By Amy Hoak, MarketWatch
CHICAGO (MarketWatch) — Some big home-appliance manufacturers will be conspicuous by their absence from the International Builders’ Show this week, a sign that the new-home market is still weak, despite some recent improvement in employment and other economic indicators.
For suppliers to the building industry, the trade show used to be a can’t-miss event. To dazzle potential builder customers, companies would invite celebrity chefs to cook on their ranges. The enticing smell of baking cookies would draw attendees to take a look at one oven or another.
Foreclosure investing: How one company does it
Buying foreclosures to turn them into rental properties is tricky business. Mack Companies,
in Chicago, invests in about one out of every 40 homes it inspects. MarketWatch’s Amy Hoak looks at why some make the cut and others don’t.
More home-buying advice
• The top 10 most walkable cities
• 5 cities where home prices will rise this year
• Best cities to invest in rental homes
• Top 10 cities for foreclosures
Top tricks to sell your home if all else fails
Five red flags when buying short-sale homes
• Why you can’t get the lowest mortgage rates
• Refinancing window reopens for some
• New mortgage fees mean costlier loans
A 15-year mortgage isn’t for everyone
record low mortgage rates help you?
mistakes to avoid
reoccupies foreclosed home
• Where small houses are big sellers
• How to get your house a TV makeover
• Organize your small spaces
• Kitchens that make cooking fun
• Homes that help you as you age
kitchen on a budget
See the entire MarketWatch Guide to Real Estate
But big brands such as Whirlpool, GE
, Kenmore and others will be noticeably absent from the show when it kicks off this week in Orlando, a sign that — despite improving home-builder confidence over the past several months — this is a market still in the doldrums. For many exhibitors, this is the first year in a while that they’ve skipped the annual trade event.
“We had a couple of large companies, especially appliance companies, that won’t be exhibiting this year,” said Mark Pursell, senior vice president for exhibitions, marketing and sales at the National Association of Home Builders. In an industry as concentrated as appliances, there can be a tendency to “follow the herd” — when big companies decide not to attend, others tend to follow suit, Pursell added.
“We think they will be back at IBS once they’re convinced that the market is coming back,” he said.
About 900 exhibitors had committed to the show as of last week, compared with about 1,000 in 2011, according to NAHB.
Last year in the U.S. an estimated 302,000 new single-family homes were sold, a record low and 6.2% below total sales in 2010, when 323,000 homes were sold, according to the Commerce Department .
Read more: December new-home sales dip to end worst-ever year.
Yet builder confidence, while still low, has been on the rise in recent months: The NAHB/Wells Fargo housing market index rose to 25 in January, the fourth month in which the number rose and the highest level since June 2007. And as of last week, attendee registration for the Builders’ Show was up 15% from the same time last year, according to NAHB.
Read more: Home-builder gauge hits 4.5-year high.
Given how much home builders are relying on a turnaround in the economy for a sustained improvement in business, it’s fitting that one of the big-name speakers at the event is Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke, who is scheduled to address the conference on Friday.
It’s harder to say whether a pullback in new construction has also caused suppliers to scale back their new-product offerings.
“My sense is across all of our exhibitors that there has been some sort of slowdown in new product development. It’s not true of every company, but I’m not hearing the buzz about new products as I did when [the market] was booming,” Pursell said.
But while Delta Faucet Co. is skipping the trade show this year, it’s not for lack of new product, according to the company’s president, Richard O’Reagan. He went on to list a variety of new offerings, including beverage faucets as well as new design finishes, one of the most buzz-worthy being a faucet designed by Jason Wu — the fashion designer responsible for First Lady Michelle Obama’s inauguration ball gown.
Delta’s reason for skipping the show: Business lately has been concentrated mainly on repair and remodel customers, and events such as the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show are more geared to that audience, O’Reagan said. It’s also worth mentioning that exhibitors usually have to commit to a trade show six to eight months in advance, he added.
There’s another factor at play, too: For some home suppliers, instead of displaying products at trade shows, they’re bringing customers to their own permanent spaces.
Delta’s new showroom in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart has been one of the company’s more successful ways to market to builders, designers and other customers, O’Reagan said. The company’s Dream2O showroom offers a more “experiential” place for them to interact with the products.
“We’ve seen people stay for 45 minutes, turning on and off the water to see how it flows and what the faucet feels like in their hands,” he said.
, parent company to brands including Maytag, Amana and KitchenAid, also opened a 27,500 square foot “World of Whirlpool Corporation” facility in Chicago last year, “a destination for designers, customers, sales trainees, industry influencers and media,” said Whirlpool spokeswoman Kristine Vernier, in an email.
“The space not only allows us to present new products, but also to more easily present proprietary product, to show product in use — actually doing laundry and cooking meals — and to get feedback from key trade customers year round. These are just some of the benefits that a trade show environment did not provide to us,” she wrote.
Home energy, technology
While some of the usual suspects won’t be courting builders at the show this week, Pursell said there is expected to be a large presence of energy efficiency and technology related companies at the show. It’s expected that iPads will also be in abundance, being used for everything from apps to help builders manage their projects to programs that allow a home’s heating and cooling, lights and more to be controlled from the screen, Pursell said.
Add GE to portfolio
Add WHR to portfolio
Amy Hoak is a MarketWatch reporter based in Chicago.