In a recent issue of The M.I.T. Sloan Management Review, Michael Schrage, a business writer and an M.I.T. researcher, challenged the thinking of a prominent Columbia Business School professor. More specifically, he challenged what Bruce Greenwald, whose work focuses on finance and investing, has said about the fate of all innovative technologies: “In the long run, everything is a toaster.” That is to say, even the most impressive breakthrough eventually becomes mundane, with all producers offering more or less identical versions of the same item and competing largely on the basis of price: innovation runs its course, and the thing becomes a commodity.
Schrage’s article, “The Myth of Commoditization,” argued that not only is this not true of technological breakthroughs, it’s not even true of toasters. “Heated bread lacks the high-tech cachet of multicore processors or polymerase chain reactions,” he wrote, but the “technical evolution” of toasters offers a “case study in profitable innovation.” The Back to Basics Egg & Muffin Toaster seems to offer pretty good evidence in his argument’s favor. With a retail price of around $40 (double the typical price of a plain old toaster), it was a top-selling toaster in 2006, and that seems to be largely because of what makes it distinct in the category. As the name implies, it’s a toaster with a built-in egg poacher.
Schrage did not mention this particular innovation but listed plenty of others since the 1905 “technical breakthrough that made modern toasters possible”: an alloy called Nichrome that worked well as a heating element. The Toastmaster brought the pop-up feature to the masses in the 1920s. “Fully automatic” toasters came along in the 1940s. These improvements begat the Pop-Tart, while a growing appetite for bagels inspired wider slots. “The 1990s introduced low-cost silicon chips to regulate toaster temperatures and intelligence better,” he wrote.
Nevertheless, sales figures offer some evidence in Greenwald’s favor: of the 12.3 million toasters bought in 2006, half were in the $20-or-less range, according to NPD Group, a collector of retail data. That’s pretty firmly in the territory of price-driven commodity buying. And at least some of Schrage’s examples — wider slots, more slots, new colors and shapes — fall a little short of what many of us think of as innovation. Ed Lieber, of Home World Business, a trade publication, notes that design and aesthetics have been important drivers of toaster sales in recent years — but often these are just the sorts of developments that are instantly imitated by all competitors. A brushed or polished stainless-steel look was new a few years ago; now it’s widespread. A review of toaster history in American Heritage of Invention & Technology magazine a couple of years ago described recent toaster improvements as “unexciting”: Aesthetics aside, “modern toasters aren’t dramatically different from their forebears of half a century ago.”
And yet, the most robust growth in toaster sales in 2006 was among products at the higher end of the price spectrum, according to Peter Goldman, president of the NPD Group’s home business unit. So even if Greenwald has a point in suggesting that yesterday’s innovation quickly becomes today’s standard feature, there are certainly consumers who want something different in their kitchen appliances and will pay extra to get it. Such consumers, it turns out, are the explicit target of Back to Basics, which also makes things like a smoothie blender with a container that doubles as a mug. Melissa Clyne, a spokeswoman for the company, says the Egg & Muffin Toaster was a result of one of the company’s regular brainstorming sessions in 2005. In this case, someone brought in an egg poacher, and after some discussion the idea was has hatched to mush it onto a toaster. “It gives the toaster some added functionality,” she explains. “We have a lot of folks out there who are multitasking.” Before the year was out, the product was selling briskly at Wal-Mart, Target and other stores.
The Egg & Muffin Toaster speaks equally to the march of toaster innovation and to the difficulty of it. Improving a product by simply attaching another product to it seems a little like cheating. But the device was a finalist for this year’s Housewares Design Awards, and more to the point, the market has spoken, and its message is that this innovation — while it may not rate as breakthrough status — is, to some, worth paying for. As Clyne notes, the Egg & Muffin toaster is being tweaked with even newer options. Like more slots. And a version with a stainless-steel finish. But those innovations will, of course, cost you extra.
This essay was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, April 8, 2007.