If you visit the appliance section of any department store, things don't look much different than they did 20 years ago. There are rows and rows of boxy white refrigerators, all offering a variety of features and improved energy efficiency, but all looking pretty much the same as they always have. But once you get into the high-end market for fridges -- from $2,500 and up – there are some dramatic changes, both inside and outside the appliance.
At a recent showcase for dealers across Canada, Jenn-Air introduced its line of Luxury Series Built-In refrigerators, which offers three distinct exterior styling options. The first is stainless steel, "a modern classic", according to the company. Stainless steel appliances have been popular in the kitchen for several years, and while many people thought that the trend to stainless steel was a fad that would fade away, it appears that the units will be around a lot longer than, say, the popular avocado fridges of the 1970s.
Overlay models, which accept custom-made panels on the front, hide the appliances in the kitchen by matching cabinetry. Jenn-Air models also offer custom handles that will also match cabinet hardware styles.
The newest option is a framed design, where the consumer creates their own pattern, piece of art, or even a photograph to go on the front of the fridge. A full-length handle in black, silver or white with matching trim is offered.
"The kitchen has finally caught up with the living room and bedroom in terms of the importance of style," says Tim Roth, director of marketing for Maytag Canada. "People want kitchen appliances that reflect their personality."
Inside, options include a variety of shelves, drawers and tilt-down bins, as well as shelves that can be raised and lowered by turning a handle. Users customize their refrigerators by moving around the components. Prices for Jenn-Air's 42" refrigerators start at more than $8,500 in Canada.
A familiar name recently became the newest player in Canada's refrigerator market. Samsung Electronics, the market share leader in the United Kingdom, is making a modest entry here with the introduction of two new fridges. Prices will start at just under $3,000.
One of the units features a "stainless steel look" -- actually a platinum coating -- that offers the appearance of stainless steel without the extra price tag. It is a bottom-freezer refrigerator, a popular option to the traditional method of putting the freezer on top. The bottom freezer design offers easy eye-level access to the more frequently used refrigerator portion. Samsung also introduced a side-by-side model.
"Refrigerators are the largest appliances in the home, and Samsung has taken great care to design models that are esthetically pleasing as well as powerful and efficient," says Graham Carl, sales manager for Samsung Electronics Canada.
Much has been written about the future of "smart" appliances that will be programmed to keep track of food supplies inside, and when necessary, will send online orders to the grocery store automatically. Electrolux Group, which includes such brand names as Frigidaire, AEG and Zanussi, has been doing some real-life tests with a concept refrigerator called the Screenfridge. The fridge was placed in 50 homes in Denmark to monitor consumer reaction.
The Screenfridge has a built-in touch screen on the door that provides interactive broadband communication technology, Internet access, and even television and radio. The fridge can also be controlled by several terminals located throughout the home. And, there's a built-in video camera that enables personal messaging between family members.
The idea is that since the kitchen is the hub of the home, the fridge can become an information and entertainment source that goes beyond online grocery shopping.
So far, a stroll through the department store appliance section reveals a few stainless steel fridges but not many of these other innovations. But as competition in the high-end market gets more fierce, watch for more of these innovations to start filtering down.