NEW YORK (Reuters) - Interior designer Timothy Corrigan had never heard of a “washlet” — until a client asked him to install one of the high-tech Japanese toilets.
When he saw the bidet-style bathroom appliance, equipped with a warm-water spray and other functions to cleanse and coddle posteriors, he was impressed. So impressed, in fact, that he bought one for himself, joining a small but enthusiastic group of Americans with high-tech commodes.
“It’s really the ultimate pampering,” Corrigan said. He has since been recommending the toilet to his other clients, mostly multimillion-dollar homeowners with a taste for luxury.
Japanese toilet maker Toto Ltd (5332.T), in hopes of winning more U.S. converts, launched an advertising campaign this summer to familiarize consumers with its products.
It also wants to convince them that the use of bidet sprays, while odd and intimidating to the uninitiated, is more hygienic and pleasant than using toilet paper.
“Toilet paper just distributes the problem,” said Toto USA spokeswoman Lenora Campos in New York. “Whenever we clean anything else, we wash with water, right?”
Toto is a pioneer of the washlet. The name belongs to its product line Washlet, but is used in Japan as a generic term for all high-tech toilets with bidet functions.
Most washlets come with warm toilet seats, a bidet spray that extends from under the seat to jet warm water, and a dryer, as well as a remote control to adjust toilet seat and water temperatures.
While around 60 percent of Japanese households have a washlet, Toto has had limited success since expanding into the United States in 1990. Customers have been limited mostly to wealthy individuals and a handful of luxury hotels such as New York’s W Hotel in Times Square and corporate customers like the Google (GOOG.O) headquarters.
One obvious deterrent has been the price: a basic washlet that is mounted onto an existing toilet costs a few hundred dollars, while Toto’s top-of-the-line Neorest 600 model is listed at over $5,000.
The biggest obstacle, however, may be a cultural issue — namely an awkwardness with discussing toilet habits and anatomy.
Toto’s campaign hit another snag recently when it was forced to change a billboard advertisement in Times Square after a local church complained of its picture of naked bottoms.
Campos said, however, that the company was optimistic that attitudes would change, with help of its marketing campaign (http://www.cleanishappy.com) as well as word of mouth.
“When people become washlet users, they become washlet evangelists,” she said. “Once you make that leap, you don’t want to go back.”
Tom Slankard, a bathroom appliance salesman specializing in Toto toilets at Western Sales Co. in California, said he was already seeing some changes.
“At first it was like you’re talking about an icky thing. But now people are more matter-of-fact about it,” he said, adding that he now sells around 400 of them per month compared with only 25 several years ago.
Slankard also said that even the more doubting customers are often amazed by the washlet’s features.
The Neorest 600, for example, offers an oscillating spray massage and a catalytic air deodorizer in addition to standard bidet functions.
It is also equipped with sensors that help to automatically open and close the toilet lid and flush as the user walks away.
A built-in algorithm takes note of an owner’s habits so that it can efficiently switch to energy-saving mode, and a special “cyclonic jet” flush helps consumers save water, Toto says.
Campos said the next step may be turning the washlet into a healthcare device. Future models, she said, could measure glucose levels, or even test pregnancy.