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Electronics

No bells and whistles: Panasonic cuts down on appliance functions

Japanese electronics giant finds consumers don't want complex features

New rice cookers from Panasonic let users swap functions with their smartphones. (Photo courtesy of Panasonic)

OSAKA -- Panasonic will offer rice cookers and microwave ovens that let users add functions via the internet later, in response to customer feedback revealing that many of the features packed into such products go unused.

Customers who buy the new rice cookers choose three modes from a lineup of 25 -- including brown rice and rice for freezer storage -- and install them using smartphones. Just like with smartphone apps, users can swap functions based on family composition and lifestyle.

"Even if there are multiple modes, customers actually only use two or three," a Panasonic marketing manager said.

The new microwaves carry only basic functions like reheat and defrost. Users who want to grill or steam food must buy separate grilling plates and steaming pots, and then download those functions. In a Panasonic survey, 60% of consumers said their current microwaves have many functions they never use.

The rollout of those products comes as Panasonic faces tough competition from companies, such as Iris Ohyama and Nitori Holdings, that are bolstering the line up of low-priced, high-function offerings. China's Haier is also drawing consumers with cost-competitive products. 

Panasonic's new rice cookers are expected to have a price tag of around 45,000 yen ($407) while the microwaves sell for about 65,000 yen. The prices will be roughly half those of high-end models, yet the models possess comparable basic capabilities.

Panasonic's appliances business generated sales of about 2.5 trillion yen, or roughly $22.6 billion, in fiscal 2020, nearly 40% of the Japanese company's total. The segment's operating profit margin doubled from the prior year to 4.2% as people stayed home amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senior Managing Executive Officer Masahiro Shinada credited the surge in profit margin to "wind assistance," using the track and field term to acknowledge that extraordinary circumstances boosted the figure.

Panasonic and Japan's other major appliance manufacturers have long competed to add more value to their products.

"But the entire industry has become tired of the cutthroat spec and price race, which isn't in the interest of consumers," said Shigeru Dohno, vice president of the appliances company within Panasonic.

In July, Panasonic launched four new services that combine the rental of a high-end rice cooker and regular deliveries of premium rice or a bread machine and shipments of bread mix, at a monthly cost of 3,980 yen. The company aims to interest consumers in new appliances by letting them try out the items with low initial costs. 

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