Steam is hot.
Companies are using steam to drive sales of dishwashers, ovens, carpet cleaners and washing machines as competition heats up in the appliance industry.
Asian-based electronics companies are looking to move beyond televisions and into America's kitchens and utility rooms. They're giving traditional brands like Hoover, Whirlpool, Maytag and GE a run for America's appliance dollars.
"The new entrants into the major-appliance business are making this probably the most exciting time in major appliances in the 13 years that I've been watching it," said Peter Greene, vice president and general manager of NPD Houseworld, a division of market-research firm NPD Group. "Everybody's got to step up their game, and it's great for the consumer," he said.
At stake is a share of the growing appliance market. Major-appliance sales rose 9 percent in 2004, to $23 billion, according to NPD Houseworld.
At the Kitchen/Bath Industry Show in Las Vegas in May, manufacturers unveiled the new products they hope will add some sizzle to their sales figures. And steam was being promoted as the all-natural ingredient that cleans better, cooks better and even makes you feel better, in the case of steam showers.
"It's definitely a big trend that will, over time, get bigger and bigger," said Lee Ann Murphy, managing editor of the trade publication Kitchen and Bath Business, which sponsored the trade show.
Steam is being incorporated in so many appliances these days, Murphy said, that "you can use it for your clothes, your body, your food and your carpets."
Murphy predicts steam will be a hot property in cooking appliances. Sharp Corp. has taken a lead position in steam cooking, with the U.S. introduction of its Superheated Steam Oven.
The oven, which will be available in this country beginning in July, sells for almst $1,400 and uses steam that is heated to temperatures as high as 550 degrees to cook everything from frozen chicken nuggets to roast chicken to cakes and breads. Sharp markets the oven as a healthier way to cook and says the steam melts fats and removes salt from food while keeping it moist and flavorful.
The oven is already a hit in Sharp's home market of Japan. It went on sale there in September, and Asian consumers have already bought more than 70,000 of the ovens. Sharp originally planned to produce 10,000 ovens a month for the Japan market, and had to double production because of demand.
Joy Weis Daniel, associate director of product development for Sharp's U.S. division, sees three primary audiences for the steam oven in this country: young fitness-oriented professionals who often eat on the run; working mothers worried about how often they serve chicken nuggets and fries to their children; and baby boomers and older Americans who want to eat healthy and have the money to invest in the latest appliances.
Although high-end European manufacturers have introduced steam ovens previously, Sharp "seems to be the first of the more mainstream companies to come out with it," Murphy said.
Steam ovens still are a bit high-priced for many homeowners, "but if it becomes a little more affordable, I think it's something that consumers are really going to be attracted to," she said. Steam cooking "lets them cook faster and cook healthier, which are two things consumers are trying to do."
Dishes, pots and pans are also getting the steam treatment, in a dishwasher that manufacturer Hitachi Ltd. says uses nanotechnology to spray supersmall particles of steam at tough food stains.
For the carpet, Hoover in March released the SteamVac Duo, a portable steam cleaner using heated water that sells for $139.
Steam also is being marketed as the healthy way to wash clothes -- healthier for the clothes, that is.
Whirlpool recently began selling the Fabric Freshener, a $249 portable device that immerses clothes in a gentle, 30-minute steam bath that Whirlpool says saves you a trip to the dry cleaners and extends the life of garments. It is to be launched in August at Best Buy stores.
LG Electronics Inc. is developing a washing machine that uses a spray of steam to remove wrinkles and odors. The machine was kept under wraps at the Las Vegas show and only shown to selected vendors, said a spokeswoman for Englewood Cliffs, N.J.-based LG Electronics USA Inc., a subsidiary of the South Korean parent.
Samsung Corp., another South Korean company, also has a wrinkle-removing, steam-powered washing machine under development, a spokeswoman said.
"There's been a whole renewed focus with the launch of some of these higher-end washing machines on the health of clothes," NPD's Greene said. "The benefit there is that your clothes are going to last longer."
At another trade show earlier this year in Germany, Greene saw a demonstration of a "steam dummy" device by Germany's BSH Bosch and Seimens Hausgerate GmbH. Clothes are placed on the mannequinlike device, and it steams them from the inside out.
Greene expects clothes-steaming devices like the Fabric Freshener will succeed if they're "truly convenient, and the price point is right." He also believes that steam has the potential to become a must-have item in the ovens of the future, but said manufacturers first have to "face the challenge of educating the average consumer as to why they would need to pay extra for that."
The smart strategy for manufacturers introducing innovations, Greene said, is to first target the early adapters -- consumers who want the newest technology and are willing to pay for it. "That's going to allow you to get the critical mass, which allows you to bring the prices down so others can have it," he said.
Sharp is using that strategy in launching the steam oven. It is scheduled to be offered in July through upscale direct-mail retailer Hammacher Schlemmer, which will sell it on its catalog, Web site and in its New York store. Sharp hopes to eventually sell the oven through other retailers that specialize in gourmet cooking.
In the bathroom, meanwhile, homebuilders are making steam showers the must-have selling point in luxury developments. Steam showers have become more affordable and accessible as demand has grown, with the average cost of installing one from $3,000 to $4,000.
Whirlpool first introduced a deluxe version of its Fabric Freshener called the Personal Valet, a built-in closet with a price tag of more than $1,000. The Fabric Freshener is the mass-market version of that concept.
"What we are seeing is that some features that came out three or four years ago that used to be high-end, are now available to the masses," Greene said.
New innovations and expansion into new product lines by companies such as LG, Samsung and Sharp are important, Greene said, because they show "they're not just a one-trick pony. They're becoming a force in the marketplace."