Studio Offers Lessons in Design and Process

We can learn about showroom design in so many ways – by visiting our competitors’ showrooms, by looking at retailing spaces of related businesses or by attending seminars and educational conferences. And sometimes, innovative ideas come from manufacturers breaking new ground.

An excellent example of this would be an unconventional product showroom operated by Whirlpool Corp., which treats consumers in the Atlanta area to a shopping experience like no other. Since late 2002, when Whirlpool opened its ‘Insperience’ Studio, shoppers have enjoyed access to a completely interactive atmosphere where they can test and try Whirlpool and KitchenAid brand appliances before they buy them.

While the concept of an interactive or “live” showroom may not be new, the execution of the Insperience Studio can provide valuable lessons to kitchen and bath dealers.

The process begins when shoppers – who visit by appointment only – experience the spa-like entrance of the 12,000-sq.-ft. showroom and are greeted by a concierge. The immediate impression – luxury and personal attention – is one that is sure to appeal to consumers.

Shoppers then are escorted to the “Hearth Room,” a comfortable, calming area where they can sit and relax with a beverage while an unhurried brand immersion specialist initiates a relationship with them, asking a series of questions to determine their wants and needs according to their lifestyle.

Once this information is obtained, consumers are allowed to choose which path (Whirlpool, KitchenAid, Maytag or Jenn-Air) to explore, based on the information about their lifestyle experience. Finally, shoppers are led to one of seven specific working kitchens (or one laundry demonstration area), where they are encouraged to cook a meal or do a load of laundry, comparing and experimenting to ensure their satisfaction.

It is important to note that while Whirlpool-manufactured brands are featured at the Insperience Studio, consumers cannot buy them directly from this outlet. Instead, the company uses the facility as a source of influence for consumers in the midst of the decision making process.

This facet of the operation creates a unique, no-pressure environment in which consumers are urged to take their time to complete valuable research before deciding to buy. This allows customers to view staff as partners in their quest, rather than as adversaries trying to “push” something on them.

After the customers have done their research, if they wish to purchase a product featured at the studio, their product choices are communicated to a trade partner to complete the sale.

Of course, such a ground-breaking concept couldn’t be simply thrown into the marketplace and expected to succeed on its own. Whirlpool conducted years of research and planning to ensure a truly unique shopping experience. What started as one person’s idea was shepherded through the company’s patented Innovation process, and soon, 150 employees had a stake in its success, offering opinions and gathering data. The entire process, from concept to bricks and mortar opening, took a total of 18 months.

Making Shopping Appealing

David Provost, purchase experience director for the Insperience Studio and Maytag Stores, says the origins of the facility were born of research around the shopping experience. Provost says one thing was clear from the research: “People don’t like shopping for appliances. One comparison we heard was, ‘It’s like shopping for a shovel; it’s a necessary evil.’”

Knowing this, the focus of the project quickly became teaching the consumer how to shop. “We began to recognize why people hated [shopping for appliances],” says Jerry Sullivan, brand immersion specialist. “Then we had to figure out how to make sure – in a sea of such vast opportunity – the consumer is not lost.”

The same concept can be applied to shopping for a kitchen or bath, where the flood of choices can make the experience more exhausting than exhilarating for many consumers. So, how do kitchen and bath dealers create a showroom that’s fun to shop in? This can be a challenge, and may require thinking outside the box.

For the Whirlpool team, it meant bringing in the professionals at Minneapolis-based Star Exhibits, where Star Exhibits creative director Marsha Lynn says the objective was to create a shopping experience that was the opposite of typical. “We had to incorporate the essence of a firm, steady corporation with a brand focus consumers would recognize,” she says.

The design process resulted in an entirely new entity – a “studio” – not just a showroom. “It was really important that the brands were brought to life,” so much so, Lynn says, that the design team wanted people “to feel as if they are walking into the brand.”

This effect was accomplished through careful attention to detail. “Every surface and detail within each kitchen was chosen to enhance understanding of the brand,” Lynn adds. All the while, the design ultimately had to focus on the customer’s needs and desires.

“We made it as multi-purpose as possible to get the most value from the space,” Lynn says. “The studio encompasses training and supplies an event center for organizations, dealers, builders and designers, along with serving its main purpose of providing a space where customers can go in and experience, try, find and discover.”

The results are tactical, yet decidedly customer-centric and logical. Consumers are allowed to orient themselves in one space at a time, but if, after trying it, they decide an appliance in that space is not for them, alternatives are close at hand. Studio manager and executive chef Joel Saxon explains, “People are allowed to compare and contrast within the same kitchen and common aspects are kept within close proximity. For instance, at big-box stores, refrigerators are all shown at the same depth. Here, consumers can see the difference in [refrigerator] depth as well as the difference in gas versus smooth-top electric cooktops. They can even roast a chicken or bake a cake to totally understand the aspects of convection.”

Lynn adds, “The experience is very intuitive because there’s feedback from the appliances. Customers know what they’re getting when they can touch, see, feel and try on working appliances.”

People can even test real-life situations, Saxon says, remembering a couple who chose to come in and conduct their own cook-off, followed by a clean-off. In addition, the close contact with actual users garners useful feedback. “We hear comments during the interaction, such as, ‘Nice refrigerators, but I wish you did this….’ It’s very important for us to learn these things and communicate them to corporate so we can develop and produce better products,” he notes.

Perhaps most importantly, the laid-back atmosphere enables consumers to feel at home. They seem more relaxed, shoulders down, smiles on their faces, Provost says, which lets the products sell themselves. “There’s a direct correlation between the length of time spent shopping and number of units sold,” he adds.

Lessons for Dealers

So what lessons can kitchen and bath dealers and designers take from this design studio concept?

Several key ideas immediately come to mind:

  • “Try before you buy” is an increasingly important concept when selling appliances. How can you tailor your showroom and/or sales process to incorporate this useful tool?
  • Let the consumers lead, but be prepared to serve them.
  • Make it easy for your consumers. Don’t run them from one corner of your showroom to the next. Plan adjacent areas for easy comparisons.
  • Don’t overwhelm the consumer with literature. Make comparisons concise.
  • Make the process as fun as possible. Involve the entire family to make the experience more enjoyable and less like a chore.
  • The longer consumers spend in your showroom, the more likely they are to buy. Create an atmosphere that is relaxed, easy to navigate and enjoyable to spend time in.
  • Create a low-pressure environment where you and your staff are seen as partners in the educational process, not as adversaries who are trying to push them into making a purchase.
  • Gain feedback from your customers – whether or not they ultimately buy – to help you continually improve your showroom.
  • Elevate the consumer’s sense of importance by allowing him or her the ability to make an appointment to visit your showroom. During the appointment, offer him or her your undivided attention to assist in making product comparisons and selections.

By employing these techniques, you can transform your own showroom into a more experience-oriented destination, making it a more desirable place for your customers to spend time in.

Read past columns on Inside Today’s Showroom by Sarah Reep, and send us your comments about this story and others by logging onto the Kitchen & Bath Design News’ Web site, located at www.kitchenbathdesign.com.

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