New Products and Attitudes for 2007

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It’s a little before 11, and I’ve already received three e-mails from my friend Angela. Angela is heavily into the planning of her new kitchen, and is currently in product paradise, sending me hourly updates of the newest products she’s researched on the Internet.

“Have you seen this yet?” she shoots over, with a picture of a “smart” microwave that has more customizable settings than I have food in my refrigerator. “And what about this?” she e-mails a moment later, cutting and pasting a photo of a high-tech oven with a built-in wok and steam cooking capabilities. Since the meals she cooks for her dog are probably healthier and more nutritionally balanced than anything I’ve eaten in the past week, I’m not surprised that she knows her cooking appliances.

But as she discusses her plans for the space, it’s quickly evident that she’s equally well versed in countertops, cabinetry and flooring. And she’s done more than just clip pictures – she’s researched product specs and design themes, cooked on several appliances to get a sense of what best suits her cooking style and even looked at recommended clearances.

We discuss the merits of several of her potential product choices, and I mention a few others that I think she might like. Within minutes, she’s downloaded the specs, Consumer Reports ratings and reviews from other homeowners.

I’m not sure whether to envy or pity her future designer; this woman has done her homework, and it’s going to take a lot of product savvy to win her business. She’s already ruled out one dealership because the showroom displays were “ancient;” she was put off by another because the salesperson “knew less about the appliances than I did.”

For Angela, like many consumers, it’s all about finding the right, cutting-edge products to help personalize her home for the way she lives. And she wants a designer who shares her passion for the latest, greatest new stuff.

It’s one of the reasons it’s so important for designers to keep abreast of the huge influx of products that are constantly redefining our market – and our clients’ homes. In fact, product is so important to today’s design professionals, KBDN has taken the opportunity this month to highlight our readers’ most-asked-about products for 2006 (see related story, "Making A Satement").

But for homeowners like Angela, it goes even beyond great new products. Rather, Angela is representative of a new brand of consumers – research-savvy, product-aware and looking to be a true partner in the project.

Which can be both a blessing and a curse.

The upside of having knowledgeable clients, of course, is that they tend to come with fewer unrealistic expectations, are less prone to sticker shock and are quicker to make decisions and get the project rolling. The downside, as one of my designer friends likes to say, is excess involvement. “You don’t go to a cardiologist for bypass surgery and tell him how to do the procedure, do you? So why do clients think they can do a little research and tell us how to do a job we’ve spent 20 years doing?”

However, whether you love them or hate them, this new breed of consumer is the wave of the future, thanks to design TV, the Internet and our industry’s tremendous rise in visibility in recent years. And that may well mean rethinking the way we do business.

One designer who recognizes this is Bruce Johnson, CKD, of the award-winning design/build firm Lee Kimball (see related story, "Design Firm's 'Selection Centers' Engage Clients"). According to Johnson, “It’s no longer enough to build a collection of kitchen vignettes and think that will inspire clients. They have so much input from shelter magazines, design television networks and the Internet... they want to be partners in the process.” For Johnson, recognizing that meant rethinking everything his business did, from the client’s role in the project to the concept of selling using vignettes.

Today, he works with a new philosophy, encouraging clients to take a hands-on role in the design process through “selection centers” in his showroom that he believes to be far more effective than the traditional showroom. The result, he says, is that clients get more involved, have more fun with the process and ultimately end up with greater satisfaction levels – which results in more referrals and repeat business.

As the year draws to a close, it’s easy to celebrate our accomplishments – but it’s also a great opportunity to plan for the future. Remember, just as the calendar changes, so, too, must our businesses, to make sure we’re staying on top of what’s new. Because it’s not just products that change, it’s consumers, too.

All of us at KBDN wish you a joyous holiday and a happy, healthy and profitable 2007!