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Have Smart Major Appliances Passed The Gimmick Stage?

Do consumers think smart appliances provide real functionality? Are they worth the price premium? Should retailers recommend smart appliances to their customers?

(image credit: GE Appliances)

“Smart” appliances perform myriad labor-saving functions. For instance, smart refrigerators let you know when their water filter needs changing or when a door is left open, and interior cameras let you know what you need to pick up while you’re at the supermarket. Smart dishwashers and washers determine detergent and water levels and when your dish or clothes washing/drying sessions are complete. Smart ranges and microwaves can scan food items and will automatically set the proper cooking time and temperature, and pre-heating can be pre-scheduled.

Not surprisingly, manufacturers and retailers have largely found these operational and informative smarts compelling.

“No, smart appliances are not a gimmick,” insists Paul Roth, Director of Merchandising at AVB BrandSource, “and at this point, I wouldn’t think of smart appliances as a separate category. Consumers increasingly expect all their major household products to integrate with other smart devices and to feature onboard technology that helps them perform tasks more efficiently.”

While manufacturers and retailers are bullish about smarter appliances, the buying public – not so much. Smart appliance sale statistics paint more of a mild interest picture rather than full-fledged adoption enthusiasm.

According to IDC, shipments of large and small smart appliances reached 18 million units in the U.S. in 2021, a nearly 30% YoY increase – but representing only 3.7% of the total market. “Yes, smart appliances are selling,” agrees IDC senior smart home research analyst Adam Wright, who notes the perhaps outsized impact on these sales figures from popular robot vacuums, “but they are on the lower end of the adoption curve relative to other smart home devices. Their value remains unclear for most consumers since, for many of these products, their connectivity adds little more than basic features like notifications that something has been completed or to check on the status of something.”

So what can retailers do to boost that “want” of more profitable smart appliances?

(Image credit: Xeros)

Holding Up the Works

The slow uptake of smart appliances may be due to consumers being unaware or even suspicious of added appliance intelligence. “Smart features on appliances are rarely asked about on the sales floor,” says Scott Bekins, president of Bekins, a West Michigan appliances and electronics sales and service company. “That is the opposite for TVs and audio where the smart interface is very important. There is still an overwhelming skepticism that when an appliance is ‘connected to the internet’ [that] people are being spied on or increase the potential for hackers to infiltrate their network. We are often asked specifically to not connect their appliance during home installation.”

For another thing, smart appliances carry a price premium exacerbated by inflation fears and reality. But the smart feature price delta may be dissipating.

“Customers are still willing to pay more for a unit with smart features because those will also generally come with additional features that make them more appealing,” says Carl Prouty, Abt Electronics’ retail and tech expert, but “it seems like the delta is getting smaller as manufacturers release new models. We’re starting to see more and more lower priced models with smart features built in.”

Recommending Recommendations

So should retailers recommend smart appliances to their customers? It depends…

“It is becoming much easier to recommend smart appliances to customers as manufacturers are building connected technology features into most products,” says Henry Farley, senior appliance merchant for the Nationwide Group. “But retailers can be more strategic about their recommendations by identifying families and individuals with fast-paced lives. Customers who are looking to get some time back in their day are the target audience for smart products and can get the most out of the technology.”

Perhaps the most compelling smart appliance sales pitch to leery and cost-conscious consumers is not their labor-saving benefits but their long-term savings. “The biggest value has become the ability to remotely diagnose the appliance if something were to fail,” explains Jason Horst, director of marketing for Famous Tate Appliance & Bedding Centers in Tampa, FL. “With the ability for remote diagnosis, the technology really makes sense.”

As with all consumer tech advancements, smart appliances will become increasingly smarter and cheaper, smart features increasingly ubiquitous, and smart functions increasingly desirable. But the future of smart appliance sales is probably just as simple as providing the customer with the right product at the right price. “Manufacturers and retailers have an obligation to meet the needs of their customers,” BrandSource’s Roth adds, “and smart home appliances will be part of the consumer expectation going forward.”

See also: SHARP Unveils 24-Inch Smart Dishwasher