Innovation in Home Products…It Ain’t Just Fitted Sheets

Drum Roll Please, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Announcing the three greatest moments of innovation in the history of home furnishings products:

3. Furniture manufacturers, trying to reduce their cost of upholstering with expensive craftsmen and detailed stitching and sewing techniques, invent the staple gun as a way to attach fabric to frame.

2. Small appliance makers, seeking to differentiate their blenders and give them the perception of more power, employ a Spinal Tap-esque technique and increase the markings on the speed indicator of their machines from “10” to “11.”

1. Producers of bed sheets, responding to a customer base that wants to cut corners on making hospital corners, run elastic around the edge of their product and create the fitted sheet.

OK, so innovation has not been the strong suit of the home furnishings industry. Outside of the consumer electronics segment of the home business—and let’s face it, the CE guys don’t consider themselves on the same planet, much less the same industry as companies that make furniture and housewares and home textiles—the industry’s track record when it comes to creating innovative products is pretty dismal.

Some of that is to be expected. Like the apparel business, much of home is driven by fashion more than technology. The industry counts on new styles, rather than new bells and whistles, to drive its sales.

So, you wouldn’t look for the home guys to lead the way on product innovation. And up to fairly recently, that has been the case. But more recently, we are starting to see producers of home products if not out-and-out embrace technology and innovation at least learn to work with it.

Of course, the recent surge is not without some precedent. In the late 1940s, engineers at a company called Raytheon were working on some new technology for radar devices when they accidently noticed that the rays from their machine were heating up some nearby food. A bunch of weird science later, the microwave oven was invented. That product has gone on to be a staple of every American kitchen and 7-Eleven in the world and today, most people would tell you that the microwave is the most innovative home product they own.

But that was a long time ago and there really haven’t been a lot of repeats of the microwave’s impact on American living.

The Robin Report - DysonThe closest more-recent example has to be the Dyson vacuum cleaner. Into a market dominated by some of the longest, most established brand names in consumer products—Hoover, Eureka and Bissell to name the biggest—came James Dyson with what he said was a better mouse trap…or at least a better machine to clean up mouse droppings anyway. The basic technology behind the Dyson—a bag-less, cyclone-like chamber that sucked up dirt more efficiently—had existed before Dyson invented his machine, but he perfected the process. Only 18 months after entering the American market, Dyson became the number-one selling machine in the marketplace in dollars.

Within three years, it was the number one seller in units.

This was insane: In a segment where the best-selling machines retailed for about a hundred bucks, Dyson’s sold for four times that amount, starting at around $400. And still consumers bought them in record numbers. Hoover and the others were left flatfooted and still haven’t truly caught up. And retailers like Walmart and Target carried Dyson at the same price as the fancy specialty stores did.

Clearly the marketing and ad push behind Dyson made a difference, but if the machine wasn’t better than the competition in the first place, it would never have achieved the success it has.

Even in the land of 11-speed blenders, technological innovation had triumphed.

An even more unlikely story is unfolding in the bedding business. If there was ever the ultimate blind item, it has to be the mattress. This is an industry, after all, where the softest product it sells is labeled extra firm and smoke-and-mirror-terms, such as coils and ticking, are hoisted upon an unsuspecting consumer who last shopped for this product a generation ago.

For all those generations, the innerspring mattress was the defacto standard product. Yes, there were oddball products like waterbeds and futons, but the innerspring was the choice for most Americans. But then in the late 1990s, a company called Tempur-Pedic started to market a new kind of mattress made of some alien material called viscoelastic. In fact, it was from out of this world, but it got here courtesy of NASA, which had developed the material as a cushioning for its astronauts. Like a whole host of other things from GPS systems to Tang, the product was adapted to the consumer market and it gradually caught on.

Today Tempur-Pedic has joined the traditional Big Three of the mattress business—Serta, Sealy and Simmons—as one of the powerhouses of the industry. And, in fact all three of those bedding giants (not to mention just about everybody else in the business) has its own products featuring viscoelastic, which is more commonly called memory foam by most. Following on the heels of the mattress business, memory foam started turning up in pillows, mattress pads and even bath rugs. They have all been successful. It’s another example of a new technology reinventing product classifications and changing the order of the marketplace. There are no reliable numbers on what kind of market share these types of mattresses have garnered but the fact that everybody has jumped into the field—causing Tempur-Pedic by the way to take a real hit in its stock price the past year —would seem to indicate that memory foam mattresses are now a big part of the business.

Dyson and Tempur-Pedic are the poster boys for innovation in the home industry, but sadly there aren’t too many other contenders. Sheet and towel producers have experimented for more than a decade with the so-called performance fibers and fabrics that have had such an impact on the apparel business. These technologies manage moisture, offer heating and cooling properties and can even provide improved wear and care attributes. Some of them have been mildly successful, such as towels that hold their colors better after repeated washings. But others, such as ones that employ precious metal-thread to provide temperature control (yeah, I don’t understand how it works either and I’ve had people spend hours trying to explain it) haven’t really caught on.

Fitted sheets are still on the top of the textiles technology food chain it seems. So, what’s the difference here? Clearly, the technology has to be measurable improvement over what else exists. A food-cooking device that heats up your meal in a third the time of a conventional oven is a yes. A sheet that warms you up two degrees, not so much.But perhaps the biggest factor in the marketplace embracing product innovation in the home space is the same thing it is in virtually every consumer product: You’ve got to tell the consumer about it, loudly, clearly and often. You’ve got to market the hell out of the sucker.

That’s what Dyson did—has done. It’s not what the Silver Thread Whatever Sheeting Co. has done. Innovation in the home business isn’t easy. Successful innovation is even tougher. But at least it’s easier to make your bed now. That’s something…I guess.

Warren Shoulberg About Warren Shoulberg

Warren Shoulberg is editorial director of several home furnishings magazines and has been reporting on the home business for a long time. He is currently working on his next book, Stupid Business.