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Local Retailers Lose Out to Online as US Hardware Sector Booms

With the US home-improvement sector expected to be worth US$317 billion this year, local retailers – once the stalwarts of the market – need to be ever more innovative if they are to woo customers away from the big e-commerce players.

Photo: Tool sales boom as the Facebook generation devours online DIY tutorials.
Tool sales boom as the Facebook generation devours online DIY tutorials.
Photo: Tool sales boom as the Facebook generation devours online DIY tutorials.
Tool sales boom as the Facebook generation devours online DIY tutorials.

From coconut garden brooms to voice-activated lightbulbs, home-improvement products of every stripe took over the Las Vegas Convention Center earlier this year as the National Hardware Show rolled back into town.

Overall, it's an interesting time for the home-improvement segment. On the one hand, the US home renovations and improvements sector continues to be robust – especially with regards to the kitchen and bathroom. In 2017 as a whole, according to Consumer Reports, Americans are expected to spend some $317 billion on home improvements, placing both the hardware and the DIY sectors on very solid footing.

On the other hand, online retailing has negatively impacted on many of the local retailers that make up the primary audience for this particular show. As a consequence, it's perhaps no surprise that many of them are only too keen to find new ways to lure in customers, initiatives that the Reimagine Retail Award, given out annually at the National Hardware Show, was designed to celebrate. This year it was presented to Caribou Jack's Trading Co, an Idaho-based retailer that has opened an in-store café as a locale for barbecuing and hosting community events.

Elsewhere, most of the innovations were more high-tech in nature, with all things digital playing an ever more significant role in the hammer-and-nails business. The younger do-it-yourself crowd, for instance, is now getting much of its inspiration and mentoring from videos on Facebook and other social platforms, a form of content that didn't exist just a few years ago, but is now pretty much the norm.

At the same time, many DIY products are now available in smart incarnations, complete with network connectivity and integration with a range of virtual assistant devices. Despite this, no matter how digitally enhanced, it's whether a product actually makes life easier for consumers that ultimately determines its success – and, as ever, the National Hardware Show had more than its fair share of innovations that did just that.

Outdoor Living and Viral Videos

When asked just what inspires innovation in the sector, Dan Tratensek, publisher of Hardware Retailing magazine, said: "It's an age-old story – industrious people have an idea and want it to come to fruition. It's just as true in manufacturing as it is in the retail world."

This year, among the products that this veteran of many a hardware show found particularly appealing was the Kuvu, a heavy-duty rubber strap originally created by a Canadian family looking for somewhere to hang their son's skates. Now, with the straps coming in a variety of sizes, the product has earned itself a Retailers' Choice Award from the North American Retail Hardware Association (NARHA).

Looking at the overall trends that currently characterises the sector, Tratensek noted a continuing appetite for blending indoor and outdoor living, saying: "This year, we honoured four different types of grill, as well as several grill-related outdoor living products. These were all chosen by independent retailers, largely because people are actually walking into their stores looking for them."

Indeed, one such product was still drawing a crowd at the event itself – the BakerStone Table Pizza Oven Box. This standalone unit can bake at temperatures close to those of a wood-fired oven, getting a pie ready to eat in just two to four minutes.

Drilling down into its appeal, Tera Case, Sales Manager for the California-based company, said: "We basically created it with tailgating in mind [the practice of serving food from the back of a vehicle, typically prior to a sporting event], as not everyone wants to lug their grill along with them."

While outdoor products continued to have a strong presence at this year's event, growth elsewhere was fuelled by escalating interest on the part of millennials – and even younger consumers – in the whole DIY scene. Again, many have initially been inspired by online how-to-fix-things videos, content that has made a whole new demographic willing to have a go.

Photo: Magnogrip’s Pro Impact magnetic gloves.
Magnogrip's Pro Impact magnetic gloves.
Photo: Magnogrip’s Pro Impact magnetic gloves.
Magnogrip's Pro Impact magnetic gloves.
Photo: Quirky planters from Capi Europe.
Quirky planters from Capi Europe.
Photo: Quirky planters from Capi Europe.
Quirky planters from Capi Europe.

Commenting on this particular phenomenon, Whitney Daulton, the NARHA's Director of Communications, said: "People are looking to give more personality to more things, including one of my personal favourites at this year's show – the Woodwall, a faux wood finish.

"It looks like wood and you can put stickers on the back. It's very easy to use and very light weight. It makes your house look great with very little extra cost."

Smart Lightbulbs

Despite the relatively low-tech appeal of the Woodwall, it was high-tech innovations – especially of the digital variety – that were most widely on show at this year's event, with voice-driven technology, arguably, the most ubiquitous. Following on from CES 2017 earlier this year, where several home-appliance manufacturers introduced voice-controlled products for the connected home, the spotlight at the National Hardware Show was on Ohio-based GE and its new range of virtual assistant/smartphone-compatible intelligent lights.

Manufactured under the C by GE Sol brand, the range allows users to control the type of light emitted at any point in the day, including warm light to boost melatonin production at night and cool light to lift energy levels in the morning. Any such adjustment can be made either via the proprietary GE app or in response to a voice command.

Explaining why Personal Assistant compatibility was so important, Rochelle Hartigan, the company's Marketing Manager, said: "By 2020, more than 50% of all residential lighting will be provided by LED systems. At the same time, Personal Assistants, notably Amazon's Alexa, are changing the way we live. It seemed only natural, then, that we should create the world's first Alexa-embedded lighting product. Although it's not formally launching until September, our order book is already filling up fast."

Functional and Quirky

Overall, the show floor was full of products that were beautiful, functional and – sometimes – just that little quirky. The bright orange pots and planters available from Capi Europe, a Netherlands-based manufacturer, fell squarely into the latter category.

Clearly delighted with the reception the company had received as a first-time exhibitor at the event, International Sales Manager Mathias Pedroli said: "To date, we've had a great reaction to our products. Retailers like the fact that our planters are quite robust, while their polyurethane construction also makes them very light."

In terms of more functional items, Magnogrip's Pro Impact magnetic gloves certainly fitted the bill. With a definite Iron Man vibe, this safety-first handwear comes with a magnetised back (for storing parts and fastenings), while the magnetised fingertips are ideal for picking up small parts in tight spaces. It was perhaps no surprise, then, that Miami-based Magnogrip was acknowledged as one of the most innovative companies attending the event.

Another widely-feted business was Milwaukee's Dynamic Solutions Worldwide, the company behind the DynaSteam Weed Killer. A clear asset to would-be organic gardeners, it can turn a full 1,800w of steam on to unwanted plant life, simply melting it away without any need for toxic chemicals. The product can also be used to clean barbecue grills and even to steam garments.

Photo: The National Hardware Show 2017: Digital enhancements abound, but only the truly useful make the cut.
The National Hardware Show 2017: Digital enhancements abound, but only the truly useful make the cut.
Photo: The National Hardware Show 2017: Digital enhancements abound, but only the truly useful make the cut.
The National Hardware Show 2017: Digital enhancements abound, but only the truly useful make the cut.

The National Hardware Show 2017 took place from 9-12 May at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Anna Huddleston, Special Correspondent, Las Vegas

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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