The International Home and Housewares Show, which wrapped up last week at Chicago’s McCormick Center, was huge. Indeed, with more than 60,000 attendees, 2,137 exhibitors and more than 13 miles of aisles, this year’s show was even a little huger than last year’s. The 2013 edition also ran a day longer at the request of retail buyers who wanted more time to see everything they needed to see and meet everyone they wanted to meet.

The size, scope, and vitality of the show reflect strength in the market. Cookware, small kitchen appliances, and many other housewares categories turned in solid sales performances in 2012 according to Homeworld Business sales data, suggesting that the recession-inspired reprioritization of family and home is still going strong.

Broadly speaking, the show and all the products and ideas within provide a window on what’s important to consumers as they refocus on home. The following provides a quick recap of notable themes and products, particularly in food prep and cooking.

Self-expression and style

The kitchen, a focal point for the refocus on family and home, is becoming even more of an outlet for self-expression, a place to put personal style on display. Housewares manufacturers are responding by placing ever greater emphasis on design, providing an example of how the Mintel Inspire trend Make it Mine is playing out in the marketplace. On even a quick walk down the aisles at the show, sophistication and creativity in product design was apparent, especially in small appliances, cookware, and kitchen tools. It’s also clear that high design isn’t limited to the premium end of the market. Cool stuff can be found at every price point.

While color is always an important theme at the show, this year things were especially colorful. Companies displayed products ranging from spatulas to space heaters in ever wider collections of bright hues. Kitchenaid, long a leader in color variety, now offers its iconic stand mixer in more than 30 colors. New additions include Canopy Green, Plumberry, Azure Blue, and Watermelon. Consumers who deem these too ordinary can spend a little more (okay, a lot more) for custom hand-painted mixers in zebra stripes, leopard spots, or flower petals. Bright colors could even be seen infiltrating the mostly black and stainless food prep lineup at the OXO booth.

The idea of personalization extends beyond design and color to function. It’s never been easier to have it your way. SodaStream continues to promote eco-friendliness and cost-savings, but the bigger stories include increasing flavor variety and the ability to customize carbonation levels. Single-serve coffee and espresso makers continue to offer greater flavor variety and customizability.

Health and indulgence

Consumer interest in healthy living continues to serve as inspiration for new product development in cookware and small kitchen appliances. Juicers were as prominent as ever at the show. Among other notable health-focused new items on display was the Dash Greek yogurt maker from Storebound. Still in prototype form, it’s one of the first appliances capitalize on ever expanding popularity of Greek yogurt.

As important as health and wellness is to the market, so is indulgence. Products that facilitate the making of treats and snacks had just as big a presence at the show, if not bigger, than items related to healthy eating. Automatic pizza makers, old-fashioned ice cream makers, cake pop and brownie bakers often appeared right around the corner from juicers and other appliances geared to healthy eating. Healthy and indulgent products nearly side-by-side reflects the reality for many consumers who balance individual interest in health and wellness with the more social opportunities that treats and snacks provide.

Skill acquisition

It might seem logical that increased interest in food, home meal prep, and home entertainment would lead to more advanced cooking skills. Research conducted for Cooking Enthusiasts–U.S., October 2012, however, suggests that this isn’t always the case. While six in 10 adults report that they like or love cooking, more than three quarters say they have no better than intermediate cooking skills.

The gap between cooking enthusiasm and self-assessed cooking skill is by no means a barrier for the kitchen appliance and cookware market. Brands throughout the show address the gap in different of ways. All-Clad, Cuisinart, and others offer high-end, classic cookware that conveys seriousness of purpose for cooks who aspire to acquiring higher skills or at least projecting the image that they have them. For many others, the idea is that specialized products that facilitate the end result and help to bridge the gap between the interest in food and lack of cooking confidence and know-how. Examples include quesadilla irons, empanada makers, digital rice cookers, and a programmable three-compartment steamer that can bring all the parts of a meal to a finish at exactly the same time. While some specialized products offer ease of use and time savings, others facilitate exploration of new cuisines and ideas, such as Nordic Ware’s egg waffle pan, which makes a traditional Cantonese street-food treat.

Small is big

A reflection of the Mintel Inspire trend Minimize Me, a number of products that have gained popularity in recent years, such as Nespresso espresso makers and Babycakes cake pop makers, have introduced smaller versions of themselves. Downsizing helps these products fit more easily onto crowded countertops. Another clutter-cutting option with a presence at the show was combination food processer/cookers such as the BIBO food prep cooker from Viante and the Kenwood Cooking Chef, which combines mixing, chopping, and blending with induction cooking. Taking the multi-purpose idea a couple of steps further was the KIAO, a multi-function appliance from Australia, still in prototype, designed to replace a food processor, juicer, crock-pot, rice cooker, frying pan, ice cream maker, steamer, spice/flour grinder, blender, stock pot, and several other more singular kitchen tools and appliances.

On the whole, the show served as a sweeping overview of the many different and creative ways that consumers are integrating home, food, family, and friends in their lives. We’ll be digging deeper into these topics and more in upcoming reports, including Cookware–U.S., July 2013, and Small Kitchen Appliances–U.S., December 2013.

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