Some dream appliances consumers don't want

Posted: July 13, 2007

Here's a 21st-century riddle: What is sparkling clean and shiny, does everything anyone could possibly ask it to do, and doesn't cost a lot of money?

The answer: absolutely nothing. But that doesn't stop consumers from thinking they want that dream appliance, or manufacturers from claiming they're selling it.

And sometimes, it seems, there's a complete disconnect between what the buying public asks for and what it's actually willing to buy.

In 2002, for example, Whirlpool Corp. introduced Polara, which combined refrigeration with a convection oven. Polara would keep a casserole cool until a preset time (say, when you left work for the day), then would start to heat the food in anticipation of your arrival home. If you were late, the oven would power down to keep the food warm and not overcook it.

"Our focus groups said they wanted it, but people wouldn't pay $1,900 for the technology," says Whirlpool spokeswoman Audrey Reed-Granger. "So we put the Polara on the back burner, and we'll bring it back in a few years" when the market is ready.

Which leads to this question: Is the market ready for the latest big thing - the "digital kitchen"?

Tim Woods thinks it is. He's vice president of the CABA Internet Home Alliance Research Council, which surveyed 602 homeowners ages 25 to 64 who "participate in choosing both kitchen appliances and consumer electronics for the home."

A kitchen embodying the survey's results was built for the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show in May in Las Vegas. It featured, among other things, a digital family calendar (HP's TouchSmart, $1,899), a multimedia device that was, as Woods puts it, "nirvana" for the survey's respondents.

"Tech is migrating to the kitchen, but it is not a revolution, but an evolution," Woods says. "What is wanted is broadband connection to the house and wireless connection using a router to a laptop that will sit on the kitchen counter - not a separate area for paying bills."

The impetus for this change comes from women, Woods says, "who are making 80 percent of all buying decisions" and who want the family in one location. They think a broadband connection in the kitchen will do it.

Although women want to be able to control household systems from the kitchen to keep tabs on energy use, they don't want the room to be an entertainment center, Woods adds, so the big-screen TV is relegated to a space just off the kitchen.

What might make ideas like the digital kitchen take off?

"We're counting on today's teenagers to be the future buyers of high-tech appliances, because they already are digital experts," Reed-Granger says.

High-tech may impress the typical teen/future appliance buyer, but it doesn't wow today's target consumer with deeper pockets. Nor, apparently, do products with extra added attractions.

In fall 2006, the pollster GfK Roper published survey results showing that the phrase bells and whistles gives the impression of something that's "cool, but unnecessary," and that "to consumers unwilling to spend more money than they think something is worth, it's a deal-killer."

High-tech doesn't necessarily mean high-performance - though, Consumer Reports' home-franchise editor Bob Markovich says, "[it] sure costs a lot more."

In producing the magazine's August issue cover story, "Great Kitchens for Less," the staff cooked 850 pounds of ground beef in dozens of new appliances to see whether price determined performance.

The answer: not always.

On the plus side, Markovich says, are induction cooktops, which, though pricey, do what they say and, because they concentrate the heat, are extremely fast.

"We cut a frying pan in half and cooked an egg half on the pan and half on the [cooktop] surface," he says. "The half on the surface remained raw" because heating elements underneath it use electricity to produce a magnetic field that heats only the cooking container.

"It is not shedding off a whole lot of heat," he says. And though induction cooktops require a magnetic pan, "once they are more like $800 instead of $2,000, they'll take off."

Some high-tech products just didn't deliver, Markovich says. Among them: steam ovens, which retail for about $1,000.

"The big pitch of steam ovens is to diet-conscious consumers who still want to gorge themselves," he says. "The oven is supposed to use superheated steam to melt the fat away, but our tests showed that food cooked in some of them had just as much after steaming as before."

Asked to respond, Ryan Murphy, a spokeswoman for Sharp, which produces a steam oven, said the company had "no comment to contribute."

Speed ovens also get low marks.

"Results were spotty at best," Markovich says. "A lot of recipes have to be converted, and that will add to the cooking time."

Some appliance interconnectivity is good, he says - especially when washers and dryers are a set and "the washer tells the dryer when it is done. More people are buying washers and dryers for style and as a set, so it makes sense."

Multimedia refrigerators are another thing, however.

Consumer Reports tested a $2,300 LG model with a screen that offered five-day weather forecasts, but when the staff dialed the weather number, they were referred to a sex-chat line.

LG says it has corrected the problem.

Samsung's Wireless ICE ($3,500), which the magazine tested, features a TV, a calendar, and a food-management system that requires you to enter each item as it goes in and out of the refrigerator.

"Can't you just look inside?" asks Markovich.

He adds that this refrigerator didn't keep temperatures as consistent as screenless, less-expensive ones did.

Why not just buy a fridge that does what it's supposed to, he suggests, plus "a flat-screen TV and Post-it notes?"

"It would cost much less."


Contact real estate writer Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com.

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