CHICAGO -- There are few phrases in the English language that bore an 8-year-old more than “trade show.” “Agricultural field trip” might qualify, or maybe “indoor summer camp.” But to draw a truly blank stare, tell a second-grader that the two of you are headed to an expo on kitchen, bath and living-room accessories.
When I recently explained to my son, Jake, that we would be making a pilgrimage to the four-day International Home and Housewares Show in Chicago, he seemed completely stultified.
“Is it like furniture?” he asked. Then he added hopefully, “Are there, like, rides?”
Well, like, no. But the show offers its own brand of amusement, especially when you’re not a salesman or a buyer desperately trying to find an awesome smoothie maker or the world’s next Snuggie.
With thousands of new, old and sometimes bizarre products, the housewares show is an annual celebration of innovation and entrepreneurial optimism, with row upon row of ideas, from the sleek, high-end (like the elegant trapeze lamps from Light & Contrast) to the undoubtedly lowbrow (one example: the pet-potty accessory known as Cat Wipes).
My idea was to allow Jake to act as scout and product tester, on the theory that many decisions in the home are influenced by children, a hunch confirmed by Tom Mirabile, the senior vice president for global trend and design at Lifetime Brands, a housewares company, who believes that buying a blender can be a form of bonding.
“We’re entering a period when a lot of Gen X and Gen Y parents are teaching their kids life skills that they are realizing will be important, and that includes home-ec skills,” Mirabile said, adding that many on-the-go families consider time spent in the kitchen to be family time. “For boomers, cooking and baking wasn’t cool. Now it’s another point of engagement with their children.”
That was exactly the type of engagement I was hoping for when Jake and I arrived at McCormick Place, this city’s sprawling lakeside convention center, last week.
There were a few complications, of course — namely that Jake was suffering from a sore foot. It was a bad sign, because if there is one requirement for attending a housewares show, it is being ambulatory. But Jake’s pain seemed to ease shortly after he was introduced to another time-honored trade show concept: swag.
“So can I have that cup of hot chocolate?” he asked.
Yes, I told him.
Jake looked amazed.
One advantage of going to a show like this with a child is that children tend to see things that adults might easily pass by. Such was the case with one of the first things Jake noticed: the Mighty Mug, which advertises itself (foolishly, it turns out) as a device that is practically accident proof. “Never Spill Again” is its motto.
Jake took this as a challenge. “They say it can’t be knocked over,” he said. “How could it not be knocked over?”
En route to the Mighty Mug, mind you, we had already been waylaid several times. The housewares show is a big tent where brand-name manufacturers rub elbows with lesser-known companies like Arrow Plastic, a decidedly unflashy outfit from suburban Chicago.
It was there that Jake discovered the Sip-A-Bowl, a product whose name pretty much sums it up: It is plastic, it is a bowl and it has a straw that allows the user to consume the bowl’s contents without using those pesky spoon things.