In a recent article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, columnist Rob Walker presents a spirited defense for that much-maligned appliance, the toaster.
Walker's piece challenges the assertion that "in the long run, everything is a toaster." What the author of this base canard, Columbia Business School professor Bruce Greenwald, was saying is that every new product, no matter how innovative or exciting, eventually evolves into a commodity. Walker argues that this isn't even true of toasters any longer. As an example, he offers the Back to Basics Egg & Muffin Toaster, which toasts bread and poaches eggs (at the same time, if you like), and sells at retail for the uncommodity price of $40.
Walker's article led me to think about what I have discovered about housewares in my whopping five months covering the industry.
When I was in Chicago for the International Home & Housewares Show, I saw toasters, roasters and coffeemakers that I would spend considerably more than a commodity price to buy. The manufacturers did what marketing experts have been preaching forever about product development: They put in features that give consumers the sense that the higher price they would pay for one of these devices is worth it--features that actually make toasting, cooking, steaming, blending and coffeemaking fun, and that give home cooks a sense of accomplishment.
A few lives ago, I covered the textiles industry and watched firsthand while manufacturers of sheets, towels, bed coverings and pillows slashed away most of what made these products interesting to meet a particular price point and appease their big-box customers. The results were the fabric equivalent of professor Greenwald's view of toasters. The products looked exactly the same season after season, and manufacturers couldn't make money on them. The bottom line was that there was almost nothing on their bottom lines ... and for some, not much on their top lines either.
A product becomes a commodity when manufacturers try to boost volume by offering discounts that virtually ensure they don't make any money from it. This principle applies equally to toasters, blenders, 40-foot yachts and Aston Martins (ejector seat optional). When you do that, though, you often take out the one or two things that make a shopper say, "Hey, I gotta have that and I won't wait until it's on sale to get it."
The struggle with retailers to keep these products from sliding into the commodity sinkhole is ongoing. But speaking as both a reporter and fledgling cook, it's worth it. I get a great deal of pleasure from cooking something people find delicious. If I can get a product that helps me do that job better, I'll pay for it (40 bucks actually isn't much for a product that can cook an entire breakfast).
The key for the industry is to remember that I'm not alone.
David Gill is the senior editor, housewares, at HFN. He can be reached at
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