You don’t need a doctorate in economics from Harvard to know that the housewares market rises and falls right along with the national economy. Therefore, the assessment of the U.S. economy over the last year describes this market as well: Steady but slow.
There is a slew of economic indicators and variables for molders to ponder in this market: Domestic consumption, domestic production, imports, the value of the dollar, and total market sales. According to The Repton Group, U.S. consumption of housewares goods is hovering at or near 7 percent, and has been since 1995. Production of housewares, however, is lower, averaging about 4.5 percent. The National Housewares Manufacturers Assoc. reports 1995 housewares sales of $57.9 billion, with a 5 to 7 percent increase expected for 1996, when data are compiled. Of course, the big caveat is Eastern Asia; thanks to a relatively strong U.S. dollar of late, housewares imports from China, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Thailand are increasing at a much steadier rate. The Repton Group reports an import penetration of the total U.S. housewares market of 58 percent.
Leaving numbers and percentages behind, molders can take encouragement in that new materials and new applications are allowing resin to boldly go where no resin has gone before. Thanks to high-flow polypropylene, large storage containers, lockers, and laundry baskets abounded at January’s International Housewares Show in Chicago, displayed by such container magnates as Rubbermaid and Sterlite.
In the small appliance arena, plastic’s proximity to heat was noticeably closer in the form of toasters, breadmakers, waffle irons, and clothes irons. In fact, based on some of the kitchenware displays, it appears the country is on the verge of a hot tea fad. Many purveyors displayed electric tea kettles, most almost entirely injection molded.
Since white is still the dominant shade in this market, one thing a successful molder must do is maintain color under high heat. Steve Murphy, industry manager for consumer programs at GE Plastics (Pittsfield, MA), says the ability of many materials over recent years to withstand heat and hold color has allowed thermoplastics to replace thermosets in many applications. These include waffle irons, skillets, clothes irons, handles, knobs, and skirts. If you mold for such applications, Murphy says to expect temperatures near 400F. He says he sees mostly polyesters and polyetherimides in such applications.
Aesthetically speaking, beyond traditional white, Murphy has seen a demand for cobalt, metallic, and granite finishes, preferably done in the mold, not as a finishing process. He notes that there are additives on the market that provide such appearances and that they don’t appear to pose any challenges to processing. “Aesthetics and color and finish are some things molders want to pay attention to,” he says.
On the business end, Murphy says molders should be on the lookout for OEMs who are more and more willing to hand over much of the production responsibility they once held. “OEMs are looking to partner with molders to develop the applications,” he says. This includes toolmaking, molding, printing, labeling, finishing, packaging, and shipping, often directly to the retailer. “I’ve seen some molders become the distributor for the OEM,” he says.
For food containers, Syed Jafry, industry manager at GE Plastics, says the demand continues for material and products that can take the cold of the freezer and the heat of the microwave without degrading. Jafry says that while many such products use polypropylene, he’s seeing a shift among some molders to using a polycarbonate. This material, he says, addresses issues of clarity and durability. Costs are higher, especially when using engineering resins, but he says research he’s seen shows that customers are willing to sacrifice price for longevity.
Murphy and Jafry both note an increase in the use of engineering resins in some housewares products. Molders, they say, are willing to trade the cost of such material for thinner walls, greater strength, and better performance.