Over the past few years, the smart home has been one of the most simultaneously tantalizing and frustrating categories in retail. Holding as much promise to reinvent our daily lives as any emerging technology, the most visible category of the “Internet of Things” has, by and large, proven itself a difficult concept to sell to real consumers.
And while it’s not been all bad news – some “hero” products like the Amazon Echo or Ring doorbell have flown off shelves – most products have moved much more slowly despite big investments in terms of inventory, shelf space and display investment on the part of brick and mortar retailers.
The challenges of the category, while easy to identify, are difficult to solve. The biggest hurdle for retailers is showing what smart home can do for the average Joe. Most consumers don’t immediately understand the benefits of these new devices, putting a big burden on retailers to explain it to them. And if retailers do manage to convince a customer to buy smart home products, many first-time smart home consumers find they are often out of their technological depth when they get home (what exactly is a C wire again?).
The end result is a fairly high rate of return, which is anathema to both retailer and product manufacturer alike. When consumers do keep products, often times usage rates for smart home products are fairly low.
But now, there seems to be one product category – or one room in the house- in particular, that seems to be selling well and bucking the trends of high return rates: the connected kitchen.
Smart Home Is Where The Kitchen Is
Across the retail landscape, retailers are starting to double down on kitchen products that use technology in new and different ways. Whether it’s something as simple as Williams-Sonoma’s new Bluetooth thermometer or a crowdfunded device that makes canned or bottled beer taste like draft beer making its way to Best Buy, retailers are trying lots of different products that change the way we cook, drink and eat.
Why makes kitchen different? According to retailers, much of the answer lies in straightforward convenience and utility.
Michelle Baden Foss, who oversees the food prep category for high-end retailer Williams-Sonoma, says the category, if done right, brings value to consumers lives in the form of convenience.
“Our customers respond best when an item is truly smart,” said Baden Foss. “When it offers them something that enhances a product and their lives. If you can customize your morning latte and then press go from under the covers, people want to have that convenience.”
The category also is attractive to retailers relative to other categories because they’re less likely to make their way back to the store. Smart kitchen “has extremely low return rates,” said Vibhu Norby, CEO of b8ta, an Internet of Things and advanced technology retailer based in Silicon Valley. “I think people are more likely to stash connected kitchen products they don’t use vs. return which is quite different from the rest of connected home.”
Another reason for the category’s rising popularity is it’s one the consumer seems to understand. “Kitchen is an area that, 5 years ago, you wouldn’t consider at the technology forefront,” said Ryan Stanzel, spokesperson for Best Buy, where the appliance category has grown for 22 months straight. “Now things are just getting more and more connected. Part of the convenience of that is it saves us time and peace and mind”.
But it’s not just about convenience, but also trying new things. Sous vide is a good example, a cooking style that’s been popular for years in the professional kitchen but, until recently, wasn’t really approachable for most consumers due to lack of consumer-oriented products. In recent years, however, companies like Anova and Sansaire have brought out consumer sous vide machines and foodie sites like Serious Eats and ChefSteps began to push sous vide in a big way. Retailers are now coming along, with Target rolling out Anova’s Wi-Fi enabled precision cooker to all of its 1800 stores by the end of the year and other retailers like Best Buy are also expanding into sous vide as well.
Still, for all of the excitement, the category still has a way to go until it’s mainstream and, like many new connected categories, there’s always the danger of adding technology and making products more difficult to use.
“If a product adds steps or doesn’t offer more functionality or ease of use, no one wants it,” said Williams-Sonoma’s Baden Foss
And while consumers seem to understand connected devices in the kitchen more readily than wholly new categories like smart home hubs, there’s still a need for market education. That’s why retailers like Pirch are developing experiential retail experiences to show how the process of connected cooking works.
So while there’s always a chance new products may confuse consumers or see higher return rates, the current feeling among retailers seems to be that the smart kitchen is a market that’s just about ready to cook.
A version of this post first appeared in Forbes.
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