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As Kitchen and Bath Decor Gets Hipper, the Prices Get Headier

April 21, 2002|From Reuters

CHICAGO — Trendy kitchens are wearing color or a metallic sheen this year, and hip bathrooms have whirlpools.

But flashy bathrooms and kitchens with pizazz don't come cheap, and companies at the recent Kitchen/Bath Industry Show & Conference in Chicago hope their new products and designs will persuade customers to shell out that extra cash.

Though appliance makers saw consumers cut back on spending for their homes last year, they are planning for a better 2002 as people clamor for high-priced decor, even when it calls for pinching pennies elsewhere.

"People want to put their own personality on their homes," said Dennis Ayers, owner of Ayers & Associates, which does mainly kitchen cabinet design. "When they have a price limit, people will give up the accessories inside for the appearance."

At the annual show, bath designers perused wares that included fancy tubs with whirlpools, air jets, waterfalls and even an embedded flat-screen television. Kitchen designers checked out the latest high-tech appliances and current crazes like stainless-steel finish.

The biggest U.S. home appliance makers, among them Whirlpool Corp., Maytag Corp. and General Electric Co.'s GE Appliances, were at the show, as well as smaller companies offering everything from purple toilets to Turkish and Italian tiles. Maytag is focusing on the upper end of the market to drive growth in its business, said chief executive Ralph Hake.

"We believe as a company that people will pay for innovation," he said. "It's our job to convince them to pay for that."

To tap into the high end, Maytag has introduced new products including a dishwasher with three racks and a refrigerator that lets customers design the front to their own specifications.

The stainless-steel kitchen appliance trend seems to be as strong as ever. Once the province of premium-priced European brands and makers of professional kitchen products, the pieces are now available in scaled-down versions.

AB Electrolux has two stainless-steel kitchen lines in the United States, sold under its Frigidaire brand. The lines look similar to professional and European appliance lines but offer fewer features and a lower price.

"These are definitely upscale products, but not all the way up in the stratosphere," said Tony Evans, an Electrolux spokesman.

To further capitalize on the metallic craze, Electrolux exhibited prototypes of refrigerators with patterned brass, copper and silver finishes.

Whirlpool chief executive David Whitwam has said new products will jump-start what has been an industry stalemate that drove appliance makers to focus on prices to compete.

Whirlpool, the biggest U.S. appliance maker, is rolling out new laundry products including its Personal Valet, which can steam clean dry-clean-only clothes. It is also rolling out a new line of whirlpool tubs under the name Cielo.

Companies are trying to create a new paradigm for home design. "The good life now is home and family," said Gary Uhl, director of design for American Standard's U.S. plumbing products.

American Standard's booth at the show featured home decor goodies such as child-size toilets and sinks, and cabinets with faded paint jobs that look like they might have belonged to your grandmother.

"People now feel entitled and empowered to invest in themselves," Uhl said.

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