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Scouting trends in the bathroom

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Futuristic toilets and state-of-the art bathtubs are familiar trends at the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show (K/BIS), held last month in Chicago. This year, new colors and technological advances were two top highlights in the toilet and bath categories.

One of the most notable trends on the show floor was in bathtubs, particularly high-end models that played on the consumer preference toward more choice. Manufacturers including American Standard and Jacuzzi offered a host of new models with new choices in color and more varied functional controls. Others featured innovative—and sometimes novel—ways of looking at relaxation, including expanded lines of light “therapy” models from Kohler and TOTO.

At American Standard’s Porcher brand, a cast-iron tub offered an exterior that can be painted by interior designers any color to match a customer’s specifications. This tub, like many new models at the show, was a stand-alone model meant for soaking.

“Consumers tell us they would like a deeper soak,” explained Gray Uhl, director of design for American Standard. “This also gives the opportunity for a designer or decorator to paint the outside of the tub for a more dramatic effect.” In this case, the bathtub was painted black and presented in a black and white bathroom vignette.

“Black is on the rise. It’s something we see first in commercial applications that is moving into the consumer side,” Uhl said. That demand is carried through to other bathroom fixtures, including darker finishes on bath hardware and in porcelain items such as toilets.

Other companies at the annual event concentrated on introducing touch panels and other high tech features to the bathroom. Jacuzzi, which offers its line of products through Lowe’s and Fergus on stores, featured a number of new products, including a tub from the Fuzion collection that featured a combination of both air and water jets, as well as a control panel that operated in a way similar to the scroll wheel of an iPod. The trend of the circular-scroll interface was repeated in many other products at the show, from refrigerators to washers and dryers.

“It’s intuitive, and consumers are used to operating controls in this way, and they’re very familiar with the iPod. People are very used to this kind of technology, they’re comfortable with it,” explained Rose Boyd, product and strategy manager for Jacuzzi Bath Products.

The manufacturer, which is focusing on expanding its Italian-made line of bathtubs, toilets and showers in the United States, also shrunk its luxury Fuzion model to fit into a wider range of bathroom sizes. The company also introduced an ADA compatible walk-in tub, the Finestra, with a 256-color “chromatherapy” feature.

“Chromatherapy,” which integrates colored lamps into bathtubs and showers, has been a growing trend in both baths and faucet fixtures. Kohler has been no stranger to the chromatherapy trend—one high profile example has been its VTS line of fully programmable showers, which include a touch pad, chromatherapy controls, steam room and temperature controls.

Aside from the lighting features, Kohler has also carried the technology trend through to toilets as well this year—in that case, technology used to appeal to customers who are concerned with keeping the bathroom clean. Kohler introduced a hands-free toilet seat that automatically lifts up and down and includes an automatic flush feature.

On the lower-cost side of the anti-germ movement, Bemis Manufacturing introduced a new toilet seat hinge with no visible hardware or fasteners, meant to provide an easier-to-clean surface.

Easy-to-clean surfaces also were a selling point of new one-piece models from Jacuzzi, Kohler and American Standard. The streamlined look of one-piece toilets has been catching on with consumers, said Eric Moore, an interior designer with Kohler.

“The one-piece models are especially popular with people who either want a streamlined look, or who want some thing that’s much easier to keep clean and to keep looking clean,” Moore said. At the show, Kohler introduced its first one-piece dual-flush toilet, a model that is certified under the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Water Sense guidelines.

Dual-flush Water Sense toilets were featured by numerous manufacturers, at price points from high to middle to low. At TOTO, known for its high-tech bidet features and modern Asian designs, the Japanese manufacturer introduced the “Neorest” line of fully-automated bathroom products, mixing the eco-friendly and technology trends. The compact toilet includes a wireless remote that can activate one of two dual-flush choices or lift the lid up or down.

Harkening back to the emergence of black in the bathroom, several manufacturers featured black new products. Unlike many kitchen appliances and housewares products, where a colorful palette has been a years-long trend, color in toilets and baths has remained relatively staid at white or off-white. This year’s show, however, featured several toilet and bath models in more varied hues, especially black. According to research firm Synovate, unit share of colored toilet models is up slightly year-over-year to 14.3 percent of sales in 2007 from 13.4 percent the previous year.

Home Depot carries several of Kohler’s black one-piece and two-piece models, including the Serif, Wellworth and Rialto collections. American Standard’s Town Square “Right Height” and Repertoire toilets are also available in black at the retailer, and, for both brands, the black models run at a significantly higher price-point than their white counterparts.

The black trend will be a primary one to watch in the future. According to research from NPD Group, the popularity of black stretches into the washer/dryer and kitchen categories. For example, unit share of refrigerator sales are up 13 percent in black and down 7 percent in white. For washing machines, sales of black units are up 113 percent and flat for white.

These new trends will undoubtedly be highlighted as consumers look toward ways to improve their homes in the next year. Finding a market share niche will be important—according to K/BIS research, bathroom remodeling projects overall are expected to fall by 14 percent in 2008, but do-it-for me projects for bathrooms are expected to grow by 22 percent. In all, kitchen and bath do-it-for-me projects are expected to rise by 12 percent in the next year.

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