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Laura Alber, the new CEO of Williams-Sonoma Inc., says her strategy for tougher times involves expanding West Elm and boosting online sales.

Sales of specialty kitchen appliances surge

There are all sorts of new things in the aisles for small kitchen appliances these days, such as men.

Not so long ago, small kitchen appliances were confined to a few main items such as toasters.

Now, after a decade of kitchen-gadget makers adding high-tech features and with consumer spending recovering from the recession, chains including Macy’s and Williams-Sonoma are selling scores of specialty appliances such as two-stage juicers, food dehydrators, high-tech teapots and baby-food making systems.

Small kitchen-appliance purchases jumped 10 percent to $5.51 billion in 2012, surpassing the 9.4 percent increase the previous year and growing at double the rate of the whole $18.3 billion small-appliance category, which includes the kitchen gadgets plus items like hair dryers and vacuum cleaners, according to NPD Group, based in Port Washington, N.Y.

Driving the trend is Americans’ growing desire to eat healthier and buy tools that help them prepare natural foods, said Debra Mednick, home industry analyst for NPD. Baby boomers have led the charge.

“It’s not about margaritas anymore,” Mednick said. “It’s about getting your antioxidants.”

The machines have the added benefit of drawing male shoppers to a store department that traditionally attracted more women, said Stephen Cardino, fashion director for home at Macy’s.

“Guys love anything with a plug,” Cardino said in a telephone interview.

Appliance makers such as Whirlpool’s KitchenAid; Conair’s Cuisinart, Vita-Mix and Breville Group have added digital screens and industrial-grade materials to devices to help command higher prices and separate themselves from the mass-market versions from Hamilton Beach Brands and Jarden’s Oster and Sunbeam brands.

The higher price of some gadgets, including $600 processors and juicers, drove the kitchen-appliance category’s sales gain last year as the number of units sold held about steady at 132.2 million, NPD said.

The popular appliances allow consumers to prepare food from scratch, or semi-scratch, giving them more control over the ingredients that go into it, according to Mednick.

Shoppers also are attracted to commercial-quality appliances that allow them to replicate items, such as smoothies, that they typically enjoy outside the home, she said.

Introducing more high-end specialty appliances, including single-serve coffee machines and soda-makers, helps retailers such as gourmet-cookware chain Williams-Sonoma carve out some exclusivity in a category that suffers from wide distribution and price competition, said Matt Nemer, an analyst with Wells Fargo & Co. in San Francisco.

“You may have all the newest Krups appliances, but so does everybody else,” Nemer said. “The problem with lack of exclusivity is that then it comes down to a pure price shop, and then you can find it on Amazon.”

High-priced kitchen items reap gross margins of 50 percent or wider, compared with an average of about 30 percent for small electric appliances, Mednick estimates. Gross margin is the percentage of sales left after subtracting the cost of the goods.

Williams-Sonoma posted a gross margin of 41.3 percent in its most recent quarter, while Target’s was 27.8 percent.

Williams-Sonoma shares have gained more than sixfold since the end of 2008. Shares of Macy’s, where home goods account for about 16 percent of sales, have more than quadrupled since 2008.

Other retailers pushing small kitchen appliances include Bed Bath & Beyond, Kohl’s and the smaller Sur La Table, owned by Investcorp, the Bahrain-based investment company.

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