Consumers were forced to reimagine their homes throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. From living/workspace hybrids to at-home gyms, gaming rooms and wellness corners, the home has seen major transformation.
However, the one room that has transformed the most might be the kitchen.
In the early days of the pandemic, as consumers were forced to “shelter in place,” they were faced with preparing multiple meals and snacks each day for themselves and their families. Meal prep became a priority more than ever as they tried to balance other new home activities, such as work and virtual learning.
This increased time spent in the kitchen forced consumers to evaluate their arsenals of kitchen tools, gadgets, beverageware, food containers and everything necessary to prep, cook and store meals. This consumer shift stoked the desire and need to replace outdated and worn kitchenware with modern, innovative goods that would help them complete tasks and keep up with new recipes and techniques.
It showed in retail sales results According to recent data from The NPD Group, this clamoring for new kitchenware to outfit their homes and support new skillsets boosted the category, driving an 18.1% increase in kitchen gadgets and beverageware sales January to May 2021 versus the prior year.
“Sales in these categories were strong as consumers took to learning new recipes and testing new techniques in the kitchen,” said Joe Derochowski, vp/home and home improvement industry advisor, NPD Group.
Now, as the second half of the year begins, it is crucial for vendors and retailers to plan strategically to sustain this momentum, according to kitchenware market insiders. Especially critical is capturing the attention of consumers as they settle into post-COVID lifestyles that will include a return to home entertaining during the upcoming holiday season.
Innovation Is Key
While the kitchenware category witnessed a strong sales growth the past year, it wasn’t without its challenges. Supply chain issues stirred by pandemic-fueled high demand kept left buyers scrambling for product.
And while the logistical challenges of importing goods are expected to continue into 2022, introducing consumers to innovative products should be top of mind, said Derochowski.
“If there was one thing I would say vendors need to keep in mind, it is innovation,” he said. “This fall will certainly be extra celebratory, especially as we get to those big occasions such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. We’ll not only be welcoming guests again, but also showing off some of our new cooking and baking skills developed during the pandemic. So, how can we keep innovating to keep up with consumer demand?”
Ross Patterson, president of Robinson Home, agreed that innovation will be necessary as consumers continue to enjoy the latest cooking endeavors in the home at least for the time being. “I think many of the new or rediscovered habits learned during the lockdown days of the pandemic will endure,” Patterson said. “Even as people have more options to dine out and leave the hard work at home, fun and easy cooking and baking are still attractive to those who first dabbled when trapped at home.”
Flex For Success
While innovation is a critical step for vendors in reaching today’s consumer, retailers will need to be flexible as they plan for the remainder of the year.
“Versatility will be key for retailers moving forward,” Patterson said. “As consumers return to routines such as school, work and sports outside of the home, their time will become compressed and their needs will be constantly changing. The products you feature and how you market and merchandise them according to what is going on at that moment will be critical.”
Patterson said this new time crunch will affect certain trends, such as the recent increase in bread baking.
“People will now have less time for longer preparation, and convenience will become more important,” he said.
Retailers will need to pay attention to those changing behaviors, especially when selecting inventory to bring in, something Patterson said he’s already seen become a focus with many of Robinson’s retail partners.
“We are starting to see increased interest in newness and refreshing assortments for 2022, which is encouraging,” he said. “However, at present, the planning of inventory and product availabilities is top of mind. As demand settles and the bottlenecks of supply ease up, I think the retailers will be ready for new and exciting products to come into the market.”
Some retailers were already ready according to Tony Curtis-Wellings, co-founder with wife Melissa Curtis-Wellings of Faraday’s Kitchen Store in Bee Cave, Texas.
“I always say, I’m in the business to create newness,” Tony Curtis-Wellings said. “I always want to see new ideas and as an independent gourmet kitchen store owner, you always have to be looking for new product. Our customers expect it. They don’t want to see the same products they can get somewhere else.”
As the independent gourmet kitchenware retail channel faced challenges getting inventory the past 18 months, Curtis-Wellings said the circumstances forced him, like many other store owners, to get out of his comfort zone.
“In some circumstances, we had to get creative and find new vendors that didn’t have supply chain issues,” he said. “We also had to seek out new distributors and reorganize relationships a bit. Overall, whether it was our core vendors or new vendors, we all worked closely together and relationships evolved and became stronger for it.”
It has paid off, Curtis-Wellings added, noting that his store and several of its key vendors have reported business gains as customers continue to seek new tools to help them hone their culinary skills – behavior he said shouldn’t recede anytime soon.
“Here in Texas, we are still cooking and grilling as much as possible,” Curtis-Wellings said. “That’s not going away. Maybe customers will enjoy dinner out once in a while now, but we are still enjoying being home and cooking for our families and friends.”
While supply concerns and functionality have driven much of the kitchenware category’s attention from consumers over the last year and a half, design has taken a bit of a backseat. But the importance of design should not be overlooked, industry insiders said. Consumers, they said, are ready to re-equip their homes — especially homes that have been renovated or redecorated their kitchens the past few months— with design-driven goods, such as stylish barware or colorful spatulas.
“Consumers are ready to bring some style back. I think basics have fared well in the last year as consumers flocked to get what they needed to cook and bake at home,” NPD’s Derochowski said. “Now that many of those basic functional needs have been met at historically high levels (in terms of sales) I have to believe we will see both new and returning consumers shopping with a more discerning eye and seeking what is on-trend and stylish.
“It’s about design and functionality— it’s an ‘and’ not an ‘either, or.’” Derochowski continued. “You have to be solving a need that the consumer has first, then if you can look good doing it, that’s what will differentiate your product.”