Rice Cookers Heating Up Broader Market Appeal

Healthier eating is renewing a category already getting a boost from stay-at-home consumers

Rice cookers, a strong niche business for several years that has flirted with bigger healthy-eating-fueled crossover into the mainstream cooking electrics market, has seen a dramatic spike in sales through e-commerce and at mass market stores open during the coronavirus, according to vendors and market research firms.

This latest boost finds rice cookers, historically a staple of ethnic households in the U.S., widening its appeal across demographic lines. And while lower-priced, basic rice cookers have been a big contributor to the category’s recent boom, observers say increasing demand for the product has opened awareness to higher-priced cookers with added capabilities and versatility that cater to healthier at-home lifestyles.

Many anticipate the recent rice cooker surge could herald a longer-lasting renewal of the category as shifting consumer cooking habits endure beyond the lifting of stay-at-home restrictions.

Consumption levels of rice across the U.S. were on the rise well before COVID-19 pandemic. Statistics show that Americans on average consume about 26 pounds of rice annually compared with the Chinese, who eat about 300 pounds of rice each year.

Various styles of rice have gained favor with a growing number of consumers with nutritional and dietary needs, such as gluten-free eating. According to the USA Rice Federation, rice offers 15 nutrients and anti-oxidants, calorie intake is low at 100 calories per ½-cup and 1-cup of brown rice equals two servings of whole grains. In addition, rice is inexpensive, costing about $0.10 per serving.

Competition from countertop multi-cookers and other kitchen electrics promoting versatility in recent seasons had cut into sales of pure-play rice cookers. Sales of rice cookers declined over the past two years, with 2019 dollars decreasing 4% and unit sales down 5%, according to HomeWorld Business estimates.

Rice cooker suppliers noted while there had been some erosion of sales of lower-priced units the past couple of years in the face of competition from multi-cookers priced less than $100, sales of rice cookers at higher pricepoints have held up well.

Popular, updated functions allow users to program the units for specific types of rice, including conventional white rice, brown rice, wild rice, jasmine rice, Spanish rice and even exotic black rice, which is touted as one of the latest “superfoods.” These types of rice require different cooking times and temperatures, which are often offered as pre-sets.

Programmable settings and the addition of inner steamer baskets also allow users to use the cookers as steamers, perfect for sushi rice, sticky rice, oatmeal, porridge and cakes, as well as cooking several different types of foods at once: meat, fish or vegetables can be placed in the steamer basket to cook at the same time.

Additional desirable features include easy-to-read LCD control panels, automatic and delay timers, keep warm settings, rapid-cook sequences, automatic reheating cycles, and lid designs for improved monitoring. Newer, connected rice cookers allow users to search and download recipes online, as well as program the units using a mobile phone.