Chinese consumers have a particular relationship to refrigerators. They don’t see them merely as boxes that quietly preserve perishable items. Indeed, to many Chinese people, refrigerators have special social and status functions and, as 86% of Chinese households have fridges, this is an area of significant business. In 2011, Haier, the Chinese consumer electronics and home appliances company, began thinking about their next-generation fridges and approached Continuum for guidance. The company sought to create an appliance that would meet the needs and desires of its upwardly mobile consumers, and set us the task of creating the product that would delight and serve them best.
Research & Insights
A Cool Status Symbol
To Chinese consumers, the dream refrigerator was one that revealed one’s undeniable social ascent—a fridge that reflected true elegance and taste. Such a product, we saw, would need a furniture-like dimension, and should unmistakably emanate a notion of class. As prospective buyers expressed a preference for Western-style aesthetics, we chose the side-by-side design—but understood that this version needed special, useful features to attract the proper attention.
New Home, and Role, for the Fridge
Often, fridges in affluent Chinese households live not in the kitchen but in areas that were more social, such as the living room and dining room. Haier’s new appliance, therefore, needed to fit perfectly into such social environments and perform somewhat specific roles. This suggested the idea of using modular design and adjustable shelves, which would make it easy for users to highlight “social” items such as drinks, tea, and snacks.
A Vintage Idea
The success of wine cellars in the high-end Chinese market informed our thinking greatly here. We considered fabricating the smart window from insulated glass, a material already widely used in other product platforms, such as wine fridges. This type of door is produced at a reasonable cost, yet still conveys a high-end aesthetic.
With Continuum’s assistance, Haier created the Smart Window Refrigerator, a side-by-side appliance that differs greatly from more conventional refrigerators. The right-hand side of the unit features a vertical panel with different transparency modes. Employing the device’s own interior light, users regulate the light cast on items behind the panel. Salespeople activate the feature as a showroom tool, and guests used it to locate various items in a host’s fridge. When consumers step away from the refrigerator, a proximity sensor causes the appliance to darken automatically. The transparency element also makes the fridge a sustainable product—saving energy that would be wasted by opening the door, and making consumers feel good about their eco-friendly investment.
We’re proud to report that the Haier Smart Window Refrigerator fulfilled its promise. Indeed, this product was supposed to be launched as a Haier Group premium brand exclusively for the Chinese market, but in the end became the flagship product for Haier, helping to elevate and distinguish the global brand.