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Stainless Steel Steals K/BIS Show

4/15/2002 02:00:00 AM Eastern

Capitalizing on the rebound in major appliance sales — particularly within the super-premium niche — majap makers big and small unleashed a torrent of sleek, fully-featured machines at last week's Kitchen/Bath Industry Show (K/BIS).

And despite the threat of higher steel prices due to a Bush Administration plan to impose tariffs on steel imports, the show floor at McCormick Place was a sea of stainless steel, as metallic finishes flourished from luxury through mass-market lines, underscoring the high-end emphasis.

Also telling was the much-anticipated entry of Samsung into the full-size refrigeration business. The move, which follows those of fellow Far East concerns LG and Haier, underscored vendor perceptions of untapped opportunities within the U.S. white goods market, while expanding the pool of Asian alternatives to more mainstream kitchen brands.

Manufacturer optimism was borne out by the robust dealer turnout at the show, which all attributed to skyrocketing demand after September's attacks. "The September tragedy changed the thinking and the habits of Americans," observed BSH president/CEO Hans-Peter Haase. "Instead of spending money on things they don't necessarily need, like travel, they're placing more emphasis on the home, on cocooning, which is why our business is up."

Sears' VP/general manager for appliances Tina Settecase agreed. "People are staying home and fixing up their houses," she said. The result: "Business is excellent. I'm surprised and pleased. November and December were very strong, we had double-digit gains in March, and April is starting off very strong, with 25 percent increases daily."

Echoed Mike London, executive VP/general merchandise manager at Best Buy, "After 9/11, the home has become more important, and the kitchen is the No. 2 place in the home." He added that his company remains firmly committed to majaps — as evidenced by his and president Al Lenzmeier's presence at the show — and that Best Buy is "working [to enhance] all facets of the business."

On the product front, highlights included the aforementioned Samsung refrigerators, available in bottom-mount and side-by-side configurations. The latter include a digital network model replete with a portable, 15.1-inch LCD screen that provides Internet access and power line interconnectivity with other household appliances. More conventional side-by-sides, offered in 24 cubic foot through 27 cubic foot sizes, feature a front-door digital control display that offers real-time function readouts and quick-freeze and cooling controls.

All models offer separate cooling systems for the refrigerator and freezer compartments, sensors that change air flow direction when warmer areas are detected, and multiple air flow outlets. Shipping begins this September, and Samsung plans to open a new factory in Mexico next year to support its entry into the U.S. market. Pricing has not yet been set.

The overriding theme of the show was finish, which took front and center within the kitchen category. Following February's introduction of a fingerprint-free Titanium line from LG Electronics, other manufacturers followed suit with innovative step-up surfaces that raised the bar on stainless steel. These include Fisher & Paykel's Iridium collection of pewter-finished ovens, cooktops and dishwashers, which offer all the benefits of stainless without its glossy, clinical look, the company said. Cleanup is also easier due to an anti-fingerprint coating, and the up-market series also features additional accessories such as a pizza stone in the oven. Pricing is still being finalized, and shipping begins in October.

Other introductions at Fisher & Paykel included a 30-inch Aerotech convection oven that uses a microprocessor and electronic controls in place of a thermostat for more precise temperature settings. The New Zealand supplier also debuted a 36-inch ceramic cooktop with five heating zones and element status indicators that show, through variously colored lights, whether the unit is on, hot or off.

Frigidaire took surface options to new extremes with its concept Metallics refrigerator collection of Distressed Brass, Graffiti Stainless and Polished Point Copper textured finishes. Spokesman Tony Evans said the company is gauging trade reaction to the prototypes before committing the platform to production. Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the pricing spectrum, Frigidaire also bowed a Classic stainless steel series of refrigerators, ranges and dishwashers that are being positioned at "popular non-stainless steel price points," including a free-standing gas range that can retail for under $500.

In the innovation department, Bosch earned its fair shair of oohs-and-ahs with its stark NES electric cooktop, which features a single, removable control knob. The dial, dubbed m TwisT, is held in place by a magnet beneath the ceramic glass, and users select the desired element via a touch-through-glass panel and set the power level with a simple rotation of the dial. Removing the m TwisT locks the unit, which is the ultimate safety feature for households with children, said product marketing director Chris Kaeser. The NES is also offered with conventional mechanical knobs.

K/BIS coverage will continue in the next issue of TWICE (April 29).