How special?

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Marketers in all industry sectors are well aware that the uniformed society as we knew it is long gone. Modern consumer markets are finely segmented in response to people’s changing needs.
Consumer rights organisations and various associations – professional or charitable – are very vocal about the special needs of their members and active in championing their rights. The once ‘general public’ market has been divided into various niches, many of which are highly profitable. It is enough to look at the financial services sectors, the tourism industry or medical services to see how many new product offers have been created for older citizens, people with differing physical needs, the gay community or people living in single person households.
It is therefore difficult to comprehend why many manufacturers in our industry still cannot make their minds up whether the segmentation of their markets into groups with specific needs and expectations is a business threat or an opportunity. Why for example, are they happy to invest in producing black appliances, the current fashion which may last only year or two, but are reluctant to produce a line of laundry appliances with sturdy dials and larger graphics for the over 50s who account for 45% of consumer spending in Britain? “Our research has revealed that half of the population think that business and retailers have little interest in older consumers,” said David Sinclair, policy manger for Help the Aged.
Universal approach
One way of responding to the current changes in society is by attempting to take everyone on board and catering for the widest possible audience in every product area. “It is all about accommodating and designing for all sectors of the population and not generalising or directing it towards older people or those with specific needs. Although much of the older population would consider themselves very agile both physically and mentally, it can be said that we tend to overlook the physical needs of older users,” comments Stuart Frost, Maytag product marketing Manager. Also the BSH Group supports the universal approach: “Our principle is to create products which are designed to be operated with ease and with high levels of safety for all users, not just the elderly and those with special needs. More mature customers and those with special needs are more demanding than the average customer, which is perfect for brands like Neff and Siemens because we create products with loads of carefully thought-out innovations and useful design details, which are not always valued by a younger, more able audience.”
In principle, this approach aims to raise standards for everyone. “We believe in achieving the best solution for all customers (not just those with special needs), and in design terms believe in ‘simple things done well’. For example, product graphics that are easy to read, understand, and communicate product usage without being overly complex will benefit all users,” says Ian Johnstone from Glen Dimplex Design Centre.
Richard Cristina, product marketing director at Baumatic argues that the inclusive approach begins from good design: “Kitchen appliances that are suitable for both those with disabilities or with mobility issues are really just about good ergonomics – that’s the art of inclusive design. The most successful kitchens are designed to suit the ergonomics of the body. Appliances play an important role in creating a kitchen that minimises strain and bending when cooking and cleaning.”
And yet, Stuart Frost admits: “One design certainly won’t fit all and throughout the Maytag UK appliance ranges we see an array of designs that will accommodate and benefit a range of people’s needs.”
The silver pound
“Probably the most significant change in society that is affecting how home appliance companies develop and market their products is the substantial and increasing sector of the active population who are over 50. Of course, physical restrictions that come with age are very important, so ease of use in domestic appliances is key,” argues John Graham, managing director of Sovereign Appliances.
Their importance comes from the fact that “the over-50s for a multiplicity of reasons, no longer retire to their armchairs, but continue to work full or part time, and that this is the only growing group in the labour market. This means that this group’s spending power continues to expand,” continues John Graham.
By 2025 the number of people over the age of 60 will outnumber those under 25. This will pose a significant challenge for appliance manufacturers “as technology must now strike a balance between continuing to progress whilst not alienating older users. The traditional profile of technology buyers will have changed and accessibility and usability will be key,” comments Glen Dimplex’s Ian Johnstone.
Modern allays
In fact, modern technology is the manufacturers’ greatest allay while catering for the needs of the older market. The electronic controls on many appliances greatly simplify their operations. On some dishwashers and washing machines a single button ‘does it all’, while intelligent cooking programmes deliver perfect results and remember user’s favourite recipes.
Although some older customers may feel more comfortable with rotary dials “advances in technology mean that today these rotary dials can be linked electronically behind the control panel, bringing precision and control to the functionality of the appliance,” commented Maurice Wilson, sales director of Team UKI.
For customers who have difficulty turning control knobs Multipurpose Arthritic Handles are available on Cannon products. Many of the Neff ovens have revolution handle eliminating the need to twist the hand which is particularly convenient for arthritis sufferers, although the manufacturer has designed this feature with all its customers in mind.
Safety is of paramount importance for all customers but particularly for older people, therefore induction hobs are such a good alternative to gas or electricity. The same is true of the pyrolytic function which guarantees the safe, fuss-free cleaning of an oven. Many cookers, including the new Cannon Professional 110 range cooker, have a Flame Failure Device. This safety feature is in place so that if a flame goes out, the gas will turn off automatically.
Another recent example of good ergonomic design in the kitchen is the side opening oven, such as on the AEG-Electrolux B996975M or the Neff B15H4. “It is much easier for those who do not want to – or cannot – reach over a door to access the oven, but it is also perfect for narrow, galley-style kitchens,” explains Tanya Searle, Electrolux Kitchen Systems Category manager.
Special needs of disabled customers, whose rights were significantly extended by the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995, are high on the agendas of some companies. For example, for the blind or visually impaired, tactile controls are available for a wide range of Cannon cookers which can have a specially designed fascia panel from the RNIB fitted by an Indesit engineer. Also Beko offers “a separate service to customers with impaired eyesight, in conjunction with the RNIB. A separate set of control knobs from Beko or Leisure appliances can be sent to the RNIB for modifications to make them easier to use for the visually impaired through the addition of Braille,” says Les Wicks, head of Product and Buying at Beko.
Allergy issues
“Approximately 20% of the UK population are affected by hayfever and 10% suffer from asthma. Similarities amongst sufferers are their sensitivity to airborne substances such as pollen, smoke and dust, and in many households, these allergies are often made worse by household pets,” says Vanessa Holloway, group product manager freestanding at Miele.
Since the population of allergy sufferers is growing, this issue is being addressed by the majority of electrical manufacturers. However, Dyson is unique in this respect, having its own microbiology lab that examines the ways of preventing allergies in the home and developing more hygienic appliances. Dyson offers both Allergy and Animal models in their range to cater for people with allergies and pet owners. Allergy models feature HEPA filters while Animal models come with additional cleaning heads that help pick up pet hair. Moreover, the DC22 and DC23 cylinders don’t rely on bags or filters to capture all the dust. Instead their Root Cyclone technology spins all the dirt from the airflow, trapping it in the bin and stopping it from being released back into the room.
Miele has a line of products that aim to eliminate the causes or ‘triggers’ of the allergic reactions, such as the Miele AllerWash, AllerDry and the AllerVac. “The AllerWash and AllerDry offer special laundry programmes for clothes and bed linen which are designed to destroy bacteria, dustmites and reduce allergens such as pollen. The AllerVac helps keep households free from dust and allergens. It comes with an Active HEPA filter, a HyClean dustbag and a mattress nozzle to help reduce allergens in the bedroom. Also supplied with the Miele AllerVac is the Allergotec Sensor floorhead which incorporates a hygiene sensor. This sensor changes colour, like a traffic light, to indicate when the floor is hygienically clean,” explains Miele’s Vanessa Holloway.
Also LG addresses the issue of allergies with different products. “The LG Allergy Compressor vacuum cleaner has been designed to improve the quality of life of allergy sufferers. At the same time, Allergy Care cycles on the Steam Direct Drive washing machine range have been developed with them in mind,” says Simona Allan, marketing manager, LG Electronics.
Hoover has recently brought to the market a new range of vacuum cleaners, Hoover Airvolution, using air force power technology for faster and deeper cleaning. The models in the range have two versions, Pets and Pets with Allergy Care Plus. The Allergy Care Plus products provide four additional steps to reduce allergens in the home. Step one is the Silver Ion treated dust container which over 24 hours reduces up to 99% of bacteria in contact with the surface. Step two is the exhaust filter impregnated with a bactizero treatment. Next comes a silver ion and bactizero treated turbo brush for soft furnishing. The final element of the allergy care are the granules whose active ingredient reduces the presence of dust mites, fungi and bacteria.
For pet lovers
“The UK’s pet industry continues to grow and it’s already a big market – almost one in two households own a pet. Cats and dogs are the preferred companion – that’s around 7 million of each. However, let’s not forget our other furry friends too – pet rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, rats, a total of around 0.3 million. That’s a lot of pet hair being molted in our homes – and it’s not the easiest of things to remove,” comments Bissell’s international markets director Charles Gordon. That’s why Bissell has developed a whole ‘pet family’ of cleaners comprising Lift-Off Pet Spin Power, QuickWash Pet, Pet Hair Eraser, Pet Pack, supported with an armoury of pet cleaning formulae. They not only feature ‘2X’ cyclonic action for superior suction and pet hair pick-up but also a set of brushers for loosening pet hair from furniture and carpets.
The Miele Cat & Dog vacuum cleaner, the winner of many awards, also has the Active Air Clean filter with charcoal casing for absorbing odours from the dustbags.
Elizabeth Farmer, product marketing manger, Electrolux Floorcare, adds: “Electrolux also offers a range of vacuum cleaners tailored to the special needs of the customer, whether allergy sufferers, pet owners or those with homes with stairs – the Electrolux Vitesse Plus Pet Lover is a perfect example of a cleaner designed specifically with cat and dog owners in mind.”
SEBO, which has a large range of vacuum cleaners for allergy sufferers and pet owners, has changed the way of marketing its products to these groups. “Formerly, we would sell the base vacuum cleaner with a range of accessories available so that the customer could tailor the machine to their specific needs. Now, we have produced models with a portfolio of relevant accessories to target groups like pet owners. Customers certainly seem to prefer an easy choice that has already been made for them,” says Justin Binks, director of SEBO.
Smaller households
All major European cities see a growth of over 10% in single households.
The increase in single-person households is a reflection of wider societal changes “such as the increasing divorce figures as well as older people living solo who demand specific products. Compact kitchens (plus tightening purses) require compact appliances such as table-top fridges and freezers, or neat under-counter matching freezer and larder fridge,” says John Graham of Sovereign Appliances
Team UKI, a small appliance company based in Birmingham, caters for this market with a range of compact appliances, which not only include small slow cookers and fryers but also a compact tumble dryer and a compact dishwasher. Their small footprint is only one of their benefits; they also use less energy than full size appliances, making them a more ecologically friendly choice.
These considerations are also behind the success of Tefal’s Quick Cup – the sales of which made it the number one small kitchen appliance 2007 (GfK). Responding to the growing demand for lightweight and compact appliances, Dyson has developed Dyson Baby (DC22) and Dyson Ball (DC24) which has the power of the company’s full-size machines in a smaller package; (Dyson Ball weights only 5.4kg). Also Home-tek’s shoulder vac, which weighs less than 3kg, is very popular with older and single people.
A final thought
Whether the ‘special needs’ markets are still niche or have already become mainstream is open to debate. However, it is worth bearing in mind that all niche markets offer great economic potential, as the majority of the self-made millionaires who identified gaps in the market and managed to exploit them can confirm.
The label ‘specialist needs’ retailer could be a useful string to your bow, especially as the recession starts to tighten consumers’ purse strings.

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