By David Gill
Manufacturers of toasters, one of the signature commodity categories in kitchen electrics, are injecting some excitement into their products.
Last year, the category behaved like a commodity in the business sense, with sales in both dollars and units relatively flat as compared with 2007, according to April Strogen, product manager of kitchen electrics at De’Longhi USA.
“Toasters remain a staple in most kitchens, but the replacement rate is not very high, which could be a reason why category growth has slowed,” Strogen said. “The category has also lacked in innovative features, which help to boost the replacement rate.”
Now, however, manufacturers are putting more features into their toasters to restart the category’s growth engine. These features are driven by technology and design.
New technologies are being added to increase toasters’ functionality and versatility.
Mary Rodgers, director of marketing communications for the Cuisinart and Waring brands, cited Cuisinart’s Metal Classic and Countdown Metal toasters. “The toasters have one and one-half-inch-wide toasting slots to accommodate bagels, specialty breads and toaster pastries, and will evenly toast each item to just the shade selected,” Rodgers said.
Another focus of these new features is to make the process of toasting easier. De’Longhi’s toasters “offer many innovative features, including motorized lift and lower, which automatically lowers the bread into the toaster,” Strogen said. “When the cycle is complete, it slowly lifts the toast out. There’s no popping of toast like in typical toasters.”
New technologies have also made it easier for consumers to produce toast made to their specifications. Adele Schober, communications director for Breville USA, said the company now offers “smart” toasters, which have monitors on the inside for uniform browning.
“Our design team also came up with the ‘a bit more’ button,” Schober said. “This is a feature that adds about 30 seconds to the toasting cycle, and it’s a response to customers who told us they sometimes want their toast done a bit more.”
These innovations have also improved the quality of the toast.
“Our toasters integrate a defuser plate, which throws off even heat rather than the striped lines you see from other toasters,” said Bill Booth, vice president of sales and marketing for Toastess. “Another exciting innovation is our digital countdown feature, which is an LED readout that will tell you exactly the amount of time the toast will take.”
Innovations such as these have played a role in increasing the popularity of pop-up toasters versus toaster-ovens—along with the liftable feature, which allows the user to lift the toast out of the toaster at any time.
“Consumers are [telling] us, ‘Give me more in a toaster, more control, more choices in brownness,’ ” Schober said. “Features in general are a big factor in toasters. Innovations can serve to rejig the market.”
These new features have also provided more fuel to the high end of the toaster trade.
“The large majority of toasters are sold on the low end,” said Deb O’Connor, senior manager of the brand experience for KitchenAid, “but now we’re seeing retailers and consumers shifting to higher price points. These toasters have more functionality, like a keep-warm mode, features that specifically handle bagels and defrost features.”
O’Connor cited KitchenAid’s Pro Line toaster, a high-end, stainless-steel product with multiple features. “Consumers want a toaster that makes good toast every single time, and that meets their preferences for toast,” she said.
Consumers have also indicated that they want their toasters to look good on their counters, which has led the manufacturers to try to raise the bar on design. “De’Longhi is continuing efforts to introduce beautiful and well-crafted toasters to the market to enhance the everyday home experience,” Strogen said.
As examples, she mentioned De’Longhi’s CTH2003 and CTH 4003 toasters, which have a full metal finish; and the DTT900 and DTT980 toasters, which come in simple, sleek designs in brushed aluminum. The latter models are part of the company’s Breakfast collection, which also includes the DCM900 coffeemaker and the DSJ900 teakettle—part of a unique concept offering a whole family of “coordinated” breakfast items.
Schober believes that such “collections” may become a crucial new direction for toasters.
“I like to look at our toasters alongside our tekettles,” she said. “Toast and tea are still a popular choice for breakfast, and so consumers are buying these items together.”
Cuisinart has also focused on design in its toasters. The brand’s Metal Classic and Countdown Metal toasters come in a brushed stainless-steel housing.
“Like most kitchen-electrics categories, styling plays an important role in product development with toasters,” Rodgers said. Brushed stainless steel is a finish “that continues to be extremely appealing to consumers,” she added.
As a general rule, metallic finishes continue to be popular with consumers and are associated with the higher end of the toaster segment, according to O’Connor. “Colors are usually at the lower-price end,” she said.
Current trends in kitchen design have also elevated the importance of looks in toasters. “Now you’re seeing islands in smaller kitchens, not just larger ones, so everybody is looking to make their kitchens stylish,” she said. “When you do this with a smaller appliance, it can add to a kitchen’s decor.”
Design can also provide extra functionality. “One of the main improvements we’ve made is cool touch” Booth said. “When we put stainless steel on and the toaster is working, if you touch it you won’t feel any heat.”
The sagging shape of the economy has made design even more critical for some consumers. “In today’s economy, people are staying home more often,” O’Connor said. “The kitchen has become the new living room, and people are entertaining there.”