Most overseas trips leave you with picture postcard memories, not the nagging desire to buy a new toilet.
A trip to Japan several years ago opened my eyes to the wonders of smart toilets - automatic flushing, dryers, heated seats, automated deodorizer and warm water bidet-style cleaning. And those are just the entry-level skills.
Now more than ever, intelligent toilets seem the smart choice, especially with the scarcity of toilet paper and the worry that any surface can harbor the new coronavirus. They are smart, sleek and sculptural, the ideal combination of form and function.
TOTO, a Japanese company, and Wisconsin-based Kohler are the two leading producers of intelligent toilets and washlets (bidet-style toilet seats). Both have seen sales volume and awareness increase because of the global pandemic.
"Starting in early March 2020, we saw significant growth in sales. I would say it grew about 10 times more than the previous year," said Nicole Allis, marketing manager at Kohler. "I would absolutely attribute it to the toilet paper shortage."
William Strang, president of corporate strategy and eCommerce for TOTO USA, has seen it, too.
"When COVID hit, we saw a huge groundswell in interest in the washlet seats and fully integrated bidet toilets," he said. "This pandemic has given people the opportunity to address and be concerned a little bit more about hygiene. Smart toilets are the 20th most searched item on Amazon right now."
It took a pandemic for people to realize just how last century their toilets are. Kohler introduced Numi, its first smart toilet, in 2011. "It's our flagship product in this category, being very design- and technology-forward," said Allis.
Since then Kohler has introduced Veil and other models; the company has four automated toilets with similar features but they look very different.
TOTO introduced the automated toilet in the early 1980s and has since sold 50 million worldwide. "When it was introduced in Japan, it was quickly adopted," Strang recalled.
Allis said: "The American culture has been much slower to adapt the technology. It has taken a global pandemic to get this market to turn around."
Humans in general have a history of dragging their derrieres when it comes to upgrading sanitation. The flush toilet had been around since 1596, but it took the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century to bring it into the mainstream.
"Awareness has been an issue in the United States as opposed to Japan, Asia and all of Europe," noted Strang. "I have had an intelligent toilet in my house for 18 years without incident," he said.
In Japan, you can find automated, bidet-integrated toilets in rest stops, gas stations and department stores. They are essentially ubiquitous.
Why has it taken so long for smart toilets to catch on in the United States? Price may be one reason.
Full-service, automated toilets start at just under $6,000. But for $1800 or less you can get a bidet seat with automated cleaning power that fits on any standard toilet, transforming it from a cold, dead 19th-century relic to an electronic, automated and service-oriented utility. Both Kohler and TOTO offer this category.
"We try hard to make sure our bidet seats fit a lot of different toilets," said Allis. "Typically consumers are more concerned about price point than design for a bidet seat."
Washlets or bidet seats may not do as much as its smart toilets, but their cleaning power means less TP used, saving money in the long run.
TOTO's top-of-the-line Neorest toilet sells for well over $17,300. It does just about everything except talk to you.
"It has a process we call Ewater, which helps rinse the bowl after every use and has an ultraviolet light that shines on the surface. It helps improve the bowl's ability to rinse and keep itself tidy," explained Strang.
Kohler's smart toilets range from $3,200 to $13,000, the price tag on the square black Numi 2.0 when it becomes available in the fall. The Numi 2.0 is Alexa-enabled and has a heater in the base to warm your feet as you sit there.
"It allows for more voice control in the bathroom," Allis said.
Kohler is finding that people want to streamline their routine. So while you are in the bathroom, you can listen to your Kindle, play music and listen to the news, weather and traffic via Alexa.
"Personalization is a really important aspect of why people want the bidet feature on their toilets," said Allis.
"We find they have preferences around water temperature, water pressure and the position of where they get washed. So fully personalizing that experience between front and rear and male and female is why we want the user to take control of the experience.
"These products are transformational," Strang said. "It will change the way you live your life."