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Majap Makers Tap Builders' Channel

1/24/2003 01:42:00 PM Eastern

Las Vegas - For major appliance manufacturers, the combination of robust new home construction and wavering retail sales lent an added urgency to this year's International Builders' Show, held last week at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

To ensure their fair share of the contract channel, vendors played up to the burgeoning luxury and custom home market with a host of super-premium products and brand extensions that defied the soft economy and blurred the lines between mass market and high-end manufacturers.

Perhaps the most innovative presentation belonged to Whirlpool, which extended its lifestyle marketing strategy of reinventing underused rooms in the home and filling them with unique concept products.

On the heels of its Gladiator GarageWorks line (TWICE, Nov. 11, 2002), the manufacturer unveiled Family Studio, a designer laundry room that doubles as a multi-purpose activity center, 'enabling people to spend more time together while tackling many of life's daily tasks,' the company said.

Based on three years of consumer lifestyle research - and the trend toward larger, more integrated laundry rooms in new homes - the Family Studio features functional work and storage space, and custom cabinetry to hide Whirlpool's latest fabric-care introductions. Those include a $600 retail Impress 'ironing station,' an $800 DryAire cabinet for quick-drying wool sweaters and delicates, and a SinkSpa jetted sink (also $600) in which to hand wash them.

Also included in the Family Studio line-up is the older Personal Valet clothes refreshing system and the front-loading Duet washer/dryer combo. All are available separately, beginning this month, while the Studio itself will be offered exclusively through Whirlpool's contract channel.

Said Family Studio brand manager Mara Villanueva, 'Home builders, architects, and kitchen and bath designers can distinguish their new properties on the market by creating customized, fabric care rooms that have unlimited potential when it comes to family lifestyle benefits.'

Elsewhere, Whirlpool's up-market brand mate KitchenAid continued reach outside the kitchen with an outdoor extension of its super-premium Architect line, replete with freestanding and built-in gas grills and bars, a serving cart, a slide-in refrigerator and an icemaker. Shipments began last fall, with suggested retails that range from $2,400 to $5,700 for the freestanding grills and $1,850 to $4,800 for the built-in models.

For GE Appliances, the emphasis was on its high-end Profile platform. Making their first public debut were the group's Harmony top-loading washer that automatically sets the cycles for its companion dryer; an 'Innovection' wall oven that combines thermal, convection and microwave energies; a host of ergonomically-enhanced bottom-mount Arctica refrigerators; and a totally redesigned line of freestanding gas ranges. (For complete coverage of GE's 2003 Profile line, see TWICE, Jan. 9, p. 140.)

Featured products at Maytag included a redesigned Atlantis top-loading washer, that now boasts a 10-percent increase in capacity thanks to a 3.2-cubic-foot tub, and a 'HydroClean' wash action system for improved performance. Central to the system is a new 'HydroFlex' agitator, whose double spiral design and flexible fins gently increase the movement of clothes through powerful currents of water, and a three-way 'TurboRinse' rinse system for more effective soil and residue removal.

Its companion dryer features an exclusive 'GentleBreeze' drying system that swirls air through the drum diagonally at 220 cubic feet per minute, replacing the air in the dryer ever two seconds. Both units have contoured control panels and a sloped-front cabinet with large lid openings for easy loading and unloading. Suggested retails range from $549 to $749 for the washer and $469 to $619 for the dryer, depending on the model.

For Maytag sister brand Amana, the big news was its biggest bottom mount yet: a 25 cubic foot Easy Reach Plus refrigerator that adds an extra 3 cubic feet of storage space to the fresh food compartment. Its expected retail should range from $1,349 to $1,999, depending on features and finish.

Meanwhile, Maytag's top-of-the-line Jenn-Air division essentially overhauled its electric cooktop contingent with the introduction of an exclusive technology dubbed 'CustomControl,' plus four new electric models. The former, which features dual elements that toggle between 9-inch and 6-inch configurations, was designed to provide many of the performance features of gas. These include a higher temperature range (up to 3,000 watts per element), consistent heating, infinite temperature settings (rather than standard presets) and more controllable elements. CustomControl will be offered on select 30-inch and 36-inch cooktops at an expected opening price point of $629.

Features of the four new Jenn-Air electrics include stainless knobs and trim, a frosted white color option, and new oval dual element for longer gourmet pans and skillets.

Elsewhere among the super-premium set, Sub-Zero added two new stainless steel finishes - carbon and platinum - to its roster, plus a pair of custom refrigerators, the 650G (21 cubic feet) and 611G (17 cubic feet), with commercial-look glass doors. 'The glass door has been popular in the commercial realm, so it made sense to apply it to some of our most popular models in the residential line,' said president/CEO Jim Bakke. Both units are set to ship this spring.

In addition, Sub-Zero subsidiary Wolf Appliance showed its duel fuel range featuring gas cooktop and electric oven, which debuted late last year (see TWICE, Dec. 9, 2002, p. 50).

First-time exhibitor Fisher & Paykel USA also entered the high-end fray, firming its presence in the American market with its newly formed builders sales division. 'Our goal,' said president Mike Goadby, 'is to improve brand awareness and sales mix as well as to increase sales in the builder channel.' The New Zealand manufacturer made its case with its line of microprocessor-controlled Aerotech single and double built-in ovens, Ceran glass electric cooktop with half-gallon spill surface, DishDrawer dishwasher and Ecosmart top-loading washers.

Also competing for a bigger chunk of U.S. majap market share were Asia's Haier, LG and Samsung. New from Haier was a 6.6-pound-capacity portable washer with features and luxury options more common in larger units, such as electronic controls, double drive, hand wash and load balance sytems and stainless steel drum.

'Haier is recognizing that people with smaller spaces enjoy luxury options on their washers just like people with the room for full size units,' said product manager Pankaj Paleja. The unit will be available within the next five months and will carry a sticker price of $360.

At the other end of the size spectrum, the home appliance division of LG Electronics debuted what it described as the largest load capacity washer and dryer available to consumers. The beltless, direct-drive washer has a capacity of 3.72 cubic feet while the capacity of its companion dryer is 7.3 cubic feet. Like their LG laundry predecessors, the latest models sense the weight of the load and automatically adjust the water level or dryer heat to optimize machine time and reduce shrinking and pilling.

The front loaders are offered in white and a Titanium finish, and are available this month at suggested retails of $899 to $1,299 for the washer and $699 to $899 for the dryer.

In room air, LG added a low profile model that permits greater window exposure than conventional window units and features the company's proprietary electronic air filter.

LG also introduced a new pair of bottom mount refrigerators in 19.7 and 22.4 cubic foot sizes that are set to hit retail floors this spring. The units feature shelves that move both horizontally and vertically, plus an optional tilt-out freezer door. Prices will range from $799 to $1,549.

'We have to make sure our products are feature driven,' said LG spokesman Daniel Lee, 'based on our innovations in design, engineering and technology.'

Refrigeration was also front and center at Samsung, which trotted out its complete line of full-size side-by-sides and bottom mounts, first shown at last year's Kitchen/Bath Industry Show (K/BIS). New for the Builders event was a round microwave oven with a cylindrical 1.0-cubic-foot, easy-to-clean cavity and 800 watts of cooking power. The unit will hit store shelves this June and is priced to hit a suggested $100 retail.

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