Cooling in style

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It is a well-known fact that the refrigeration market has recently experienced a sluggish growth overall, although some of its categories are clearly booming. “Therefore this makes it one of the busiest markets, with manufacturers trying to introduce new USPs. Items that were deemed as ‘luxury’ in the past are now seen as part of the standard product offering, for example ice and water through the door and LED lighting,” comments Cathy Martin, assistant product manager, Refrigeration at Miele.
Although the market now has products for even the smallest of kitchens, the ‘big is beautiful’ aspiration is very pronounced. “Even though the houses might be getting smaller, the fridges are getting bigger. One factor is that the average price of side-by-side products has come down. The modern trend in eating in and entertaining at home has changed the layout in the house to a larger kitchen/diner area, creating more available space,” argues Mark Celik-Alvis, Fisher & Paykel’s general manager, marketing Europe.
There are other reasons why refrigeration appliances are becoming more spacious. More health-conscious people buy greater quantities of fresh food; foreign travel encourages them to experiment with different cuisines, but at the same time they have less time to shop – so they expect their fridge/freezer to keep their food fresh longer. Some busy people buy ready made meals which require considerable storage space.
A stylish fridge/freezer has clearly acquired the aspirational status, and kitchen is no longer just a place to cook. “It is the focus of the home for the family, the place of entertainment with friends, and, importantly, the room in which we express our individuality and status,” stresses Stuart Frost, product marketing manager at Maytag.
Market dynamics
Over the last two years (according to GfK data YTD-07 vs YTD-05) there has been a significant decline in the free standing cooling market, with volume decreasing by 3.7%. At the same time, the average price has increased by 2.7% because of the mix of products sold, reports Dawn Stockell, brand & marketing manager, Electrolux Major Appliances.
Nevertheless, there has been some growth in three categories. “Free standing side-by-sides have seen volume increase by 22% (YTD-07 vs YTD-05) to 182.6k units. Despite this significant increase, they only account for 8.7% of the free standing cooling market. Their growth may have been aided by the slight drop in average price     (-2.1% to £684), but this still continues to be an aspirational cooling product,” continues Dawn Stockell.
Free standing three-door-plus products have grown by 9.1% over the last 24 months, but they only account for 1.2k units. Their average price has fallen by 21.6% but still stands at £1,865. The growth is also present in the built-in market which has seen a volume increase of 18% over a two-year period, and now accounts for 10% of total cooling. Its overall average price has grown by 3% to £341.
“The growth within the built-in market is in line with the increasing demand for modern stylish kitchens.  Consumers increasingly want to make the most of all the kitchen space available – maximising storage and achieving a coordinated and streamlined look. In addition, newly built properties are normally fitted with built-in appliances as standard,” explains Ragip Balcioglu,  director of buying and product, BEKO.
“Wine storage is another hot-topic for 2008,” reminds Miele’s Cathy Martin.  “There are many ‘wine fridges’ on the market, but proper wine conditioning and wine storage units are a must for the consumer that is serious about their wine.”
Consumer priorities
So what are the main considerations of a consumer buying a cooling appliance? Glen Dimplex’s Caroline Johnson argues that although all consumers have raised their expectations from a refrigeration appliance. At the entry level the success is now down to the strength and popularity of the individual brand. Capacity, size and value for money are key decision factors here. At the top of the market, customers are looking for energy-efficient appliances, equipped with a frost free function, and such additions as water dispensers, ice makers, wine racks and humidity-controlled salad drawers. The expectations of extended guarantees have also become more common during the last two years.
So much on offer
Energy efficiency is slowly coming to the top of consumers’ priorities. Although people need appliances with an increasingly larger capacity, they want to feel that they are doing their bit to save the planet. However, they don’t want them to cost a fortune to run; after all, the refrigerator works twenty four hours seven days a week. “At present A-rated appliances still form the largest segment of the refrigeration market accounting for 82% of volume and 89% of value sales (GfK, Jan-Dec 2007),” comments Caroline Johnson, product manager for cooling at Glen Dimplex Home Appliances. “However, as the nation’s eco conscience really takes hold, it is most likely that A+ and A++ will start to become the standard for the sector, very much picking up where A left off.  We are already seeing a shift, with combined A+ rated refrigeration and freezing appliances showing a 10% volume and 23% value growth, and, although only a small sector at present, A++ products have seen a 4% growth on last year’s sales.”
Different technologies have been developed to ensure better food preservation. Many of the brands now feature cooling systems “which work in a similar way to fan ovens and ensures that the entire fridge maintains a uniform temperature. By keeping the temperature the same throughout the cavity, you can increase the energy efficiency of the product and, of course, the longevity of the food,” explains Paul Thompson, managing director of Baumatic UK.
Equally important is humidity control which is maintained with the use of special compartments that keep the temperature and humidity at the low levels required for storing of meat, fish or salads. An example of this is Miele’s PerfectFresh zone, with dry and humidity controlled drawers.
Hotpoint has recently introduced a number of innovative features to its refrigeration range. The ‘I-Care’ option automatically sets the fridge temperature at its optimum depending on the amount of food inside. When the customer puts a large number of groceries into the fridge or freezer, the internal temperature rises. The Super Cool (fridge) and Super Freeze (freezer) functions quickly reduce the temperature until it reaches the ideal level. Meanwhile the ‘Cool Care Zone’ is a variable temperature zone in the top freezer drawer. For example, a user can select the ‘Ice Cream’ setting to ensure that ice cream is ready to serve straight away when removed from the freezer.   
 A feature which has almost become a standard but still is largely misunderstood is frost free.”Many consumers do not know or understand the difference between total and partial frost-free systems. Gorenje only uses the partial frost-free system, which offers much better performance in the refrigeration section of the appliance while still offering the advantages of frost-free in the freezer,” comments Bill Miller, Gorenje sales director.
Baumatic’s Paul Thomson argues that consumers should be educated about the eco-friendliness of frost-free technology. “Fan-forced air circulation results in more even temperature, preventing the formation of frost, which not only protects food from damage but, importantly, it keeps the appliance running at its full potential at all times, which is more economical.”
In style
Since the introduction of the American style side-by-sides, refrigeration appliances have acquired aspirational status and started competing with cooking appliances for attention in the kitchen. Now colour, style and design are key in this market – with the ‘latest look/finish’ – changing almost annually.
As the size of refrigeration appliances increases, gloss finishes – especially black gloss, which visually makes the appliances appear smaller – has started appearing in manufacturers’ portfolios.
At the same time the growing popularity of bright colours in the kitchen has not diminished. The Baumatic’s Dance Partners collection comes in orange, red and yellow. Electra’s Retro range is available in five colours: silver, black, classic cream, dick egg blue and baby pink. Retro look is also popular, and Smeg’s iconic FAB series (which in 2007 was extended to include the mini model FAB10) has been emulated by many other brands. 
Moreover, “any appliance that needs the customer to interact with the appliance seems to be more popular as it is found to be ‘exciting’, an example of this is ice or water dispensers etc. The act of using these brings the appliance ‘to life’ a little more,” argues Dawn.
Going further
Perhaps it is the desire for interaction that drives the latest product developments in refrigeration. They not only include ice and water dispensers, built-in wine coolers and TV panels, but most recently consumers can also make a cup of aromatic espresso with the help of  Whirlpool’s Espresso side-by-side fridge freezer (see Products to Watch).
These ‘cross-gender’ developments tend to suggest that we are not far from refrigeration appliances which are able to dispense ice cream, make smoothies or slowly cook our favourite dishes.
And what about a fridge with a milk dispenser equipped with a warning system which would alert us to the fact that we are running low on milk, sparing us the 10pm dashes to Tesco?  Wouldn’t it be a truly intelligent appliance?

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