‘Accidental Remodelers’ Offer New Challenges

A little more than a week after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the Gulf states, I overheard two well-dressed businessmen discussing the impact of the hurricane – or at least the impact as they perceived it. They were worried about their stock portfolios and airline delays, drinking $16 martinis while complaining about the price of gas.

“Well, I’m sure the remodeling industry will be happy, at least” said one. “It’s not personal to them, and they’ll make out like bandits.”

With great difficulty, I refrained from stalking over to the table and pouring my drink over his head while I explained just how personal it was to all of us in this industry. How many of us have friends, family and colleagues who suffered terrible losses. How many businesses were destroyed, in our industry as well as numerous others. And how the kitchen and bath market has banded together to aid in relief efforts. (see related Katrina Industry Update)

Even those of us in this industry who were unscathed by the storm itself know that it’s personal – in many ways, more personal to our industry than most. After all, when natural disasters strike, the people in our industry are the ones who rebuild – not just homes, but dreams, and lives. And if that’s not personal, I don’t know what is.

Our homes are at the heart of who we are. And maybe because of that, they sustain us in ways far beyond what any inanimate object can do.

So, when homes are destroyed, the damage is so much more than just financial. “Stuff” can be replaced, but to many people, losing their home is like losing a part of who they are.

It’s why remodeling is such an age-old passion. The connection between home and self is very primal, with our homes speaking to who we are, and who we hope to be. It’s why, in essence, when we recreate our space, we begin to recreate ourselves.

When people talk about the effects of natural disasters on our industry, they tend to think in terms of dollars. But what you rarely hear – and what’s far more critical – is the psychological impact. Sudden, unexpected losses change the very face of our industry, and the face of the people we serve. They create a whole new breed of consumer, one who brings greater needs, greater stress, greater expectations to the table. As a result kitchen and bath designers and remodelers must stretch themselves to become part designer, part psychologist, part educator, part friend and part Fairy Godmother, helping people to not only accept the changes forced upon them, but to try to build something that will make their lives better out of the ashes.

It’s not an easy task. Remodeling can be stressful in the best of times. And, while we’ve long grown accustomed to educated consumers, the “accidental remodelers” spawned by natural disasters haven’t been shopping showrooms and browsing magazines, planning the “big event.” They may be ready to remodel physically, but emotionally, they’re far from ready. Not for a big change, not for the “sticker shock” of finding out what it all costs, not for making sweeping changes in their environment at a time when what they crave most is stability.

And these “accidental remodelers” don’t just come from accidents of nature. They may arrive on your doorstep out of an unexpected need to replace a major appliance, which drives an entire kitchen remodel (see Consumer Buying Trends), or fresh from buying a house, only to discover after moving in that the previous homeowner was less than honest about the state of things, and now they may face anything from termite damage to major electrical or plumbing repairs.

Yet these clients share one thing in common: They need hand holding. They may have a lot of pent up anger – at Mother Nature, at that refrigerator that dropped dead the day after the warranty expired, at the guy who sold them the house who told them everything was fine…except it wasn’t.

Unfortunately, there’s little outlet for this anger, so the designer is left to defuse it – or survive it.

The good news is that, when you take a client in crisis and help that client through the overwhelming process of remodeling or even rebuilding, you’re also helping to rebuild lives. You may even be helping clients to recreate themselves.

It’s a chance to make a huge difference in someone’s life…and a chance to win the kind of customer loyalty that’s impossible to buy. And that, I’m convinced, is about as personal as it gets.