The New American Kitchen

The New American Home continues to evolve along with the New American homeowner and the design parameters for 21st-century kitchens and baths.

However, it's not entirely certain yet whether many of today's kitchen and bath designers are fully in tune with these important evolutionary changes and are truly poised to meet the needs of the market's emerging new customer base.

And that's an alarming disconnect that could result in immeasurable lost opportunities throughout the trade.

The disconnect, seemingly, is between who today's kitchen and bath customer really is, and who the industry thinks it is.

According to the latest statistics, the "traditional" kitchen and bath prospect a married couple with children living at home now makes up substantially less than one-third of all U.S. households. At the same time, the makeup of the average household continues to be transformed from the traditional nuclear family into something far different: a diverse mix of multi-generational households, single-parent households, senior-citizen households and minority households.

In other words, today's kitchen/bath market is clearly no longer the static, homogenous market of easily categorized, predictable, "mainstream" buyers that it was in the past.

Far from it. In contrast, today's market is growing more and more segmented, seemingly by the minute. It's becoming more of a melting pot than ever, splintering into smaller and smaller groups with widely differing cultures, living arrangements, income levels, demographic characteristics, lifestyles, buying patterns, design needs and product preferences.

This is precisely where the disconnect occurs because, despite all of the changes in today's customer base, what do we continue to see?

We see most advertising targeted at so-called "traditional" householdswhen they no longer dominate the retail landscape.

We see virtually no marketing campaigns aimed at the 55+ age groupdespite the fact that this demographic cohort has more disposable income than anyone.

We see even fewer promotional programs aimed at influential and growing markets of Hispanic, Mideastern and Asian immigrants, who have as much desire to retain their traditions and lifestyles as they do to blend into the shrinking mainstream.

In other words, we see the kitchen and bath industry's marketers, for the most part, approaching the prospect base as if it's still being shaped solely by familiar and comfortable metaphors, including the perfect suburban family living the perfect suburban life.

This is clearly something that ought to be fixed.

The fact is, the kitchen and bath customer base is changing along with the design trends in today's home and it will continue to change.

This industry's mindset needs to change along with it.

Kitchen/bath designers and manufacturers need to understand who today's new customers are, and need to reach out to them in an enlightened, proactive fashion.

There will be a growing need to understand what makes these very different types of customers tick their habits, their expectations, their hot buttons and their needs. There will be a growing need to think outside the box, and to move away from the mismatched, out-of-touch design techniques, product applications and visual sameness that mark many of today's kitchen designs.

Kitchens, in short, will need to be re-thought entirely to reflect the customized needs and preferences of an emerging new generation of homeowners. They'll need to address the notions of "quilt cuisine"of unique new storage requirementsof different, and unfamiliar, forms of food preparationof different techniques in cooking, and more.

We've already seen many encouraging new developments. Kitchen and baths are clearly being planned with a higher level of sensitivity to issues such as universal design and accessibility. We're seeing more products and designs aimed at diverse, multi-generational users, a broader range of home-related activities, new lifestyles, and people with special needs.

Now it's time to push the envelope even further, in recognition of even more change.

Kitchens, as always, remain important vehicles for personal expression.

However, what's needed, as the industry and its customers continue to evolve, is an even more flexible design language one that enables the wide mix of 21st-century homeowners to tell stories about who they really are, where they came from, how they feel, and how they live.