Toilets and Innovation – Can The Two Mix?

A funny thing happened the other day when I was on my toilet, I started thinking about innovation and toilets.  If you are thinking what I am thinking, innovation and toilets are two words that rarely (if ever) end up in the same sentence.  Yet see how far toilets have evolved from their humble beginnings.  But early in the last century, toilets have just stopped evolving.

What a red ocean this category is in the U.S.:

–          All toilets are basically the same (sure you have elevated and elongated toilets but that is a line extension, really)

–          All toilets are basically white (sure, you have black, bone (that’s a weird name, but OK), linen, but really most toilets are white)

–          Price points hover around $300-400

Given how everything else in our lives seems to have different flavors, different colors, different options, toilets have remained basically….basic.  You can customize your toilet seat, but that’s about it.

So why so little innovation when the category is so mundane, so plain, so homogeneous.

It is not for lack of usage – depending on the user, it usually is daily.

It is not for lack of need – can’t really do without one.

It is not for lack of importance – I wouldn’t buy/rent a home without one.

It is not for lack of profit – can’t imagine it costs that much to make.

It is not for lack of cultural hygiene – Americans are quite picky about cleanliness.

It is not for lack of inginuity in the bathroom – look at the Kohler showerheads.

Looking at toilets from a cultural perspective, the Japanese definitely have taken cleanliness and toilets to the ultimate level.  

So is there a lack of demand (if it ain’t broken, why fix it?) or is it a lack of innovation (if you build it, they will come)?

 What do you think?

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One Response to Toilets and Innovation – Can The Two Mix?

  1. Scott Meyer says:

    Actually, there is a tremendous amount of innovation that has gone into toilets in the past five years. With government mandates regarding 1.6 gallons per flush not having been thought through sufficiently before being implemented several years ago, the new low-flush toilets rushed onto the market to beat government deadlines were significantly more likely to clog. This consumer dissatisfaction (can you think of a more unpleasant household task than unplugging a clogged toilet…or more embarrassing situation than a clogged toilet with guests at a dinner or party?) created an opportunity for American Standard to develop toilets that are so virtually clog-free, they can flush a bucket of golf balls. With new water conservation regulations increasing, dual-flush toilets (which are common in Europe) are coming into greater demand in the US, but there are two problems–they are more apt to clog, and the “water spot”–the surface area of the water you see–is significantly smaller than conventional US toilets. Again, American Standard R&D developed a siphonic dual flush toilet that scores at the top in terms of clog-free performance yet has a traditional larger US water spot (which means far less streaking/cleaning than European toilets). Finally, there are surface treatments recently introduced that make the inside of the bowl significantly more non-stick as well as bacteria- and mold-resistant, meaning consumers don’t have to clean the bowl as frequently.

    In general, consumers aren’t aware of these innovations unless (1) their toilet needs to be replaced and they’re in the market for a new one, (2) they’re remodeling a bathroom, (3) they’re building a new house, or (4) they’re sick and tired of their toilet constantly clogging; toilets are basically a permanent part of consumers’ homes and if there’s nothing wrong with it, there’s no reason to think about it other than cleaning. Point of sale materials at home improvement retailers such as The Home Depot and Lowe’s highlight these technological improvements (all done with high tech tools such as MRIs to visualize water dynamics), plus plumbing supply distributors and plumbers know about these; of course, googling “clog-free toilet” will generate over 25,000 hits and a wealth of information for consumers who for whatever reason have a sudden need to think about this very mundane everyday product.

    As you can see, innovation lurks where you least suspect it…

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