The annual consumer electronics confab used to be the premier gathering place for the world's largest technology names. But those companies are increasingly sitting out or scaling back while a wave of non-tech brands are elbowing their way in.
The hodgepodge of companies at this year's International CES and smaller side events underscores the evolving nature of the convention, and of the tech industry. Nowadays, with 65% of U.S. households owning smartphones, "everybody becomes a tech company," said Shawn DuBravac, chief economist of the Consumer Electronics Assn., which produces CES.
DuBravac said it's the most diverse mix of brands he has seen in his decade of attending the convention, noting that nine out of the top 10 automakers are exhibitors. Among the other unusual attendees: mattress makers, furniture retailers, insurance providers and entertainment memorabilia vendors.
"These companies want to be at the show because they recognize that whether it's in-vehicle or food orders or whatever it is, technology has moved up as a priority for consumers," he said. "Brands are becoming more technologically sophisticated, so it's natural for them to be at CES."
Pizza Hut turned heads with its booth at Pepcom's Digital Experience, a technology showcase that occurs every year during CES.
"We're getting a lot of attention," said Caroline Masullo, Pizza Hut's director of digital experience. "We have a lot of people coming up and saying, 'Really? Pizza Hut?' "
But it shouldn't be a surprise, Masullo said, noting that the Plano, Texas, chain gets about 40% of its orders online, half of them from mobile devices.
The fast-food restaurant chain — with its booth in a crowded central location amid companies displaying toy robots, game consoles and external hard drives — was at the event to celebrate its 20th year of offering pizza ordering online. Computer monitors showed what its website looked like two decades ago.
It was Pizza Hut's first time at CES, but Masullo hinted that the company might make it a regular trip to stay on top of the latest technologies, which could include new ways to order pizza.
"If you're going to be a big e-commerce player, this is the place to be," she said. "This is where all the companies are, and we need to be on the cutting edge for our consumers' sake. So I think we should always have a presence."
Several companies said the line between tech and non-tech brands is becoming blurred as mobile devices permeate consumers' lives and Internet connectivity makes its way into everyday products. As technology extends its reach, companies that weren't traditionally part of the consumer electronics industry are looking to plug in.
So coming to CES, they said, was a smart business move. In some cases they are developing tech-related products and are hoping to meet developers or interested consumers who might help them shape their ideas; others were already ready to reveal their innovations.
Bicycle manufacturer Schwinn attended the CES Unveiled preview event Sunday to debut a smart bike navigator device that sits on a bicycle's handlebars.
United Healthcare, meanwhile, is occupying a 3,000-square-foot exhibitor booth in the Las Vegas Convention Center to promote its online appointment booking service and other digital initiatives.
On Wednesday, Domino's and Ford are scheduled to appear together to demonstrate a new platform that will enable customers to place pizza orders from their car using Domino's mobile app and the Ford Sync in-car connectivity system.
Discount giant Target sent teams of employees to CES to "keep a pulse on the industry," meet with vendors and to improve its assortment of electronics, a spokeswoman said.
For CES, the influx of new companies has reinvigorated the trade show, calming speculation from the last few years that the weeklong convention was losing steam.
All told, 3,200 exhibitors are at CES this year, covering more than 2 million square feet of exhibit space — the largest show floor in its history.