Paradoxes and the Kitchen & Bath Industry

What are the hottest consumer trends today? Home cooking or eating out? Giant McMansions or downsizing? High-tech shower systems or simple soaking tubs?

The answer to all these questions is yes…and yes. Such is the paradox of understanding today’s consumer.

For every trend, there is a counter trend – and both are equally valid. This new duality marks a significant change in consumer behavior from just a decade ago, when easily identifiable, overarching trends dominated the marketplace.

So writes experienced trend watcher Robyn Waters in her new book, The Hummer and the Mini. Waters, who spoke at this year’s Kitchen/Bath Industry Show in Las Vegas, is the former v.p. of trend, design and product development at mega-retailer Target.

“What’s the next big thing? There is no one trend anymore,” she explains. Instead there are many different ‘next big things.’
“Now we need to look at opposites to spot what’s really going on with consumers. We need to think in terms of paradoxes and be willing to embrace contradictions,” she says.


So, what kind of contradictions are defining consumers in the kitchen and bath market today? Consider the growing number of kitchens with Ikea cabinets and luxury professional-style appliances. Or the women who buy organic foods to stay healthy, yet undergo injections of Botox, a poisonous substance, to acquire a more youthful appearance.

“It is the challenge of each marketer to wrestle with his or her own paradoxes – to ponder what matters most to the specific target audience,” she advises.

This means you, as a kitchen and bath dealer or designer, have to understand your customers on a deeper level today, getting to know them better, and delving more into their psyches. You’ll need to understand their philosophies, values and points of view, not just the size of their family, their tastes and how they use their kitchens or baths.

Waters identifies several paradoxes that are relevant for our industry today.

Old is New Again. “Nostalgia is not just for the elderly anymore,” Waters observes. “Everyone – from kids through baby boomers – has a new-found fondness for ‘the good old days.’”

The key to doing nostalgia successfully, however, is not to copy the old, but to reinterpret it for today.

This yin and yang between the old and the new especially applies to consumers’ homes, where they want modern appliances or electronics but the feel – although not the literal recreation – of a kitchen from another time. Think of a Turbo-Chef oven with retro styling but high-speed technology.

This so-called “memory marketing” is a powerful way to reach kitchen and bath consumers. “Our homes often belong…to another era,” Waters notes.

The “old is new” precept also explains why country kitchens exist in highrises, and suburbanites want industrial, loft-like kitchens. Cabinetry for concealing refrigerators and televisions, china cabinets and unfitted furniture all provide a touch of nostalgia. So can accessories and the food you use to style your showroom.

For that reason, when styling your showroom, you should consider including retro small appliances and linens, or nostalgic sodas and candy such as Bit-o-Honey bars, Coke in bottles, Kraft macaroni and cheese and Twinkies in a chrome pantry.

You can also add traditional faucets, sinks or hardware to contemporary displays.

What are you tearing out today? Pay attention…it will resurface in a few years…or key elements of it will.

Metal cabinets? 1980s laminate? In today’s climate, the old adage, “here today, gone tomorrow,” might be better revised to say, “Here yesterday, gone today, back tomorrow.”

Mass Customization. Tivos, iPods and custom ring tones are all examples Waters cites of the paradox of mass customization. In our industry, semi-custom cabinetry is the epitome of mass customization. That’s because, to a consumer, it’s often how you put the room together that makes it custom.

That same idea can be applied to cooking appliances or the wet area of the kitchen. Combining cooking elements rather than specifying a single appliance can create that custom feel, as can mixing up sink configurations into a clean up center rather than just selecting a specific SKU.

Luxurious Commodity. The luxurious commodity paradox is all about taking something mundane and every day and making it a luxury. Waters cites the revolution of the laundry area from dingy basement to upscale designer room as an example of this.

Talk to your clients about mudrooms, butler’s pantries, garages, closets, kid’s baths, attics and other rooms in the home. Any overlooked and ignored space can be transformed into something that provides luxury and value. Present your clients with better choices in products that they might have considered mundane (toilets, towel bars, switchplates, hardware to name a few) – and give them a reason to add luxury into a previously dull space.

Less is More. Waters points out that, today, the average home is 2,300 sq. ft. versus 1,400 sq. ft in 1970. Yet despite that, family sizes are getting smaller. At the same time, architect Sarah Susanka has created a following with her philososphy of ‘The Not So Big House.”

People opting out of the new-home market because they can’t find small, quality, charming homes are remodeling older, smaller houses they can personalize and customize.

Help your customers find the balance between too little and too much. Look at the niche Viking enjoys with its 24" range that’s big on style and brand appeal.

Less also means less embellishment and a cleaner, simpler approach to all styles – from country to traditional to transitional.

Counterfeit Authenticity. Waters observes that there is a heightened demand for products that are authentic, and at the same time, there’s the counter trend of “in your face fake and proud of it.” Think of the “Virtual Venice” experience at a Las Vegas hotel as a prime example.

Based on this, watch for the celebration – with no apologies – of man-made countertops, and faux cabinet and flooring materials.

Another aspect of this trend is meal assembly, locations where people come together to put together “home-made” meals of pre-prepped ingredients. It’s guilt-free convenience, customization, nostalgia and a social event all at once. It’s also a great idea to incorporate into your showroom as a regular event.

Extreme Relaxation. The busier we get, the more extreme our relaxation, Waters says.

ven kids (and their dolls) are going to spas now. If slow is the new fast, then your clients may want a “Groom Room,” a private space devoted to taking care of themselves. It can be part spa, meditation space, massage area, exercise room, sauna, steam room, movie theater, closet, dressing room, wellness bar, music room and beauty parlor.

Social Capitalism. Even as consumer spending increases, there has been growing interest in the ethical implications of consumption, Waters notes.

Can you assist your clients in guilt-free remodeling by helping them recycle or donate used products? Increasingly, your clients are going to be asking about the origin of products they select and their carbon footprint.

The Good Life?

Waters also writes about the paradox of success or the realization among some consumers that financial success does not necessarily deliver happiness. There may be a backlash coming against extravagance. There has been some national press lately in magazines and newspapers questioning whether high-end appliances and other home products deliver on their promises.

Waters points out that some consumers are beginning to ask themselves, “How much is enough? Gen X and Y are beginning to formulate new visions of what success, or the good life, means to them,” she warns. “They seem to be unwilling to sacrifice everything today in order to accumulate all of the things they once thought they needed tomorrow.”

This may mean that, in the future, luxury products will have to be marketed more for their intrinsic value in enhancing lifestyles and for the improved experiences they provide.

Read past columns on Consumer Insights by Leslie Hart, and send us your comments about this
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