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HOUSEWARES : Home, Sweet Home Products on View at Chicago Exhibit

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What’s new? What’s new? What’s new? The question echoed like a theme song through the exhibit halls, pavilions and meeting rooms of McCormick Place this week as retailers from around the world came shopping at the 98th International Housewares Show that ended Wednesday.

Trailed by trend-hungry TV crews and print reporters, an estimated 50,000 attendees--making this the largest housewares-only exhibition in the world--prowled aisle after aisle of kitchenware, furniture, office equipment, bathroom accessories, hardware, tools and dozens of other merchandise categories that make up the complexity known as today’s American “household.”

The four-day event, sponsored by the 2,000-member National Housewares Manufacturers Assn. (NHMA), is “a reflection of trends going on all over the country, whether it’s a graying of America or a new interest in ethnic cooking,” said Tom Conley, NHMA executive director.

“This show is not so much an emphasis on new products as revamped products,” said NHMA’s Jay Kelly. “We are changing the way we use space.”

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The new look emphasizes electronics, lightweight plastics and metals, and high-fashion colors; it is driven by design considerations. Accessories from hair dryers to vacuum cleaners have lines elegant enough to display in the Museum of Contemporary Art.

“They’ve learned how to refine plastic to give it a beautiful high-gloss finish,” said William Morgan, whose line of Morgan Plastics features delicate drinking glasses in sapphire, ruby and coral that glow like crystal. “It’s not like the old dog dishes.”

A line of folding trucks replace bulky dollies for moving heavy boxes and furniture. These devices, made of lightweight steel and aluminum tubing from Reliable Products in Arcadia, have stair glides, elegant handles and pastel safety locks, and they collapse down to a compact square.

The computer loomed throughout the exhibits, not only as an element in high-tech products, but as a factor in home design and furniture.

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“We’ve been in business since 1959, and over the last five years there’s been an explosion in home offices,” said Dave Messinger of Bush Industries, whose line of ready-to-assemble furniture typified an evolution that began with a flat slab of particleboard for the new home computer.

“We started with a pullout keyboard with ergonomically designed wrist rest, then the printer on an adjustable shelf,” Messinger said. “Then we added a wider printer and place for a mouse and lots of drawers and cubbyholes. At this show we’re introducing the office armoire.” This handsome oak-trimmed cabinet holds a computer, keyboard and adjustable-height printer and features a side extension that makes a desk and tucks away when company comes.

“The consumer has completely driven this market,” Messinger said, “understanding all the time that the furniture wasn’t cutting the mustard.”

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Another emphasis at the show was on the proliferation of storage boxes, bins and shelves.

“I think people have more stuff now,” said Lambert Sheng, 29, tending his family’s Honeyware Inc. booth of hangers, racks, boxes and bins. “We used to have a hammer and a few wrenches and screws, but now with electronics there are a lot more tools and pieces. And kids today boot up computers and have disks, and computer games. If you can’t organize it, you feel out of control.”

“Storage is getting bigger all the time,” said John Clements of Holiday Housewares. “We started with food containers and now are into bins and totes and clear-sided boxes for shoes and clothing. What’s happening is that the baby boomers are having families and accumulating stuff.”

Retailers in sensible shoes and armed with 475-page directories of exhibitors clocked up 12-hour days at the show, beginning early.

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A blueprint for “Retailing 2000" was offered in a 7:30 a.m. Monday keynote address by Carl Steidtmann, director of research and chief economist for Management Horizons.

Today’s retailers have a more diverse population of customers than ever in history, said Steidtmann, offering sample categories of consumers:

* A huge growth in ethnicity and desire for culturally specific products.

* Generation Xers who, in their 20s, have less education than their predecessors, are slow to leave home, slow to get to the workplace and face a clogged labor market. “It’s hard to get to their spending power.”

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* The baby boom generation, entering midlife crisis, continues to exert a major influence on the economy. “They work an average of four hours a week more than their parents and are very time-pressed,” Steidtmann said. “Their first priority is anything that saves them time and gives them a sense of control over their lives.”

* Mature Americans, who have discretionary spending power and want a high level of customer service.

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Not only has the customer changed, so has the retailer, Steidtmann said, tracing a cycle from specialty store to department-store mass merchandising and back to today’s “mass-specialty” stores, such as pet or computer stores that offer a large selection of niche merchandise.

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The emphasis on retailing is passing from real estate (the mall) to information (the computer), he said. Although shopping on the Internet is “more hype than reality” at the present, by the year 2000, such “Third Wave retailing” will dramatically change the way we shop.

Steidtmann envisioned the cyberspace consumer creating his own electronic agent and telling it, “The next time Nikes go on sale on the Internet for $19.95 in my size, order me a pair.”

For a more prophetic look at the future of housewares, the show offered a bustling computer-laden Design Oasis, where designers demonstrated the steps from concept to retail shelf for a number of products.

Also in the spotlight were designers of the future--six student winners of the NHMA’s 1995 National Student Design Competition, displaying prototypes of their winning projects.

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First-place winner was Californian Brian Lewis, a senior at San Jose State University. His portable outdoor grill, with two cooler compartments for storing food and an oversized hinge for a small propane tank, opens flat like a briefcase to expose a large cooking area. “I live in Santa Cruz, and going to the beach is a matter of dragging stuff up and down cliffs, so this makes it easier,” said Lewis, who has received offers to manufacture the grill.

“I think designers need to consider how people use things, not just rehash products,” Lewis said. “I also like to think transgenerationally: This would be suitable for college students, for a family or for grandparents in their motor home. I made the knob bigger and the fixtures bigger--that might be considered geriatric, but I like to think of it as universal, making it easier for anybody.”


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