Appliances in a Temporary World: The New Living Paradigm
Let’s consider a way to scale the design and features of appliances for a new generation.
Let’s travel back to the changing post-war world where a new American dream was being built, replete with new suburban homes, time-saving high tech appliances, and a car in every garage. Memories of the Great Depression and wartime rationing were still very clear, and the desire to acquire was in high swing. Homes not only had powered refrigerators to keep food fresher longer, but still had pantries where dried and canned goods could be kept for an extended time. Modern conveniences could be found all around, and consumerism started to kick into high gear. This made for quite an opportunity for manufacturers.
The Cold War did nothing to change this growing need to acquire and store away life’s necessities. Who knew when we’d have to hide away in a fallout bunker, and for how long? And since the Cold War days, through multiple economic downturns, and over a generation, how much has changed with regard to people’s desire for ‘stuff’?
At this point in 2015, the new generation of adults doesn’t seem to be burdened by the need to possess everything they’ll ever use. When computer memory advanced enough to support the boom of MP3 players, people saw many of their tangible possessions becoming digitized—music, photos, movies, and books. Ownership of these non-tangible items paved the way for subscription services, like Netflix and Spotify. On-demand, instant access to media provides that psychological satisfaction of ownership, and makes it worth the monthly payment.
This mentality is leaking into the world of physical products. Major cell phone companies now lease their high-end phones, catering to the fact that customers are more concerned about using the latest technology and far less about owning the device. Of course, not all manufacturers can directly use lessons learned from the smart phone market, but if a large percentage of the population is willing to lease their most important and personal electronic device, every industry should see this as a signal that a paradigm-shift is occurring.
My 23-year-old son was recently challenging my wife and me about why we keep so many things. “Why do you have all those books,” he inquired. “Will you ever read them again?” I really had no good answer for him. Was it just habit? “How often do you use that huge professional mixer that is hidden under the counter?” Again, no good answer.
There is a curious library in Toronto called the Kitchen Library. Here, for a small fee of $9 per month, you can have access to a bevy of appliances. Borrow them for up to seven days, wash, and return. When one needs that dehydrator, pasta maker, or ice cream maker (that may be used only once a year), one can visit the Kitchen Library. We’ve been doing this with books for generations, why not appliances? Maybe in the future there will be a traveling library truck service that picks up and delivers these items to make life even more convenient.
Appliances in opposition to trend
If the concept of sharing is growing, the scale and complexity of many appliances seems to be in direct opposition to this trend. Reference the monstrous refrigerators, ranges, and industrial strength espresso machines on the market. Yes, there are many more compact units out there, but they are usually price-point strategies. If that’s the case, a less robust OPP product will certainly not play well in a new shared-use scenario where durability might be king.
Even if shared-use isn’t the goal, why not focus on the very real possibility that future appliance purchasers may be entirely different. The items that are being sold to a traditional consumer may in the future be sold to a landlord or property owner. Communicating value to this customer will require a different approach, and the products will likely need to be designed very differently. Manufacturers are going to need to consider some of these rapidly changing dynamics to remain relevant in the marketplace.
Appliance categories/owners: Who owns what?
If a couple is looking to buy a new cooktop or range for their home, they might consider the specialized features, conveniences, and even details that perfectly fit into their décor. Contrast this with how a landlord or mixed-use property owner might approach this product purchase. Reliability, cleanability, and durability will probably trump things like aesthetics and décor-compatibility. If one were to buy appliances for a home that is regularly shared via services such as airbnb, then those appliances must simply work.
More to that point, if there are more renters and temporary housing units around, collaborative consumption may be more important than ever to save time, money, and energy. Just as the Great Recession readjusted people’s expectations for home purchasing, the modern young professional has readjusted expectations for just how long one will remain at a job (averaging 4.4 years according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). Job-hopping is the norm (and by extension, city-hopping), and employers are starting to plan for this—so too, should appliance manufacturers.
Let’s consider a way to scale the design and features of appliances for a new generation. Some items will be more personal, compact, and portable (e.g. hair dryer), some will be more permanent and built into a physical space (e.g. dishwasher), some will be large, more complex, and expensive (e.g. espresso machine).
Compact and portable: Consider designing smaller appliances in a more compact, portable, and personal way. These are the types of products that will easily move with their owners from place to place, and may need to travel quite often. They will want to be more personalized and specific with regard to features and use, and may even have more intimate contact with the end-user. An example would be a powered toothbrush that responds to your dental work and settings downloaded from your dentist. Think of a personal digital profile that can connect over multiple platforms and products combined with regularly-delivered subscription items like razors from Dollar Shave Club.
Communal and built-in: Consider making communal and built-in appliances more modular, durable, and connected. Such items so large that they are semi-permanent and built into a structure may need to be more robust and flexible than they currently are. Should a physical living unit be or become more than a single family home, these appliances will need to last longer and require less maintenance than current products. The need for these appliances to be connected, monitored, and to provide basic sensory feedback will grow as well. If these appliances are part of a multi-unit living structure, their ability to work in conjunction with one another in a more efficient manner will help with green initiatives and reliability. Why not consider piggybacking some of these appliances together in a modular format?
Specialized and expensive:High cost, high tech appliances that provide specialized and high value deliverables and service should be considered personalizable and upgradeable. These include those counter top appliances that may or may not be moving from place to place as the consumer moves about. These appliances could base much of this personalization and upgradeability on a shareable and open software platform. Your unique user experience persona and profile can travel with you and connect on many different platforms just as it does on a computer and wireless device.
Finally, if we can rent and lease anything from homes to cars to now cell phones, why can we not lease all of our appliances? With people more and more likely to buy into technology platforms that grow and change endlessly, the same psychology can apply to appliances. Sign me up for a lease on a huge new espresso machine, wine cooler, and professional kitchen blender. I may or may not buy them at the end of the lease, or I may trade them in for the next big thing.
Better yet, let me rent or sign out these appliances based on my needs whether they be for a party or just seasonal needs. Delivery of these appliances to my door from a local appliance library makes it a no-brainer.
Either way, I’ll be unencumbered by the permanence of all this stuff.