By ANNE KADET
Davis & Warshow, the high-end Manhattan bath-fixtures showroom, is the kind of place that sells flat-panel TVs for your shower, bathtubs deep enough to drown a killer whale in and sinks so precious they're displayed in glass cases like treasures from King Tut's tomb. But these days, the store's real show stopper, displayed atop a 2-foot pedestal, is a toilet.
Make that a "smart toilet." The Kohler Numi, a toilet/bidet, comes with a touch-screen pad that controls everything from the built-in stereo's treble output to the seat temperature and rear dryer pressure. The lid rises in greeting as you approach, and a floor heater keeps your toes toasty on a cold winter morning. The price: $6,390.
Smart toilets have long been the rage in Japan, where 70 percent of households have commodes that play music, heat your seat and flush themselves. So far, Americans have resisted the trend, preferring to stick with 19th-century toilet technology. But the U.S. kitchen and bath industry, which relies heavily on new home construction, has been struggling and is desperate to goose spending. Since most people who would buy a Viking range or Thermador dishwasher already have one, the toilet remains the final frontier. Barbara Higgens, executive director of Plumbing Manufacturers International, says the fancy commode technology may persuade Americans to upgrade their toilets just like they do their cell phones and laptops.
It's not just Kohler offering high-end toilets. Japanese manufacturer Inax recently entered the U.S. market with the $5,900 Regio, which comes programmed with nature sounds (chirping birds, a babbling brook) and an ion-emitting air purifier. Toto offers the Neorest, which has a sound-masking white-noise function.
They won't be an easy sell. The typical American spends $250 on a toilet, and even designer bowls tap out at around $1,200. But plumbing makers, who plan to market the new high-tech models using suit-clad salespeople in fancy showrooms, say they can sell $6,000 toilets to the same folks who buy Sub-Zero refrigerators and Jacuzzi tubs -- those who want the best of everything. The Numi, for example, is being touted as "truly the ultimate flushing experience." In postrecession America, of course, shoppers demand value. So companies plan to recycle the pitch they used in past years to sell Americans on $10,000 mattresses: This is a product you use every day.
Beyond the showroom, fixture manufacturers hope all the gee-whiz technology they've packed into the toilets will help the products sell themselves. David Krakoff, SVP of sales at Toto USA, says that once you get a smart toilet, dinner parties inevitably end in the bathroom, where everyone gathers to admire the commode. "The only thing that stands in the way of almost everyone wanting one of these is the opportunity to try one out," he says.
We'll see. While just 15,000 or so smart toilets were sold in the U.S. last year, Paul Burghardt, Inax senior regional sales manager, predicts that by 2021 a quarter of U.S. homes will host a smart toilet. And who knows where the technology will take us? Burghardt envisions a time when all our toilets will be wired, sending urine-test results to our bosses: "Imagine what that will do for employment!" he says. I can barely contain myself.
Corrections & Amplifications
In the version of this story that appears in the August issue of SmartMoney Magazine, the names Davis & Warshow and Paul Burghardt were misspelled.