'Experiential' Selling Key to Reaching Luxury Market

Another significant work has been published that challenges existing paradigms in the manufacture, distribution and sale of decorative plumbing and hardware. Pam Danziger's Let Them Eat Cake: Marketing Luxury to the Masses as Well as the Classes finds that the key ingredient in selling luxury products is the experience that a product delivers and not the product itself.

She claims: "Luxury isn't just about the thing; it is about the special experience the consumer feels in buying or owning that thing. For these customers, luxury is about achieving a comfortable lifestyle in the material realm, having those things that make life easier, more pleasant and more satisfying' In other words, the luxury lifestyle is not necessarily about money; it's about the experiences and feelings that having enough money can buy."

Danziger's conclusions come from an extensive two-year study of consumer behavior in the luxury market and nearly two decades of developing marketing plans and programs for luxury clients. She reinforces many findings in Trading Up by Michael Silverstein and Neil Fisk, including that the luxury market is greater than many may imagine.

Delivering the Experience
Middle-market consumers will trade up and spend a disproportionate amount of their income if they are emotionally engaged with a product or service. Danziger's research takes this point a step farther. She claims that almost everyone is a new luxury consumer, and these new consumers focus on the experience of luxury embodied in the goods and services they purchase, not their ownership. Simply owning goods to show you've made it no longer applies.

The Baby Boom generation has fueled the shift from conspicuous consumption to the need for products to deliver a luxury experience. Danziger concludes: "They want to experience the good life, and all that goes with it, but they simply do not care if anybody else notices."

Several more of Danziger's conclusions could dramatically affect the decorative plumbing and hardware industry. One in particular is a brand's role in the marketing of luxury goods. Her book reveals that you don't have to have a luxury brand to have a luxury product. "Only 24% of luxury consumers agreed with the statement, 'Luxury is defined by the brand of the product, so if it isn't a luxury brand, it isn't a luxury.'"

Consumers connect with a product's features and the experiences those features deliver. "Luxury ultimately does not reside in' the product," Danziger claims. "Luxury is all about the consumer's experience of it. So, luxury is no longer a noun, but a verb connoting the action and delivery of a luxury experience and feeling to the consumer' The object, thing, brand that delivers the luxury feeling is a catalyst for the feeling, but isn't the cause of the feeling."

Sensory Showrooms
That does not mean brand or reputation are not important, however. Danziger claims the product's brand and the showroom's reputation, combined with price value equations, engage the consumer on the experiential plane.

She also asserts that manufacturers, reps and showroom staffs must now view their products as the "delivery mechanism through which they transmit a luxury experience to the consumer." The decorative plumbing and hardware industry is uniquely positioned to capitalize on this paradigm shift. The products we make, represent and sell to the end-user have the right combination of features, technological sophistication and style to deliver the luxury experiences that Danziger claims the new luxury buyer seeks and demands.

"Delivering on experience is an emerging trend in many showrooms," observes Jim Babbitt, a principal of Hot2Cold. "Simply look at the last two winners of the DP&HA's Showroom of the Year. Both Waterware in Chicago and The Bath and Beyond in San Francisco create unique experiences you notice the moment you walk through the door. You don't see a bunch of faucets hanging on a wall. Instead, you see products elegantly displayed in jewelry cases, in interesting settings and in an environment that shouts luxury."

Waterware principal Larry Kaluzna understands the importance of providing unique experiences in his showroom. "Our clientele is almost exclusively designers. We recognize that they don't want to be visually bombarded with products. Instead, our showroom reflects the quality and caliber of product lines we carry."

Jeff Burton at the Bath and Beyond has also created a unique showroom experience. "[It] emphasizes the beauty, design sophistication and the superior technical performance of decorative plumbing and hardware. Our clients understand the intrinsic aesthetic differences of our products, and they leave with the comfort that these products will' provide years of enjoyment."

Both Waterware and the Bath and Beyond have defined programs to help ensure the experience their showrooms deliver is constantly refreshed. For instance, the Bath and Beyond showroom is repainted four times a year using the latest color available. "We paint all the time. It is amazing how differently products look when they are surrounded by new colors. Our customers certainly notice. They often ask after a make-over if certain products that have been on the showroom floor for some time are new," Burton explains.

Bob Lando, president of Chicago's Community Home Supply, recognizes that experiential selling in decorative showrooms comes down to the people on the floor. "The ability of our showroom people to translate desire into the reality of products in the home makes or breaks the experience. Having a well-trained and experienced showroom staff is absolutely necessary to serve the luxury market. The Internet has made consumers better educated and more sophisticated. We have to know as much about the products that we don't sell as the products that we do."

Having a well-educated, experienced and consumer-savvy showroom staff is expected by the luxury buyer, regardless of income level. It is the primary tool that decorative showrooms use to positively differentiate themselves from home centers and big-box retailers. Danziger's research confirms this fact. "Buying luxury is rarely a do-it-yourself process. One of the defining characteristics of luxury retailing is that luxuries need to be 'sold' and 'presented' by a sales professional who is competent and knowledgeable. [He/She] has a critical role in informing the customer how to distinguish the superior features of a particular luxury brand."

Experiential selling requires a different type of training. Manufacturers and reps can't focus on the product per se. Their training needs to emphasize the experiences their products deliver. For instance, the mirrors and lighting Baci by Remcraft makes are luxury products, but you can't sell them unless you have the chance to see, feel and experience the differences. So, to reinforce this experience, we tell the story of how our products are manufactured. We relate to our showroom partners our continuing investment into the state-of-the-art machinery that allows us to produce precision parts with pinpoint accuracy.

Showroom training is also changing elsewhere in response to the demands that Danziger found in today's luxury market. Marilyn Hermance, president of Houston's Westheimer Plumbing, now focuses on how to better tell the stories behind the products in her showroom. She knows it's essential to connecting emotionally with consumers.

"One of the great things about the organizations that we belong to, such as DPHA, is the ability to establish close relationships with manufacturers so that we not only know the story behind the products, we can relate them to our staffs who, in turn, relate them to our customers. They're excited when we tell them that a faucet is named after the designer's son or daughter, or when we tell them a certain product is an original design," she says.

Rohl is another manufacturer that understands the importance of storytelling and selling the experience. "Last year at K/BIS, we included story boards about our manufacturers as part of our exhibit. The positive response exceeded any expectation that we had," says director of marketing Skip Johnson.

Indeed, storytelling is an key part of Rohl's marketing efforts. To tell the story behind each of its product lines, Rohl conducts weekly product-training classes for showroom personnel at its Costa Mesa, CA headquarters.

Food for Thought
In the end, Danziger gives our industry plenty of food for thought. "The luxury-branding message is simple and it is clear: The message must reflect the consumer's experiential dimension. Product features and benefits are the foundation [for] the experiential dimension, but the new branding equation must enter into the new realm of performance and delivery of luxury values."