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Innovation & Design

For Gloomy Times, New Products for the Home

While buying a car might not be on the agenda these days, the International Home & Housewares Show presents more realistic indulgences

With all the dismal economic news, it might feel strange to think about buying more stuff. But at this year's International Home & Housewares Show in Chicago, from Mar. 22-24, more than 2,000 exhibitors from 30 countries are aiming to persuade you (or the retailers that'll sell to you) to do just that. They're showing off new wares for the home that are designed to make life easier—or perhaps just a little more stylish.

You might expect housewares manufacturers to be concerned about the impact of the economy on their businesses. Instead, they're putting a brave face on things. Jeffrey Siegel, president and CEO of Lifetime Brands (LCUT), which sells cutlery, kitchen tools, gadgets, and other products, says sales are steady because housewares can save people money in the long run. "As people eat more at home, they need to acquire the products that enable them to prepare, cook, and serve food at home," he says. So while buying a new home or car might be off the agenda for the near future, these products, many priced under $100, could prove this era's affordable treats.

A New Spirit of Frugality

According to NPD Group, 2008 sales for some specific housewares categories were actually up, while sales at U.S. retailers in February fell less than forecast, according to the Commerce Dept. And while some smaller international companies have canceled their appearances at the Housewares Show, some 400 new exhibitors jumped in to pick up the slack. Many are upbeat, claiming the new spirit of frugality and an increasing focus on healthy cooking provides a prime opportunity to get products into people's homes. Several CEOs with products in the show predicted low to mid-single-digit growth in 2009. "We don't see consumer spending continuing to shrink. It's going to start to come back up," says John Roscoe Swartz, co-CEO and chief design officer at Built NY, which will be previewing a line of designer bags and cases. "I think that the shock is over."

Certainly, these companies appear to remain focused on innovation: 10,000 new products are being released at this year's show. Of course, those aren't all new-to-the-world designs intended to revolutionize your home. Many companies choose to innovate through evolution, simply adding color or flourishes to an existing product line. "In difficult times innovation is an indispensable tool," says Siegel of Lifetime, which will be introducing some 1,500 new products and line extensions. "The two main ways for a retailer to drive business are through promotions and unique new product offerings." Thomas Perez, CEO of Bodum, agrees, adding: "Particularly right now, we feel that consumers are looking for innovative products that will actually improve their everyday life."

Joseph is an innovation and design writer for BusinessWeek, based in the Chicago bureau.

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