THE BLOG
05/23/2014 06:03 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2014

Counter Attack: Say Goodbye to Counter Space

Have you looked at your kitchen counter lately? Increasingly that space is under attack. Slow cookers, blenders, convection ovens, microwaves, juicers, fuzzy logic rice cookers, espresso machines, coffee makers, coffee grinders, are all vying for that few square feet of usable counter space in most apartments. Even in homes with big kitchens, open counter space is under siege. Increasingly it's European manufacturers who are trying to get their shiny stainless steel appliances in front of you. And it's not just your counter. What about that mop closet that at one time held a simple vacuum cleaner? Now it's a vacuum, a steam and vac, a hard floor washer and more. And those large appliances, which a generation ago were dominated by nameplates like General Electric and Kenmore, have been giving way to Korean nameplates from Samsung and LG, and more recently from higher-end European brands, like Bosch and Miele.

According to GFU, the group that sponsors IFA, the big international consumer electronics and appliance trade show in Berlin, innovation and ease of use are key factors behind growth in the sector:

They take the strain out of housework, with easy-to-use appliances that improve and enhance the quality of life: domestic appliances such as refrigerators, ovens, steam cookers, microwaves, hobs, kitchen hoods, dishwashers, washing machines, and tumble driers, as well as small domestic appliances including automatic coffee makers, milk frothers, kettles, toasters, contact grills, equipment for food preparation, and equipment for hair and body care, as well as for the care of clothes, homes and floors.

And GFU says Internet connectivity is another growth driver as people increasingly try to make their homes into connected "smart homes."

The business analytic group NPD says the major domestic appliance industry has been on an almost consistent upswing for the past decade, with the notable exception of 2009 during the worldwide economic downturn. It predicts a worldwide growth rate in excess of 4 percent this year. But when you start digging into the numbers, it may be demographics more than innovation or marketing that's driving growth. There's a worldwide trend to smaller households, even where there's still rising population. At a recent IFA sponsored conference for technology journalists in Belek, Turkey, Friedemann Stoeckle, a director of the GfK analytical group noted that there are several reasons for the trend, including families having fewer children. As populations age, more surviving seniors will be left alone in their own households. But he also points out that many people in their twenties and thirties who have not married but have significant relationships are choosing to maintain separate households. Stoeckle's group predicts significant growth of these one and two person households in the coming two decades. For example, he predicts that in the U.S the percentage of two-person households will rise from 33 percent in 2010 to 35 percent in 2030. The number of one-person households will go from 27 percent in 2010 to 35 percent in 2030. In other nations the trend is even more pronounced. In China, where large households had been the norm as a result of the "one child" policy, Stoeckle expects to see the percentage of two-person households jump from 20 to 35 percent over those two decades, and an even more dramatic rise in the number of single households from 8 percent to 35 percent over the same period. That's a lot of potential appliance sales.

He notes that each of those small households will need many of the same basic appliances such as a refrigerator, stove, washer, microwave, etc. That means, barring another worldwide economic downturn, robust growth for both large and small appliances for the foreseeable future. Here in the U.S., consumers have been bombarded by advertising for vacuum cleaners. Besides American brands like Bissell, Hoover, and Shark, there are European brands like Dyson, a relative newcomer, and Electrolux, a Swedish brand that's had a presence in the U.S. for a century. Electrolux now owns a couple of old U.S. brands, including Eureka vacuums and Frigidaire appliances. While the company has a firm reputation among older Americans for reliability, Kerstin Petersen, vice president of marketing for Electrolux, says the company is trying to woo younger generations of consumers with style, design, and new features. She points to the company's cordless ErgoRapido vacuum as one example. The stick style Ergorapido Plus Brushroll Clean design can be used as either a handheld or an upright with a swivel head. Electrolux claims it also eliminates the messy job of cleaning the brushroll with a system that does it automatically. Petersen expects that features that have been attractive in other markets will also be attractive to U.S. consumers including quiet vacuum cleaners, washable filters, and low energy consumption.

While Electrolux has long had a U.S. presence, other European companies are relatively new to the market. German appliance maker Bosch has quickly developed a reputation for having some of the best and quietest dishwashers. Miele has been successful with the introduction of its high end ovens. German based Karcher, one of the world's largest makers of cleaning equipment like power washers, has been making a dent in the U.S. home and garden sector with both its own brand and several lesser known U.S. only nameplates.

But not every European appliance maker is jumping into the highly competitive U.S. market. WMF, another German company, already sells kitchenware and cutlery in the U.S., but has so far decided against bringing its high-end small kitchen appliances across the pond. The company acknowledges the attraction of the U.S. consumer market, but says it will take a long hard look before expanding here.

If anything we're likely to see more European appliances on American countertops. U.S. consumers have taken to their durable stainless steel construction, as well as their general reliability. GFU, the organizers of the IFA trade show says there are 3000 new products in the small appliance market alone being introduced every year, many of which will make their debut in Berlin this September. No wonder you're running out of counter space.

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