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Home Networking Takes Spotlight From Majaps At Builders Show

2/26/2001 02:00:00 AM Eastern

ATLANTA -This month's International Builders Show was light on white goods but heavy on home connectivity.

Indeed, products and services for the networked home filled a dedicated wing of the Georgia World Congress Center, here, where proponents including GE, Sears and CEDIA (the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association) plugged their respective visions of a wired future.

GE, for one, used the forum to announce the formation of a new company co-created by Microsoft and SMART LLC that will offer simplified home-connectivity solutions for homebuilders and new home buyers. Similarly, Sears heralded a partnership with Home Director to create a comprehensive package of interoperable home-networking products and services called Sears Connected Home, while CEDIA showcased a demonstration of a fully automated house .

But the show's standing as a key launching pad for new majap product lines was further diminished as an increasing number of vendors, including Amana, BSH and Frigidaire, decided to sit out the annual event, which ran Feb. 9-12.

Even the five white-goods manufacturers that did exhibit-down from a dozen last year-tended to pull their new product punches in anticipation of April's Kitchen/Bath Industry Show (K/BIS), which has assumed convention preeminence for the appliance trade.

The notable exception was GE, which lays claim to the largest majap market share within the homebuilders channel. Indeed, the manufacturer used the forum to unveil some 50 products, including a revamped refrigeration line, which, at a cost of $800 million, represents the largest launch in company history.

GE's prime focus was its Profile Arctica side-by-side, which spearheads the reconfigured refrigeration platform and represents an effort to reposition Profile as a more upscale nameplate.

Touted as "the most comprehensive refrigeration system" ever offered by the company, the unit offers a CustomCool ExpressChill setting to cool foods and beverages in minutes, and an Express-Thaw setting that thaws meats and other frozen foods in hours.

Arctica also reduces freezer burn thanks to a FrostGuard feature that defrosts the freezer when needed, rather than automatically as mechanical timers do.

The refrigerator, available in several models, will range in price from approximately $1,699 to $2,799 at retail, while top-freezer models will range from $949 to $1,199. Shipments are slated to begin in late March or early April.

According to a GE spokeswoman, the refrigeration overhaul was prompted by looming energy-compliance regulations and completes GE's full line of time-saving appliances, beginning with the groundbreaking Advantium speed-cook oven.

That product was revisited at the Builders Show in the guise of a GE Profile Advantium 120, a junior over-the-range model that, unlike its 220-volt big brother, can be plugged into a standard 110-volt outlet. The unit utilizes the same halogen light/microwave technology as its predecessor, albeit at twice the cook-time-which is still four times faster than traditional ovens-and, at an $800 retail, two-thirds the price.

Meanwhile, Maytag mounted the trade-show debut of its Wide-By-Side refrigerator, which was officially introduced in January. The $1,649 unit features an offset configuration that allows for more refrigerator space on top and larger freezer space on the bottom, resulting in the widest available interior space in a traditional 36-inch-wide refrigerator, the company said.

The show also marked the return of Bill Beer to his former post as president of Maytag's major appliance division.

Back on the job for less than a week, Beer told TWICE that his five-month "sabbatical" was beneficial. "[It] gives you a different perspective," he said. "You begin to get jaded after 26 years in the business." (An in-depth interview with Beer, in which he addresses such hot-button issues as channel conflict, price erosion and the legacy of former CEO Lloyd Ward will appear in an upcoming issue of TWICE.)

New product launches were more plentiful at Whirlpool's 11,000-square-foot exhibit space. The focal point of the company's Builders Show presence was the introduction of a Whirlpool-branded Calypso Wash Motion washer, the mechanical twin of the eponymous product that first appeared in Sears' Kenmore line. Like its private-label counterpart, the top-loading unit uses 50 percent less water and 66 percent less energy than conventional washers, and its agitator-less tub accommodates larger loads while taking a gentler toll on fabrics. Shipping begins in the second quarter.

Other introductions included Series 800, 900 and Gold 1000 dishwashers, which are essentially Whirlpool translations of its existing KitchenAid tall-tub line, a Whirlpool sales executive explained, plus the addition of high-end Conquest features to its full refrigeration platform.

KitchenAid itself added three new dishwashers with concealed controls and customizable, panel-ready doors, plus a selection of colorful, high-gloss finishes for dishwashers and trash compactors that include cobalt blue, empire red, hunter green and majestic yellow.

Whirlpool also featured a prototype "clothes vitalizing system" called Personal Valet, developed in conjunction with Procter & Gamble. The closet-sized contraption removes odors and wrinkles from dry-clean-only apparel using steam and a P&G-patented clothing refresher solution.

The company's expansive show presence was part of a concerted effort to increase its share of mind.

According to Whirlpool brand VP Jeff Cohen, a marketing maven who was recently brought on board to spearhead the nameplate's revitalization, "People know that Whirlpool is good, but they don't know why. We want to bring more relevance to the brand, and we want consumers to have more frequent contact with the Whirlpool name. People want to feel good about their appliances and uplifted by them. They're not just white boxes sitting in their houses."

Elsewhere, Marvel Industries introduced a portable bar caddy with a 6.1-cubic-foot refrigerated chamber, Corian countertop, auto defrost and a tinted tempered-glass door. Also, Sub-Zero touted its line of wine storage equipment, while stable mate Wolf Gourmet offered up its residential array of ranges, cooktops, ventilation and outdoor grills replete with infrared technology and dual burners.

Manufacturers weren't the only majap-related exhibitors at the Builders Show. Retail giants Sears and The Home Depot also held court, with the former touting its Kenmore Elite line and 400-strong Appliance Select contract sales force, while the latter promised an increased commitment to the major appliance category .

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