings.
For starters, comfort appears in the form of massage chairs, bubbling bath mats, and foot-soaking tubs, all of which lend the exhibit hall a Canyon Ranch feel. As home has increasingly become a refuge from fast-paced lives, sales of these products continues to shoot up.
In the case of massage chairs, sales have actually tripled in the past year, says marketing guru A.J. Riedel, of Riedel Marketing Group in Phoenix. Sure enough, by the end of Day 2, even weary salespeople sneak away from their posts for a little pampering, occasionally becoming so relaxed as to doze off despite an earful of chatter about how such massage recliners could replace their Barcalounger for a mere $3,000.
In the kitchen, it's all about speed. The Slow Food movement, simmering within culinary circles across America, clearly hasn't caught on with these folks, who insist that nobody wants to spend more than a half-hour cooking dinner.
But this doesn't necessarily mean more Happy Meals and pizza deliveries.
"We don't want to take the time to cook from scratch," Ms. Riedel tells a standing-room-only crowd outside the electronics hall, "but we still want to present a meal at home as though we cooked it ourselves." Hence the abundance of pressure cookers, electric rice cookers, and ultra-efficient microwave ovens that wow hungry onlookers with 15-minute soup, perfect Basmati rice, and a 12-minute pineapple upside-down cake. Microwave use is especially high these days, Riedel says, with average households using them 16 times per week in 2000 up from 11 the year before.
Despite the presence of those famous faces at the All-Clad booth, Americans aren't in the market these days for pots and pans, no matter how finely crafted. That's also according to Riedel, who puts traditional cookware, tools, and gadgets on her list of "not hot" items for 2001.
"If you buy prepackaged salad and pregrated cheese, who needs 'em?" she asks.
Gretchen Holt of World Kitchen's OXO division (best known for those comfy Good Grips tools), has a slightly different take on the trend. "People might be cooking less, but when they do cook, they want to do it right," she says, demonstrating a new line of spice grinders. "After spices are ground, they lose oils and flavor," she explains, the aroma of fresh-ground red chilies overpowering her perfume. "With a grinder, cooks can control when the oil is released."
Some of the most dramatic new cooking devices were Internet microwaves with barcode scanners that download recipes from manufacturers' websites and toasters with microchips that promise perfect, goldendoneness.
And one of the biggest surprises, in this diet-crazed age, was the bounty of deep fryers.
"It's the fastest-growing kitchen appliance," claims Tom Lacalamita of T-Fal Corp., as he uses tongs to pick out crisp hot shrimp from a deep fryer next to the pressure cooker on his booth's countertop. Resembling bread machines, today's deep fryers are sleek and compact, with digital thermometers, timers, and pop-up lids that contain the splattering oil.
Comfort and convenience may have been the talk of the show, but bold color was its most striking feature. Not even the Chicago Institute of Art a few miles away could compete.
The success of Apple's IMac and Nokia's cellphone face plates certainly hasn't gone unnoticed, and designers have been splashing blenders, humidifiers, grills, fans, alarm clocks, bug traps, and much more with vibrant reds, yellows, greens, blues, and every shade in between.
Less knock-your-socks-off, but equally well represented, were retro items or what are often called "Boomer products," including not only those speedy pressure cookers, but also fondue pots, lava lamps, and many interpretations of the classic pop-up toaster.
"These nostalgic products are all about satisfying the need to relive your past," explained Tor Alden, director of strategic development for HuckStuder Design.
"People," he adds, "are looking for products to define who they are and where they are going."
One can't help but wonder, in light of Mr. Alden's comment and the fact that household products illustrate social change, how today's innovations will be assessed tomorrow. Especially if that leopard toilet plunger - or another eye-catcher, microfiber Peds called Scrubby Toes that mop the floor as you walk, find their way into American homes.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society