For the first time in four years, after two COVID cancellations and one modest iteration in 2022, the housewares industry’s annual show returned this week in Chicago amid the clatter of pots and pans, and the buzz of kitchen electrics.
The Inspired Home Show of 2023 wasn’t quite back up to pre-pandemic levels, but both buyers and sellers showed up in numbers that were a refreshing reminder of previous events. The housewares niche is one of the only sectors of the home furnishings industry to use an open-floor format for shows versus the showrooms of furniture, textiles, lighting and home decor. As such, the pandemic took an especially hard toll, and whereas those other product categories came back faster with wholesale events, this gathering marked the first true return for housewares.
The irony is that housewares products—particularly, anything to do with home cooking and entertaining—remain the most economically viable segment of the home furnishings business right now. Even as overall spending on home merchandise has slowed drastically, inflation and recessionary fears have combined to make cooking and eating at home more appealing in 2023. Americans have also continued their post-pandemic return to celebrating family events and entertaining, which usually entails buying new food-prep, cooking and serving products.
The International Housewares Association (IHA), which sponsors The Inspired Home Show, hasn’t yet released attendance numbers, but reported the return of more than 100 companies that skipped last year’s truncated event, and in terms of visible metrics, all three halls of McCormick Place were nicely filled out with vendors. The addition of an area for luggage and travel products, in partnership with the Travel Goods Association, brought another category to the show, and if the final count of exhibitors was not quite up to pre-pandemic levels, it certainly was substantially closer.
Even as the overall housewares sector fared relatively well this week, the show was held against the backdrop of a softening retail market. The serious downsizing and near-death experience gripping Bed Bath & Beyond, flat sales for general merchandise at big boxes like Walmart, Target, Home Depot and Lowe’s, and negative comp numbers at many other brands including Macy’s, Wayfair, TJX and Big Lots all played into the general mood of the show.
Anecdotally, most if not all of those retailers were in attendance at the show, with a highlight being a presentation from two senior Walmart executives on the giant’s ongoing efforts to build out its e-commerce business and “omni-world” strategy. Walmart online, both through its own merchandise and third-party goods sold on its Marketplace, now offers more than 400 million products and is rolling out new technologies to grow that business, including Walmart Business, which launched last month, text-to-order technology and view-in-room capabilities.
In spite of the broader market’s softening, the ongoing viability of the housewares sector was confirmed in new research from IHA in its second annual “Consumer Outlook Survey.” “After a period of high demand during the heart of the pandemic, a slight pullback in demand across core home and housewares categories is not surprising,” said Peter Giannetti, IHA’s director of editorial, content and education. But that could be reversing course, he said. “Some market research has emerged suggesting that consumers who had begun to shift spending to service sectors were reconsidering and even scaling back spending plans in those sectors—and they find more ways to enjoy their households.”
For a housewares sector that was happy to be back in person and with attendance closer to historical levels, the sound of all those brewing coffee makers and sizzling frying pans was indeed music to their ears.
Homepage image: The housewares niche is one of the only sectors of the home furnishings industry to use an open-floor format for shows | Courtesy of The Inspired Home Show
Warren Shoulberg is the former editor in chief for several leading B2B publications. He has been a guest lecturer at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business; received honors from the International Furnishings and Design Association and the Fashion Institute of Technology; and been cited by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and other media as a leading industry expert. His Retail Watch columns offer deep industry insights on major markets and product categories.