Looking Inside Your Client's Heart and Mind

Michael Silverstein knows a thing or two about the American consumer.

He knows, for example, that today's consumers are feeling more stressed, more tired, more insecure and more time-starved than ever.

He knows, too, that consumers readily make trade-offs when it comes to their purchases, but are willing to pay top dollar for a select group of products that provide them with genuine functional and emotional benefits.

Silverstein also knows that the willingness to pay premium prices applies not solely to wealthy consumers, but to the vast middle-class - 47 million American households with the discretionary income to purchase the products they deem most important to them.

And he knows that this consumer phenomenon to "trade up" has grown by leaps and grounds in recent years, and now extends across a wide swath of the U.S. economy, impacting industries as diverse as automobiles, restaurants, travel, consumer electronics.

And, of course, the home.

Silverstein knows all this because he's spent a lot of time researching the consumer mindset for a number of books he's co-authored, including the highly touted Trading Up.

A senior v.p. at the Boston Consulting Group - an international consulting firm that offers strategies for customer service and brand management - Silverstein delivered the keynote address at the fourth annual Decorative Plumbing and Hardware Association (DPHA) Convention in September (see DPH Perspectives).

It was a speech from which the entire kitchen and bath industry could certainly go to school on.

In it, Silverstein's described a consumer mindset that, he asserts, is literally reshaping the American marketplace, and accounting for sharp gains in many well-known luxury brands.

It's also a mindset, he suggests, that's presenting enormous opportunities for imaginative and energetic kitchen/bath product marketers.

At the heart of this "trading-up" mentality is a phenomenon Silverstein calls "rocketing," or a situation in which consumers spend far beyond what the expectation might be for a particular product or service, once they've identified it as a true priority for which they're unwilling to compromise.

And, right now, Silverstein suggests, consumers are "rocketing" in the kitchen and bath category.

There are many reasons for this, the management expert observes. Among them is the sharp rise in income experienced by middle-class households during the past 35 years. Other factors include the increased decision-making power of women, rapidly escalating home values and the critical role the home plays as the centerpiece of American life.

Beyond even this, Silverstein says, is a stronger-than-ever desire on the part of consumers to pay premium prices for a select number of products and services that create memorable experiences, evoke welcome emotions and result in a lasting sense of physical and/or spiritual well-being.

That's why people are willing to cough up five bucks for a cup of Starbuck's coffee, or $20,000 for a Rolex watch, or $50,000-plus for a BMW... or way more than that for a remodeled kitchen or bath.

It makes them feel good.

It enables them to spend quality time with the people and things they love, or with themselves.

It evokes special emotions or memories.

It enables them to demonstrate, even if it's only to themselves, that they've arrived... that they have taste... that they appreciate quality... that they can afford, in some areas of their life, not to have to make compromises.

Getting inside the hearts and minds of these consumers, Silverstein notes, is essential for big-time success in today's kitchen and bath industry.

And reaching these consumers, he notes, is not simply about clever marketing or product positioning or special pricing or skillful salesmanship.

In contrast, it's about an honest and insightful effort at consumer discovery: Listening to your customers. Engaging them. Identifying their hopes. Understanding their needs.

It's about being innovative with product, visually stunning with your retail displays, and - ultimately - about obliterating the notion that any competitor can supplant you.

In short, it's about providing the kind of indisputable functional and emotional benefits that will get consumers to reach into their pockets and take out a few extra bucks so they can buy an experience that will last for many years, if not a lifetime.