the:behavioral:lab

The Rise and Fall of Kitchen Gadgets

As I’m sure the greats before me did, I get a lot of my research inspiration while shopping at Goodwill. Recently, I purchased a replacement cover for my ice cream maker when I was surprised to see my exact model sitting on a shelf. A week later there were 2 of them. At another store there were 3. All. The. Same. Model. Why? I tested one out. It spun. That’s all an ice cream maker does really. The cold part isn’t electric and can’t really break. Well it turns out the Cuisinart ICE-20 was insanely popular back in 2009. In 2013, apparently not so much. People are literally giving them away. My wife commented that they are the new bread machine. Everyone has one, one day. Everyone donates it to Goodwill the next.

Ice cream makers aren’t the first kitchen gadgets to have a meteoric rise and fall. Like I just said, bread machines were huge in the 90s. Electric knives made quite a splash in 1981. Fondue sets were famously over-popular in the 1970’s. All these still exist today, but are hardly considered must-have. So what caused their popularity and subsequent rejection? Impossible to answer. All of these occurred during food fads that required their use, but who know which causes which (the fad or the popularity). Also, all these examples reflect what Alton Brown calls uni-taskers. They are gadgets that are meant for doing one thing, and can’t really do much else. You can try to argue that by that definition, a knife is a unitasker since it only cuts, but you’d be wrong. Knives also stab. Seriously though, you can cut so many things in so many different ways, that it doesn’t really qualify. Ice cream makers on the other hand really just make ice cream. Sorbet is doable, but that’s just ice cream without the fat. Products that do only one thing will tend to have a sharp but short period of popularity.

The examples above also reflect consumers’ desire to make their lives simpler or cheaper. Making food at home tends to be cheaper than going out. Dumping flour and water into a machine and out pops bread 2 hours later is far easier than my 15 hour long sourdough bread procedure (way better though… way better). However, the gadgets may not offer much help. Ice cream makers do something you can’t do otherwise, but the machine rarely gets cold enough, affecting quality. And the process of making the custard to put into the machine is pretty difficult itself. Bread machines are bulky, hard to put away, hard to get back out, and no one wants it left on the counter-top taking up nearly an acre of counter-real-estate. Thus, products that are meant to make consumer’s live easier that really don’t will also suffer from uni-tasker syndrome.

After those hypotheses, I am left with one question. Why do people actually get rid of them? Is it just a Spring cleaning thing, or do people get rid of fad gadgets faster than they discard other items? My guess is yes, but this will have to born out through data.

So what will be the next item I can walk to Goodwill and pay 1/10 the original price for a slightly used (or maybe untouched, still in the box) kitchen gadget? Sodastream comes to mind. It only makes soda. It saves you at most like 50 cents up against a steep start-up investment. The only thing missing is the bizarre fad.

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