Mara Gulens
October 20

A New Spin on Washers & Dryers
Marketnews

Purchases of big-ticket items tend to go down in tough economic times, and appliances are no exception. But consumers can't live without appliances like laundry machines and refrigerators. "Generally it takes one trip to the laundromat," explains Glenn Isbister, Owner and President of Calgary's aptly named The Laundry Store, "and the words ‘we're getting a new one'" are quickly uttered.

Consumers have continued to purchase washers and dryers out of sheer necessity, and manufacturers have been working hard to add features that make products more stylish, energy-efficient, and high-tech enough to be comfortably slotted into the category of "consumer electronics."

Laundry appliances in particular have become less about just cleaning clothes and more about accommodating lifestyles, prolonging the longevity of garments, and conserving as much energy as possible.

"There's so much to tell," enthuses Brian Donnelly, Manager of Appliances for Mega-BrandSource in Toronto. "There's so much that is new here, and you can't just explain it in a 20-minute sales pitch."

While the laundry business in Canada as a whole grew only 10 per cent from 2005-2009, according to the Canadian Appliance Manufacturers Association (CAMA), front-load washers, a burgeoning category, grew by an astounding 84 per cent. "You can see the impact of the front load business on the industry," says Donnelly. "It's enormous. Absolutely enormous."

Where CAMA says the total industry fell by 4.8 per cent from 2008 to 2009, laundry was down only two per cent. "Even in a down market, laundry came back better than most other product categories," says Donnelly. "Obviously the thing that was driving that was the front load product."

"Overall business is up in a down economy," Isbister concurs, whose Laundry Store sells nothing but washers and dryers. Isbister himself has been in the appliances industry for 30 years. In part, he says that business is up because laundry, like refrigerators, is generally a replacement market. In fact, about three-quarters of all appliances in any market across North America are bought to replace old ones. And regardless of the state of the economy, if you need to replace a washer or dryer, you need to replace it.

More recently, however, new home construction, which was previously a boon to Alberta, is again on the upswing. And in the first few months of 2010, it has been spurring consumer decisions to replace a washer or dryer instead of fixing the old one.

And then there are the latest tech-savvy products that feature advancements, whether relating to aesthetics or things like energy efficiency, that make upgrading hard to pass up for many. "All the attributes of the product give the customer a reason to buy," says Donnelly.

"The industry really has changed significantly within the last two-to-three years," says John Wilhelm, Laundry and Dishwasher Products Buyer for Sears Canada. "It's really taken on a whole new dimension, specifically within the past 12 months."

Sleek, Stylish & Colourful Front Loaders

A peek at any retail floor reveals that the plain and simple white box has left the building. Today's washers and dryers are all about colour and style; selection has increased massively, and the products look nicer.

"The best analogy is that we're mirroring the auto industry," says Wilhelm. "There are lots of hot colours out there."

Of course colour isn't really a "new" trend. Reds and blues have been around for about four years. But what has become more popular over the past few years are metallic finishes, including silver, titanium, and a new favourite, blue/silver. Kenmore even has a new "ginger" model, along with stainless steel (a long-time favourite), ice blues, and other soft shades. Whirlpool offers a new washer/dryer pair in three colours, including "cranberry." And it's not all about colour: there are now round doors, square doors; you name it.

It's all about colour with the latest laundry machines, including metallic silvers, "ginger" and "cranberry", and even atypical softer shades like this new ice blue model from Kenmore.

 

Wilhelm cites CAMA data that indicates that while the Canadian industry was split 50-50 in terms of top loads and front loads two years ago, today, front loaders account for 62 per cent of the market, compared to just 38 per cent in the U.S. "Canada is quite a bit more advanced when it comes to front load, green products, and saving energy," he notes.

Significant players like Samsung and LG, are really pushing North American manufacturers to build better machines. As a result, return rates are at record low levels, "which is a sign that quality is better right across the board," says Wilhelm. "The consumer is getting a better machine than ever before."

Solve it With Steam

A driving innovation in laundry over the past few years has been steam technology, which is now found in most models above $2,000. While the washer removes wrinkles before the end of the cycle, where the technology really pays off, says Wilhelm, is in the dryer. "You take a garment that you already have, that's been hanging in your closet for four to five months, and you refresh it before you wear it," he says.

Donnelly confirms that steam is one of the main selling points of the new washers and dryers. "Lots of guys wear nothing but cotton," he explains, "[so] it reduces the need to iron; it freshens."

The Laundry Store's Isbister says steam technology has caught on like wildfire, starting with LG's invention of the steam washer in 2006. "It cleans better and opens up fibres. It's better than a washer booster to disinfect and kill microbes. It also helps reduce wrinkles."

 

The Laundry Store in Calgary, AB sells nothing but washing machines, dryers, and other related equipment and accessories. "Business is up in a down economy," reports Glenn Isbister, Owner and President.

 

In 2008, Whirlpool joined LG with a steam washer, followed by Samsung, Electrolux and, in the past several months, GE.

"Steam is selling," declares Isbister, "so obviously manufacturers are jumping on the bandwagon."

Whirlpool's Cabrio Steam Electric Dryer ($999) can refresh two-to-five items in about 15 minutes, helping to relax wrinkles and reduce odours. The enhanced touch-up steam cycle uses steam to remove wrinkles from a full load of laundry in 20-40 minutes.

No more wrinkles is one thing, but because of the large capacity of the new machines;

washers upwards of 5 cubic feet and dryers at 8 cubic feet; you can even throw in and refresh larger items like pillows, comforters, and sleeping bags.

In addition to killing wrinkles and "refreshing" clothes, ridding them of allergens is also a new feature that is appreciated by many affected consumers. About a year-and-a-half ago, LG launched its Allergiene Cycle, certified by the Asthma Society in Canada and the U.S., which kills 99 per cent of dust mites. "Scientists say the only way to kill dust mites is to put a duvet or a sleeping bag in a garbage bag and put it out in the cold night, but that would still not remove the bodies," explains Frank Lee, LG Canada's Senior Manager for Corporate Marketing. "Allergiene kills dust mites and removes faecal matter and bodies."

Advances in Motion

No surprise, then, that LG, which pioneered true steam technology, is taking the laundry revolution to the next level with new advances in motion.

"It's very exciting," enthuses Lee. "The next evolution of the washing machine for us this year is a new line that we refer to as the LG Steam Washer & Dryer with six motions, which will be launching in June. We have introduced performance that we refer to as six motion. It's literally six different ways the drum will rotate to achieve different objectives for your wash."

Scrubbing, the first motion, is very much like what it's like to wash clothes manually with a washboard. "That's what scrubbing will mimic," says Lee. It very aggressively moves clothes along the drum, in a side-to-side motion. Stepping is very similar to when you take clothes and plunge them into a bucket of water. "You're still being gentle, but you're trying to powerfully agitate any debris or stains or dirt by plunging it into the water," Lee explains. This is achieved by the washer drum rotating, bringing all the clothes to the top of the drum, and dropping them into the water.

Filtration, the fourth step, can be manually selected or part of programming. Clothes are initially soaked so they can stick to the sides of the walls of the drum, "much like the Gravitron at the CNE [Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto]," says Lee. While the machine rotates, soapy water is sprayed onto clothes and the centrifugal force pushes water off them. "You're not forcing clothes through water, you're forcing soapy water through the fibres of the clothes," he notes. Tumbling consists of a typical rotation of the drum, and is used for normal cycles in everyday washes. Rolling is almost like kneading dough: clothes will be gently rolled along the bottom of the drum. And lastly, Swinging is like hand washing: delicate clothes are gently tossed side-to-side, mimicking a gentle cycle wash.

"All these different motions come into play depending on the type of setting you require," says Lee.

He adds that the new ability to use six-motion technology, which builds upon the energy efficiency of LG's direct drive motor and LG's new cold wash cycle (see further in this article), will result in even greater energy and water efficiency.

Moreover, "the fact that the new Steam Washer & Dryer with 6 motions will have the largest capacity on the market means you can do fewer loads because you can do larger loads," says Lee. "This breaks the family routine tradition of having to do so many washes throughout the week."

Indeed, capacity is a big component in the next generation of laundry machines. We'll see a lot more style, a lot more colour, and bigger capacities as well," confirms Sears' Wilhelm, peaking into his appliance crystal ball. "Today's full-size machine is considered 3.5 cubic feet, but we're going to see a lot more 5 cubic foot machines."

 

LG's new "Steam Washer & Dryer with six motions" that incorporates a drum that can rotate six different ways to achieve different objectives for your wash. It will be available in Canada this June.

The High-Efficiency Story

Efficiency, both in terms of energy and water, is a major part of the laundry story.

"The biggest thing you are hitting customers with is the absolutely incredibly enormous reduction of water that is used in the cleaning process, and the energy savings," says Donnelly.

Some suppliers are quoting water savings of up to 76 per cent and energy savings up to 80 per cent; and that's for product from the early 2000s. "That's an amazing savings. That's a huge savings," Donnelly gushes.

According to Wilhelm, a typical front loader uses 9-11 gallons of water in a regular cycle, compared to 44 gallons 12-15 years ago. "That's a significant savings right there."

Today's washers spin up to 1,400 RPM, compared to old washers that managed 400 RPM, making for enormous water extraction. "Truly when the clothes get to the dryer, they require the same time as they did to wash. There's a huge energy savings, also savings on clothing; it's not getting roasted," says Donnelly.

Since old machines took up to three times longer to dry than they did to wash, there's a big advantage to get consumers to buy both pieces at the same time. It also makes sense, given that the life expectancy of a washer and dryer is about 10-12 years.

If you're not in a rush, Bosch has an eco action button on its latest models that the company says can save up to 20% in energy consumption for the washing machine and up to 10% for the dryer. It accomplishes this by slightly lowering the temperature, and thus lengthening the cycle time.

 

Bosch's new laundry pair includes "Special Programs" that can be likened to functions on a universal remote control: rather than indicate simply "delicates" or "full wash," cycles are labelled with names like "jeans", "comforters", and "baby care."

Energy Star ratings are achieved through a mathematical formula that takes into account the amount of water and energy needed to drive a machine. In January of 2011, Energy Star specifications will be revised with even more stringent energy and water efficiency levels, and changes will be made to the test procedure for clothes dryers to reflect sensors and the washing machine technology that now results in more moisture being removed from the clothes before they're put into the dryer.

Nancy Fecteau, Energy Star's Account Manager for Appliances, says Energy Star-qualified washers use 35-to-50 per cent less water per load than other washers, and their advanced design features, such as a high-efficiency motors and spin cycles that extract more water from clothes, shorten time in the dryer and reduce the energy needed for drying.

The average energy efficiency of dryers, on the other hand, did not change significantly between 1990 and 2008 (from 1103 kWh/yr to 916 kWh/yr). Fecteau says that's because of the similarity in technology among dryer models: there's little variation in terms of energy performance, hence there's no Energy Star label for dryers. Many dryers now have sensors that automatically shut the unit off when clothes are dry.

Time-of-Use Implications

Many utilities across Canada are bringing in "time-of-use" billing where consumers will pay different amounts for energy at different times of day. Ontario's Hydro One, for example, recently started a two-year program to switch over customers to time-of-use billing.

Some laundry units have built-in time delay features that would be particularly useful in locations where time-of-use billing is available, says Fecteau.

According to Sears' Wilhelm, almost all mid- to high-end washers have the delay wash feature, which can be set for up to a 24-hour time delay. "I use it myself," he says. "Machines today are so quiet that you can run them in the middle of the night and barely hear them."

Donnelly adds that some new washers are even incorporating the intermittent feature into tumble, so that if you set your washer to wash at a non-peak time, it will keep tumbling for up to 10 hours. "This is a great selling feature," he says.

One such model is from Whirlpool. It uses something called Dynamic Venting Technology that consists of a fan at the back of the washing machine that circulates air into the unit and out from a small hole in the dishwashing liquid dispenser. This continually keeps clothes fresh for up to 10 hours after a wash has completed. The machine will tumble clothes every 10 minutes for 10 seconds. In addition to helping save energy costs by being able to wash during non-peak hours, this also prevents the issue of having to rewash clothes because they were left in the machine too long and became stale.

Top to Bottom, or Bottom to Top?

While Canada is raving over front loaders, over in Quebec, which traditionally has a different appliance profile from the rest of the country, the first buyers of front load are coming back for top loads.

"About five-to-six years ago, we started seeing the top load going down. But in 2009, it stopped," explains Michel Cartier, Merchandising and Purchasing Manager for Corbeil Electromenager in Quebec.

Protegez Vous (Quebec's version of Consumer Reports) ran tests and found that new high-efficiency top loaders performed the same when it came to energy and cleanliness of clothes when compared to front loaders. Cartier says that the upswing in sales in high efficiency, or "HE", top loaders can be attributed to the simple fact that people don't want to have to bend down to load the machine, or remove clothes from it. Plus, the top loaders, which started out only in white, are now also being offered in other colour options.

Donnelly concurs. "The top-load HE product is addressing two things: the energy savings story in the front load product; and the fact that the customer just doesn't like change. They want to have top load just like they always have."

Sears' Wilhelm says there's a big push on HE top loads in the U.S., but they're expensive: upwards of $1,200 to $2,500. Moreover, in Canada, "the direction is already front load, and it's really hard to reverse that direction. Many people are convinced that European is the way to go."

Nonetheless, new top loads are making stylish inroads. There's lots of glass, and smoke glass windows, and they're showing up on retail floors, Wilhelm says. For example,

Whirlpool's Cabrio High Efficiency Top-Loading Washer ($1,099), available in lunar silver and white, reportedly uses 71 per cent less water and 69 per cent less energy than conventional washers manufactured before 2004. For flashier colours, Maytag's High-Efficiency top-load Bravo units come in Crimson red and Liquid silver, along with traditional white and black.

Wilhelm feels we'll see a lot more top loaders in the next three-to-four months as selection grows to include red, blue, silver and magnesium finishes. "I can see it hitting an equilibrium level with 2/3 front loads and 1/3 top loads."

 

Whirlpool's Cabrio High Efficiency Top-Loading Washer ($1,099) is Energy Star-qualified, and uses 71 per cent less water and 69 per cent less energy than conventional washers manufactured before 2004. Moreover, at 5 cubic feet, it can wash the equivalent of three typical loads of laundry in a single load. It is available in lunar silver and white.

No More Shake, Rattle & Roll

When front-loaders initially hit the retail stage a few years ago, there were a few inherent problems, including high vibrations and noise, as well as odour (the latter is discussed below). When the washers shook, particularly if they were placed on the second floor, it felt like they'd take the house down.

"One of the key issues with front load in Canadian homes has been vibration," confirms Warner Doell, Vice President of Sales & Marketing, Digital Appliance Business at Samsung Canada. Known as the "walking washer," this was particularly apparent as laundry moved from the basement to the main and second floor, and especially in wood constructions and in proximity to living areas.

"Some of the customers were returning front load because there was a lot of vibration," explains Corbeil Electromenager's Cartier.

In June of 2007, Samsung led the way with the introduction of VRT (Vibration Reduction Technology), which makes vibration non-existent, thus providing a very quiet wash. "That was our breakthrough innovation," says Doell.

"The bar has definitely been raised in the industry on that, thanks to Samsung," says Wilhelm. "Samsung was first to come out with VRT, and almost all the manufacturers have come out with [something similar]. It's almost a non-issue today."

The Laundry Store has at least one of every model of every brand hooked up live to demonstrate noise levels and the amount of vibration, "to give customers a better understanding of how the machines will perform," says Isbister.

Samsung's current line-up has mechanical VRT with rings in the front and the back of the washer that contain 18 steel balls (resembling large marbles) that counter-balance the load. In July of this year, Samsung will introduce next generation VRT , where added electronics will allow for more data processing, and include electronic controls to further enhance vibration control and quietness.

To demonstrate the efficiency of the system this past January, Samsung took to the floor of the International Builders Show with a wine glass test. Samsung put a wine glass on a Samsung washing machine and another on a model from "brand X", than turned both on to see the result. Lo and behold, the wine glass on the Samsung model didn't shake at all. Doell says Samsung's field marketing team now goes into stores to train sales associates using that very same demo.

The Laundry Store's Isbister says Samsung's impressive balance control system was soon followed up by LG's TrueBalance system. Now, there's very minimal vibration even on a soft floor: the machine will sense when it shifts from the centre, and automatically adjust the load to compensate.

 

The WF520ABP washer and DV520AEP dryer pair from Samsung, shown here (and above) with Yushin Kim, Field Marketing Manager for Samsung Canada, comes with an ample 5 cubic feet capacity, along with new technologies like PowerFoam, eco Cold wash, and VRT Plus. They will come in a stainless platinum finish this June. 

Smell be Gone!

The other problem with front-loaders, which can remain a problem today without proper care, is mould build-up, which causes washers to smell like rotten eggs. "What we promote to everyone at the store when they come shopping is to Google the keywords ‘problems frontload washers'," says Isbister, and read up on the issues and learn the appropriate steps to take to combat them.

According to Isbister, European front loaders, which have been around for 60 years, do not have odour problems because whites are washed at very high temperatures: 95-degrees Celsius or 205-degrees Farenheit. This washes the machines, but also disinfects them. "There are no microbes that can withstand 95 Celsius," he explains.

Here in Canada, we're in favour of washing laundry in cold water. But when the water that comes out of the tap is 5-degrees Celsius (as it is in Calgary), it's "barely liquid... it doesn't dissolve the detergent and goes down the drain without being really activated," says Isbister. "It doesn't clean the clothes and causes other problems to doing laundry."

Washers with thermostatic heaters that allow dialling in to get exact temperature settings (Europe has laws that require water to be heated on a demand basis) alleviate that problem. Water boosters do the job too, but not quite as well.

Second-generation front load washers now all have clean washer cycles to get rid of the funk smell that can be likened to the rotten egg. Some brands are particularly severe for mould build-up, and suggest that users dump a cup of chlorine in at a low-speed spin. Isbister says Purcell's oxygenated bleach cleans and kills bacteria. "More agitation and bleach dissolves detergent sludge."

Isbister says a lot of the problem of smelly front loaders is due to people not using HE suds. "A lot of these issues can be taken care of or prevented," he explains. Cartier, on the other hand, believes people are now conscious of using HE detergent, so odour is no longer a factor. He says people have also become accustomed to using half or a quarter of what they were using before.

Hand it to LG to develop a system for cold water washing which, says Lee, is still something very dear to Canadians. The Steam Washer & Dryer with 6 motions will have a "cold wash optimizer," which will measure the hardness or softness of water, the concentration of detergent, and the temperature of the wash.

"Ideally even for a cold wash, the water needs to be at least 15 degrees Celsius for the chemicals and the enzymes in the detergent to be activated," says Lee. If the water temperature is under 15-degrees, instead of drawing warmer water from a home's hot water tank, LG's new machines will take a small percentage of water that's already in the drum and use a low wattage heater built into the unit to bring up the temperature.

The new system will also extend the cycle if the user hasn't put in enough soap, and extend the rinse cycle based on the hardness of the water.

"When you're trying to wash clothing in cold water there are two variables: chemical and mechanical," Lee says. Advise customers to buy cold-water detergent, he agrees. But LG has also increased the mechanical agitation to get the same cleanability and performance.

Not to be outdone, this July will see Samsung's introduction of Power Foam in the new 520 FL Lifestyle washer and dryer pair, which will allow for cold-water washing and improved efficiency. A foam pump will take water, detergent and air, and mix them together to create foam. "It's like foam cleansers that are available for cosmetics versus gels or liquids," explains Warner Doell.

The key benefits to foam in the washer will be that it's gentler on clothes. The detergent will cover a bigger area more quickly, and it will more thoroughly clean clothes, enhance energy efficiency, and improve cold water wash. "If you put foam into the mix, why would you use hot?" asks Doell.

Selling the Irresistible

While the latest features and colours make new laundry units irresistible, they have become a more expensive purchase; front-load pairs can go for upwards of $900. "There will be sticker shock for sure," advises Donnelly. "This is not a quick sale."

Consumers have become educated, though, and there's more of an understanding of the benefits of high-efficiency and treatment of these machines. As noted, the leaps in technology have also done away with the initial problems of first-generation products. That said, "everyone has to go through a learning curve from front load to top load," explains Isbister. Consumers need to be sold on the benefits, and the list is long, adds Cartier.

He talks to design, which allows laundry units to be placed in the first floor of a house, along with the reduced use of water, and the fact that clothes come out of the washer almost dry. All retailers are putting colour units on the floor; that's eye candy that has to be placed front and centre.

Going forward, the margins for retailers won't be spectacular; year-over-year growth for the appliance industry over the past 15 years has levelled off, partly because there are more players, says Wilhelm. "The LGs and Samsungs are a significant force in the marketplace. It's the old law of supply and demand. When there's increased competition, the prices go down. It gets harder and harder to make a buck in this industry today. But it's absolutely fantastic if you're a consumer."

[Originally published in Marketnews]

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