Chicago show special: Of whoopie pies and water bottles

In this, the first in a series of special reports from the Home + Housewares Show running this week in Chicago, suggests that any visitor expecting to get a clear steer on colour trends for the coming season must be thoroughly confused by now.

Chicago show special: Of whoopie pies and water bottles

A superb Pantone display splits the colours of the year into a selection of temptingly-named palettes – Transcending Time, Nonchalance, Indigo Effects, Nouveau Neon, The Comics, Reflections – and succeeds in making them all look terrific. “Color of the Year” for 2011 is named as Pantone 18-2120, Honeysuckle, a warm pink which approaches salmon but doesn’t quite get there.

Out on the floor, however, the colour message seems to be: anything goes. No one shade or palette is dominant, although one is certainly prominent: the triple grouping of warm yellow, dusty orange and a muted post-neon green. In fact the “neons” seem to be a thing of the past – we have searched in vain for the electric/acid colours that have been so important for the housewares market over the past few years. Pantone’s Color of the Year is conspicuous by its absence.

While we’re on trends, here’s one which has signally failed to happen as predicted: the whoopie pie. Out of 2,000 or so exhibitors, we have found precisely two who even acknowledge the existence of such a thing. And neither of them is making a major thing of it. Whoopie pie RIP, we think.

One trend that does seem to be happening though is water bottles. Big, small, patterned, coloured – you name it. In a country where at times it seems as though pretty well everyone carries a bottle of water pretty well all the time, there was no shortage of exhibitors offering no shortage of water bottle designs.

Exhibitors with long memories contrasted attendance with the packed aisles of an earlier age. But those with a more realistic outlook recognised that, post-recession, it’s all about quality, not quantity – and based on the fact that by mid-morning on the first day we had bumped into both Martin Rayner of Lakeland and Ben Phillips of Steamer Trading, it’s safe to say that the buyers that matter (at least as far as the UK is concerned) are here.

Figures from the show organisers, the International Housewares Association, support this positive view. US housewares sales in 2009 averaged $614 per household, a 0.8% increase on the previous year, and global housewares sales were down by only 0.4%. To put that into context, US petrol sales in the same period fell by 27.8% – which the IHA claims as proof that Americans are staying in more and going out less.

The IHA forecasts a back-to-basics trend in home-related sales, driven by continued growth in farmers’ markets and organic gardening – which should lead to increased sales of slow cookers, and a rediscovery of the American craft of home canning.

Chicago wouldn’t be Chicago without its annual crop of Products The World Hasn’t Been Waiting For.’s first nomination for 2011 has got to be the Toilet Tattoo – “a product that adds a new way to beautify the toilet” – quite possibly the first time in the history of the world that the words “beautify” and “toilet” have appeared in the same sentence. It’s a range of horrid self-adhesive designs to stick on the toilet lid, marketed with the slogan: “The only way to crown your throne”.

Close runner-up is a product being advertised on the video loop on the shuttle buses into the show: it’s like a pair of enormous flip-flops with self-adhesive bottoms, and soft plastic bristles moulded into the soles. The idea is you stick them on the end of the bath, and when you’re lying in the bath you can put your feet in and wiggle them around, and get them clean without having to bend down to reach them. Or you can stick them on the base of a shower cubicle.

On our bus, they were greeted with a huge burst of laughter – but the guy sitting next to us said: “I’d love to have that product – they’ll sell in millions”. We asked why, and he said: “Because if people think a product is funny, they’ll buy it to share the joke with other people”. There could be a lot of sense in that.

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