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The legacy of the luxury kitchen still simmers

One of the oddest phenomena of the boom years was how kitchen appliances quickly morphed into sexy, high-maintenance trophies.
Image: Jenn-Air super premium kitchen
Sears recently inked a deal with Jenn-Air on a line of appliances that, while not commercial-grade, have the touches Millennials think they're entitled to.Peter Barreras / AP
/ Source: The Big Money

One of the oddest phenomena of the boom years was how kitchen appliances quickly morphed into sexy, high-maintenance trophies. Even as we were fleeing our kitchens to dine out at unprecedented rates, our kitchens themselves underwent a remarkable transformation, tarted up with Viking ranges and Sub-Zero fridges that cost as much as a Korean compact car.

These high-flying days flickered out when the real estate market imploded. When the demand for McMansions vanished, so did the need for high-end appliances to install in them. According to market research firm NPD group, major appliance spending dropped from $24.9 billion in 2007 to $21.8 billion last year. While nearly $22 billion might sound like a lot of money, a lot of that spending comes from nondiscretionary replacement costs; if your fridge bites the dust, you’re not going to wait months before getting a new one. And so the decline begins: Since last spring, Greenwood, Miss.-based Viking Range Corporation has laid off more than 300 workers in five waves, according to the Mississippi Business Journal , while Britain’s Aga Rangemaster shed some 400 jobs.

But there’s a plot twist unfolding in this riches-to-rags story. Even as analysts speak of a “new normal” and a need to adjust expectations for these leaner times, a kitchen that could have been lifted from the set of Iron Chef has never been more attainable. Mass-market offerings have steadily been creeping up in price as consumers, particularly younger ones, demand higher-end touches or a sleek, professional look on middle-of-the-road models.

While boomers and seniors are winding down their appliance purchases, millennials are just getting started, and their tastes run to the more high-end, says Mark Delaney, a home analyst for NPD Group. As a generation that grew up with the Food Network, today’s newly-minted adults don’t see features like stainless-steel finishes as frivolous. The industry has responded in kind: Viking rolled out its lower-priced “Designer Series” line last month, and Sears recently sealed a deal to be the exclusive provider of Whirlpool’s Jenn-Air brand, which offers high-end touches like touch-screen controls. While products like these are several notches down from the luxury appliances that inspired them, they’re still pricier than baseline models.

As a result, analysts are cautiously optimistic that appliance sales are due for a turnaround, albeit a slow-growing one. The shopping habits of the wealthy as tracked by research firm Unity Marketing show a four-percentage-point increase in the number of people making kitchen and bath purchases, which includes major kitchen and laundry appliances as well as things like cabinets and countertops, in the third quarter this year as compared with the same time period last year. Unity’s founder Pam Danziger attributes the uptick to consumers’ desire to make staying at home more pleasant while boosting the resale value of their homes.

This increase in purchasing will benefit retailers before it hits manufacturers, since current inventory will have to be cleared out first. However, Sub-Zero, Inc. and Wolf Appliance, Inc. rehired just over 200 employees at facilities that crank out its high-end appliance lines, and the company said in a release it's going to add 60 new jobs at these sites over the next several months.

There are a few other factors driving this recovery. Growing concerns about energy consumption, along with some stimulus-related incentives from the Department of Energy being doled out at the state level, are also giving the sector a boost. Whether consumers are concerned about their carbon footprints or the cost of chilling and heating their leftovers, they’re turning to energy-efficient appliances. The prospect of smaller utility bills and a cleaner, greener conscience often justifies paying a bit more, and the government rebates sweeten the pot.

One particular type of product that stands to benefit hugely from this embrace of the eco-friendly is the induction cooktop. Already popular in Europe, these ranges have trickled into foodie consciousness but are just cracking the mainstream over here. They’re not cheap — a Consumer Reports review last year found that they start at a little under two grand — and they can require an ancillary investment in new pots and pans; the electromagnetic reaction that powers them won’t react with aluminum or copper. In exchange for these quirks, though, the user gets a snazzy-looking appliance that boils water in roughly half the time of a conventional range and consumes far less energy.

Offering convenience as well as energy savings, microwaves are outperforming their full-sized siblings in the retail arena, according to data from market research firm Mintel. Among all cooking appliances (also including ovens, ranges and toaster ovens), microwaves made up roughly two-thirds of shipments in 2009. David Lockwood, Mintel’s director of research consultancy, says this relatively higher demand is partially due to the fact that microwaves tend to wear out faster and be replaced more quickly than major appliances. The continuing demand for microwaves also lends credence to the theory floated by a Reuters blog post suggesting that the 10 percent rise in microwave use last year is due to our changing dining habits. To sum up: Although we’ve cut out restaurants, some of us aren’t cooking so much as just heating stuff up.

Despite the interest in leaner, greener cooking tools, the most significant legacy of super-premium kitchen appliances is the stainless-steel aura of the upscale they’ve left on more prosaic offerings. Even at their peak of popularity, five-figure stoves never cracked the mainstream, but the aspiration they inspired has fundamentally reshaped a formerly utilitarian market. While it’s unlikely many of us will be in a position to drop 10 grand on a cooktop even after the economy is humming along again, we’re increasingly receptive to dropping an extra $500 or so for a less-fuel hungry model, one tricked out with a pro-style flourish or two, or one that’s just prettier than the white-enamel workhorses of yore.