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Appliance Makers See Riches In Niches

4/18/2003 01:09:00 PM Eastern

Orlando, Fla. -- Faced with a moribund marketplace, lower average selling prices and core line competition from Asian contenders, the Big Four players in major appliances are aggressively pursuing upscale niches that had once been the province of specialty vendors alone.

Efforts by Electrolux, GE, Maytag and Whirlpool to tap into the still robust, high-margin luxury market were fully evident at the Kitchen/Bath Industry Show (K/BIS), held here earlier this month at the Orange County Convention Center. (K/BIS returns to Chicago's McCormick Place next year, April 2-4.)

One might think that the majap majors' new offerings -- ranging from wine chillers and under-the-counter ice makers to Euro-style convection wall ovens and professional hoods -- included everything but the kitchen sink.

But one would be wrong. Whirlpool's KitchenAid is selling those too.

Here's a rundown of the Big Four's big doings, direct from the K/BIS show floor.

GE Consumer Products (recently renamed after merging the majap and light bulb businesses) placed most of its K/BIS spotlight on its top-of-the-line Monogram platform, where a convection wall oven, a wine chiller/beverage center pair and a quartet of professional hoods took center stage.

The European style oven features a large viewing window, welded seams and handmade control knobs on the outside, and self-clean oven racks, a pair of halogen bulbs and a concealed bake element within.

Available next month, the single ovens will range from $1,799 to $2,099 while the doubles will range from $3,249 to $3,649.

The 57-bottle wine chiller and 126-can beverage center ($1,099 each) can be used as freestanding or built-in units, and feature beveled stainless steel edges, a black case, and unfinished cherry wood shelf fronts.

The stainless steel hoods, available in restaurant-style, tapered-sided, straight-sided and overhead island options, each feature a maximum venting capacity of 1,200 cubic feet per minute, halogen illumination and infrared warming lights.

Retails range from $1,429 to $2,399.

Meanwhile, back at the GE brand, Profile's new Innovection ovens and bottom-mount Arctica refrigeration were the focus of the mid-tier platform.

The ovens, available this September for $2,349-$2,599 single, $3,699-$3,899 double, combine thermal, convection and microwave energies to cook food up to five times faster than conventional ovens.

The bottom-mount, produced for GE by LG in 20- and 22-cubic foot options, features gently contoured doors and sculptured Profile-style handles, a combined ice bin and icemaker that saves space and spares fallen cubes, and three full-extension freezer baskets.

The units will be available in June and will be priced to retail between $1,199 and $1,699.

Electrolux began adding its nameplate to select Frigidaire appliances in 2002, but this year marks the first full-bore debut of an Electrolux platform in North America as part of the company's global branding campaign.

The program, which will initially be confined to the kitchen, was developed by the international Electrolux design team in response to a perceived preference for European styling, and features sleek curved handles and easy-care coated stainless steel.

Among the introductions:

  • Counter depth refrigerator - A 23-cubic-foot side-by-side with full-depth, slide-out glass shelves and digital temperature readout

  • Convection wall oven - A 30-inch, black porcelain unit with 4.2-cubic-foot capacity cavity, telescoping racks and a matching warming drawer

  • Gas and electric cooktops. - The 36-inch units feature an angled front control panel and large professional knobs

  • Dishwashers - Two models both feature stainless steel interiors for higher water temperature and cleanability, and slim line electronic control panels

The Electrolux line will officially launch in the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, Frigidaire was hardly forgotten.

The popular-priced platform showcased its new Classic Series, just now hitting dealer floors, which features the brand's historic script logo and a smooth, high-gloss retro-styled finish.

Models include two top mount and two side-by-side refrigerators, a gas and electric range and a dishwasher, in white, bisque, black and stainless steel.

Also new are four apartment-size (28-inch-wide) stainless steel top mounts in 15-, 17- and 18-cubic-foot capacities with rounded edges, stainless steel finishes and a suggested retail of $500.

In addition, Frigidaire will add the Frigidaire from Electrolux nameplate to its Gallery and Professional series, and has made assorted upgrades to its refrigeration and laundry lines.

Maytag: The big news for the company's flagship brand -- as suggested by the guarded glass booth in which it was displayed -- is top loading line extension of the popular Maytag Neptune front loading washer: the Neptune TL.

Born of research showing that more than 50 percent of consumers still prefer a top-load configuration, the TL replaces the traditional agitator with a pair of vertically opposed disks, or'spinners.' Their action is designed to achieve the high efficiency, minimal fabric wear and superior cleaning performance of front loading units.

The TL also dispenses water and detergent from a central shower point located beneath the lid to further minimize fabric stress, and reaches 1,000 rpms for maximum water extraction. Maytag director of laundry product management Tony Hair said the machine is the'best-cleaning washer we have tested,' and projected a $1,000 to $1,300 price point ($600 to $800 for the companion dryer) when the TL begins shipping to'value-added retailers' by year's end.

Also new is the Maytag Range, which, with 5.22 cubic feet of cooking space, is touted as the largest capacity oven on the market. This first cousin of Amana's Big Oven achieves its interior girth by dispensing with the bottom drawer, which is traditionally used for storage.

Speaking of Amana, that division's debuts included an oversized bottom mount refrigerator and a new range of ranges. The former -- the latest-generation Easy Reach -- offers three more cubic feet of storage space than previous models, for a total of 25 cubic feet, plus a 120-pound-capacity pull-out drawer within the freezer section and an extra deep pantry drawer.

In cooking, Amana's new line of free-standing ranges offer practical features like a cooktop warming zone (on electric models), warming drawers, oven rack indents for easy handling of bakeware and the same 5.22 cubic feet of cooking space found in the Maytag Range.

Changes to Amana's 2003 laundry line were more cosmetic than mechanical, the company said.

Meanwhile, Maytag's high-end Jenn-Air contingent continues to move beyond its cooking base into margin-rich niche products that had long been the province of specialty vendors. New for K/BIS is the brand's first-ever wine chiller, a 24-inch under-the-counter model designed to hold up to 50 bottles at a temperature range of between 42 and 64 degrees. Shipping begins this summer at a suggested retail of $1,199 to $1,349.

Joining the chiller, and completing Jenn-Air's suite of built-in appliances, is an under-the-counter icemaker (suggested retail $1,499 to $1,649) and a 30-inch warming drawer ($798). The ice maker can produce up to 35 pounds of clear cubes a day, while the warming drawer can keep four fully loaded 11-inch dinner plates between 82 and 210 degrees, the company said. Both should be available by June.

Also new from Jenn-Air: a 30-inch, built-in convenience oven that, with its 1.2 cubic-foot cavity, is touted as the world's smallest, plus a new range of stainless steel range hoods featuring electronic touch controls, and a six-speed, 650-cubic-foot-per-minute blower.

Whirlpool: The company's flagship brand was short on K/BIS-specific introductions, leaving the big news for its high-end KitchenAid contingent, and revisiting such Builder Show intros as the Family Studio concept laundry room and Gladiator GarageWorks line of custom interiors for the garage.

However, Whirlpool did unveil an over-the-range speed-cook microwave designed to compete with GE's acclaimed Advantium. The newg2microven employs licensed (and enhanced) inverter technology for constant -- rather than on-and-off -- microwave flow at lower power levels, plus a ceiling-mounted 1,100-watt halogen bulb and a 500-watt quartz bulb for browning, roasting and grilling. The unit also boasts a Quiet Partner hood that cuts operating noise by 25 percent while removing odors, plus the industry's first non-stick interior surface. The g2microven debuts this month at Lowe's.

K/BIS proved to be a major launching pad for KitchenAid , however, with the upmarket brand bowing a new top-of-the-line Pro Line series. Inspired by the classic styling and commercial heft of the classic KitchenAid stand mixer, the eight-piece collection offers solid, professional caliber equipment in stainless steel and a new matte metallic finish called meteorite. SKUs include a double wall oven, a gas cooktop, a built-in refrigerator and a dishwasher (sold individually or as a four-piece collection for $12,250 to $13,550), as well as a trash compactor and an icemaker.

Separately, KitchenAid introduced its own version of the g2microven called Ultima Cook that's shipping this quarter ($799, $899 stainless) and redesigned its built-in refrigerator line with new bins and shelves and increased useable space. Also new was a 12-inch high stainless steel dishwasher pedestal, and, for those who feel that KitchenAid now offers every but, a stainless steel kitchen sink.

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