Whitewares Market Overview: Upscale Design Drives Sales of High-End Bathroom Fixtures

At the Kitchen/Bath Industry Show and Conference in Las Vegas, Nev., earlier this year, one trend was clearly evident-consumers are turning their bathrooms into high-tech works of art. From colorful glass tile adorning bathtub exteriors, to porcelain sinks and toilets that resemble natural stone, to the latest in high-tech gadgets, today's hottest designs go far beyond functional to capture the imagination and convey a sense of luxury and personal style.

"The bathroom is becoming more of a centerpiece in the home with design trends ranging from the bold and colorful to the simple and elegant," says Jim Krengel, a certified bathroom designer.1

Combined with the continued growth in new and existing home sales, single-family starts, residential fixed investment and remodeling expenditures (see "Consumption & Imports Rise in the U.S. Tile Market" in this issue), these trends are providing new opportunities for manufacturers of ceramic sanitaryware. American Standard saw a 9% increase in sales for its Bath and Kitchen Division in 2004 compared to 2003 levels. The company reported that sales to the Americas were 5% higher due to the popularity of the company's "no-clog" Champion toilet, expanded marketing and promotional efforts, and continued growth in the U.S. remodeling market, as well as expanded luxury product offerings. The company saw a 3% sales gain in Europe and an 11% increase in Asia. However, American Standard noted that the new residential market in China grew more slowly in 2004 compared to 2003 levels.

A focus on upscale and unusual designs has also helped boost sales for the German manufacturer Villeroy & Boch. The company posted a 3.7% gain in its Bathroom and Kitchen Business Segment in 2004, with a 0.8% decline in its domestic market offset by a 5.7% increase in foreign markets (including the U.S.). The company spent an estimated 6.4 million euro (~US$8.7 million) on research and development for its Bathroom and Wellness Division in 2004, with efforts focused on using innovative production technologies such as die casting and designing new products that are closely related to consumer needs. One example is its new Pure Stone bathroom collection, which uses innovative production and glazing techniques to replicate the look of pebbles in sink basins, toilets and corresponding accessories. The company is also seeing strong demand for its new Pur Air toilet, which uses a ceramic airflow control system designed to eliminate odors.

Japan-based Toto Ltd. noted that it is seeing strong sales of its PureRest toilet, which incorporates rimless basins and the company's proprietary Tornado flushing system for ease of cleaning. "The reduced depth, compact body design achieves a spacious feeling restroom, and the PureRest is being widely used in both the new housing and remodeling markets," the company said in a press release. The company's high-tech NEOREST series of toilets, which are equipped with an auto-fragrance device and remote control music functions, a self-cleaning Washlet technology, a rimless design, and Cyclone flush for easy cleaning, are also becoming increasingly popular, along with models that conserve water but flush efficiently.

For Wisconsin-based Kohler Co., a new toilet design called the Purist Hatbox is making a statement in an increasing number of high-end bathrooms. The toilet's tankless design was achieved by using the company's Power Lite™ technology-a quiet 0.2-horsepower electric pump fully enclosed within the toilet bowl that provides a powerful flush using just 1.6 gallons of water. Combined with an electronic "soft touch" actuator along the side of the toilet and the option for the water supply line to attach inside the bowl base by coming up through the floor, the minimalist design achieves a smooth, streamlined external surface that is easy to clean.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the sales pace of newly built single-family homes increased 6.5% in July 2005 to a record seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.410 million units. The growth in home improvement spending by homeowners also held steady for the second quarter of 2005. According to the Remodeling Activity Indicator (RAI) devised by Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies, homeowners spent almost $133 billion on home improvements and repairs between the second half of 2004 and the first half of 2005. The U.S. housing boom is expected to slow, and the long-term effects from Hurricane Katrina on the overall U.S. economy remain uncertain. However, as consumers continue to look for new ways to define their personal spaces, and manufacturers try to differentiate their products from others on the market, high-end bathroom fixtures and unique designs will likely see an increasing market share.

Editor's note: The foregoing information (except where noted) was compiled from publicly available information in annual reports and news releases, as well as personal interviews.


1. www.abathroomguide.com/html/bathroom-design2.htm.

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