Get Smart

The internet of things took center stage at this year’s International Home + Housewares Show, as consumers and their homes become more connected.


“It’s Smart” served as an appropriate herald for this year’s International Home + Housewares Show, given that so much emphasis was on the so-called “smart home.” The term refers to the emergence of state-of-the-art devices and technology that allow homeowners to control domestic functions ranging from lighting and security to appliances and electronics using a smartphone or computer.

This network of physical objects that allows manipulation through the web is often referred to as the internet of things, and its presence was everywhere on the trade show floor. The housewares show, which occurs every March at Chicago’s McCormick Place, featured more than 2,200 exhibitors and attracted buyers and sellers from all over the globe. They were joined by several hundred members of the ERA community—no surprise given the strength of the category as an impetus for direct marketing.

Let Your Fingers Do the Walking

Smart technologies offer consumers several advantages that were highlighted at the show. The ability to control many of a home’s functions is literally at the homeowner’s fingertips, using a smartphone, tablet, or voice input and the available apps. These are among the most pronounced benefits to consumers:

You can use voice commands to set room temperature, play music, compile a shopping list, or control your TV.

Centralized Control. Many manufacturers have teamed with countertop technologies already prevalent in some homes. For example, Whirlpool has no less than 20 smart appliances, including ovens, refrigerators, washers, dryers, and dishwashers. Using voice commands, users can direct these and other appliances using Amazon’s intelligent personal assistant, Alexa, which corresponds with the user through the company’s Bluetooth devices, the Echo and Echo Dot. Now, a person can preheat the oven, start a wash cycle, or check the current temperature of the fridge, all with the sound of their voice.

Convenience. Watching the big game while you’re grilling steaks and don’t want to miss a play? The Char-Broil SmartChef Tru-Infrared Gas Grill is a Wi-Fi-connected barbecue that syncs to your smartphone or tablet. Using Char-Broil’s SmartChef Gas Grill mobile app, you can monitor your beef and make cooking adjustments between plays from the comfort of your couch. The app can field real-time updates and alerts that let you know when preheating is complete, when to flip the meat, and—once you have finished cooking—inform you when the grill is cool enough to cover up.

Security/Safety. “Honey, did you let the cat out?” is an angst-inducing query that will cause any spouse to grip the steering wheel more tightly. Smart home pioneer Nest, which entered the marketplace with remote-controlled thermostats in 2010 and was acquired by Google parent Alphabet, Inc. in 2014, now offers security devices such as indoor and outdoor cameras. Using its smartphone app, a homeowner can answer that feline question, see what the babysitter is up to, or make certain no intruder has entered the home.

In addition to making you feel like a high-tech wizard, you can use the best of this technology to “dial in” your environment to reflect your most fanciful whim.

For adult children of the elderly, such a technology makes it easier to ensure that a loved one is safe inside their own home from anywhere with an internet connection. Nest offers a continuity program that allows 30 days of continuous 24-hour surveillance to be stored in the cloud. You can even break up your teenager’s unsanctioned party by shouting through an integrated speaker that relays your voice through your phone to the device sitting on your countertop.

Accessibility. Smart technology can significantly improve quality of life for the elderly and disabled. Using voice commands gives them far more control over many functions within their households. Misplace your phone? Using Google Home, Alphabet’s voice-
activated, “hearable” speaker and answer to Amazon’s Echo, you can inform the device of your problem, and it will automatically place a phone call to the Android phone sandwiched between the couch cushions. You can even use Google Home and voice commands to set room temperature, play music, compile a shopping list, or control your TV, rendering your handheld remote obsolete.

Functionality. One of the promises of smart technology is the notion that even amateur cooks and mixologists can broaden their skills through the use of smart devices that make, for example, pouring the consummate cocktail an idiot-proof endeavor. To wit: Perfect Drink Pro is a connected scale that, when combined with a smartphone app, ensures you are pouring just the right proportion of ingredients. You can pull up a recipe on your tablet, follow the step-by-step instructions, and then use the scale to make sure that your measurements are precise. Voilà! You have a tequila sunrise that even the Eagles would be proud of.

A Shark Tank-style panel discusses inventor submissions at IH+H.

Efficiency and Cost-Effectiveness. A study conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that homes using smart thermostats saved anywhere from 10 to 30 percent on their energy bill. The housewares industry also likes to tout the idea that homes equipped with such tech have higher resale value. But beyond the cost savings is the notion that smart technologies allow a homeowner to also save time.

That’s the idea behind the Neato Botvac Connected. Its app allows you to start, schedule, and steer a vacuum around your home using a mobile app, and it gives you the option of integrating the app with Google Home. The Botvac features two cleaning modes and a powerful lithium battery. Just imagine: With this remote-controlled cleaning apparatus, you might even be able to get your teenager to pick up after that party!

Fun. On the flip side of the rational attributes of smart-home technology is the simple fact that many of these products are fun. In addition to making you feel like a high-tech wizard, you can use the best of this technology to “dial in” your environment to reflect your most fanciful whim. For example, Philips Hue Smart Lighting allows you to control all lights in your home using an app whether you are at home or commuting—and we’re not just talking about illumination levels, but different colors and moods. You can even use Philips Hue lighting to help wake you up in the morning at a preset time by gradually raising the light level in your bedroom.

Remote Control?

With spying and hacking occupying daily headlines, you can’t help but wonder whether the Orwellian aspect of such technology—that Big Brother is watching you—will be of concern to consumers. After all, a technology that can be used to secure your home could have the polar opposite of its intended effect should it fall into the wrong hands. Recent reports that Vizio has been tracking customers through smart TVs as well as WikiLeaks publishing documents asserting that the CIA has created tools to turn such apparatuses into bugging devices make it clear that such concerns are not far-fetched.

Then there is this question: Just how many apps will the average consumer be willing to download and use? Clearly, that is the advantage a company such as Nest or Whirlpool offers, by facilitating control of several different categories of smart device with a single app.

Many of these devices seem ideally suited to the kind of powerful storytelling that is a hallmark of ERA members.

Frankly, some of the technology on display at the Housewares Show seemed over-engineered or smacked of a solution in search of a problem. For example, the GeniCan is a scanner that attaches to a trashcan and allows you to inventory bar-coded items as you throw out or recycle their empty packages. The device then adds those items to a grocery list in the GeniCan smartphone app. If the item you are tossing doesn’t have a barcode, the device uses voice-recognition technology that enables you to circumvent the problem. Didn’t quite get that? Lean in closer to your garbage can. Or not.

On the Lookout for Innovation

While walking in the cavernous aisles and among the overwhelming booth displays, members of the direct response marketing community were visible at every turn. Product marketers were no doubt hunting for the latest innovations that can be turned into As Seen On TV sensations. Many spent time at the Inventors Corner, where would-be millionaires went before an expert panel à la Shark Tank to pitch the merits of their brainchildren and, in return, received feedback critiquing shortcomings such as a lack of margin in relationship to retail price, or a product too niche-oriented in its focus to attract broad appeal.

In addition to DRTV’s product marketers, the pitchmen and women, agency people, and supply chain professionals came out in droves, too—and it’s no wonder. Given the complexity of smart home technologies, many of these devices seem ideally suited to the kind of powerful storytelling that is a hallmark of ERA members who are experts at taking a complex value proposition and breaking it down into salient selling points.

As consumers continue to embrace their smartphones as a kind of remote control that powers their lives, the products that cross the chasm from early adopter to early majority and thrive in the broader marketplace will require significant education to break through a cluttered landscape. The simple truth is that consumers are overwhelmed by choice.

Therefore, it’s incumbent that the marketing of these products be just as smart as the technologies pitched. It’s essential for the varied propositions that comprise the internet of things to become—you guessed it—the next big thing.

Rick Petry is a freelance writer who specializes in direct marketing and is a past chairman of ERA. He can be reached at (503) 740-9065, online at rickpetry.com, and on Twitter @thepetrydish.