Though they’ve been big in Japan for decades, Covid-19 has accelerated Australians’ curiosity about ‘alternative toileting devices’
Before the Great Toilet Paper Shortage, alternative means of washing were not top of mind for most Australians. We laughed at the eccentricity of the French with their peculiar, rather-too-intimately fastidious bidets. Then, in March, Google searches for bidets skyrocketed by at least 1,000%.
Having a French mother, I was more familiar with their low slung, stocky design, but not with its origins. I always assumed it had been invented by a Monsieur Bidet. But non, it turns out that the word originates from the term for a pony which makes sense, given that it is straddled like one.
Bidets take up space, so it was inevitable that someone would come up with a more efficient solution. In 1957 the Swiss inventor Hans Maurer combined the bidet and toilet.
Many years later, his idea took off on the other side of the world. Anyone returning from a holiday in Japan talks about the fancy toilets: electronic ones whose lids lift on approach, and have special features such as seat warming, glowing night lights in the bowl and various washing and drying modes that make toilet paper redundant. By 2002, nearly half of Japanese homes had one. Often they are rented, serviced and deep cleaned every few months. Many of these are made by Toto, the manufacturer of the most sophisticated conveniences on the market.
The Japanese brand has pioneered the design of techy toilets since 1980, with sleek remote-controlled units (the latest model, the Neorest NX, is a sculptural shape that resembles an egg) and special features including a feminine wash setting, deodorising charcoal filter, patented ceramic glaze for optimal bowl surface hygiene, and “tornado” triple jet flush.
Since toilet paper panic buying began, Toto’s New South Wales distributor reports an increase in inquiries of “around 200%”, according to Randall Cadby, their managing director. Google data also shows that searches for “smart toilets” in Australia spiked to their highest point since tracking began in 2004.
Though Cadby says sales have slowed as the crisis continues, there’s enough interest in, and concern around “alternative toileting devices” that the Queensland Building and Construction Commission issued a public warning on 8 April, stating that “the failure to properly install these products, including installation of a suitable backflow prevention device, may lead to water supply contamination, posing serious risks to health and safety”.
Toto’s smart toilets start at $9,000. Professional installation aside, Cadby says that “there are cheaper options than the latest state-of-the art electronic model”.
Reece Plumbing, Australia’s biggest retailer of bathroom ware, sells a cheaper range by Spanish brand Roca at around $3,800 with fewer bells and whistles. Meanwhile, at the lower end of the market, Bunnings sells washlets with spray nozzles for around $400.
When it comes to innovation, competition between brands is fierce. Korean brands such as Pristine and Uspa developed child-friendly settings and an enema wash feature. Then came so-called turbo washes (a “therapeutic” jet of warm water that manufacturers claim offers relief from constipation).
When Toto learned that its female clientele were embarrassed by the sound of bodily functions and flushed twice to cover those noises, it created a “modesty button” that produces the sound effect of a waterfall to prevent embarrassment in public toilet stalls.
Toto takes its R&D so seriously that it has a team of toilet testers who wear mobility-restricting suits to ensure their design is disability friendly. Small wonder their products are especially popular with older people, who find reaching back to wipe difficult. In 2019, Cadby estimates that the disabled and elderly represented 40% of sales.
It is possible that toilet paper shortages have simply accelerated a trend that was already gaining ground. “Channel Nine’s The Block … is a good indicator of popularity within our market. In the 2019 season, four out of five of the properties featured a Roca Inspira smart toilet,” says Reece’s marketing leader, Daniela Santilli.
Personally, I first heard of smart toilets when an environmentalist friend threw a party to celebrate his 70th birthday, and spent more time raving about his loo than his family. “You never need to buy toilet paper again,” he enthused, prophetically.
Toto’s NSW distributor also reports a steady increase in sales to premium developers, hotels, casinos and restaurants. “We’re at the National Press Club in Canberra,” says Cadby, without irony.
“Some of our customers are pretty passionate about their toilets. I know a lawyer who converted the space where he kept a filing cupboard so he could fit one in for his exclusive use. And a couple I know fought over who would get the toilet during their divorce proceedings.”