The New Mainstreaming of Luxury

There used to be a bumper sticker: "I spend money I don't have to buy things I don't need to impress people I don't like."

For a number of years, this attitude summed up the buying philosophy of a lot of consumers. In fact, for many folks, impressing the Joneses was half the reason for buying a big-ticket item, be it a fancy new car to a stunning new kitchen.

The affluent consumer shopped to make a statement, seeking out exclusive venues, top-name brands and the latest "in" thing. High-end consumers who hated the look of granite redid their entire kitchens with it; people who never cooked anything more complicated than a Lean

Cuisine suddenly needed multi-function commercial-style appliances with a built-in griddle and wok. But who cared how much it cost when money was no object?
The less affluent consumer also wanted to make a statement, of course, but money was more of an issue.

Not that people wanting to spend more than they can reasonably afford is news-
worthy. Isn't that what the credit card generation is all about? I know I, personally, have been lusting after things I can't afford since college, when a little black dress from an exclusive shop in Ithaca whispered my name, telling me that Bradd Jenkins would never, ever be able to resist falling madly in love with me if only I wore that dress.

The world has always been divided into haves and have-nots, and sometimes the have-nots have a plastic-pounding frenzy and buy like the haves. But, what does that have to do with the kitchen and bath industry?

The answer, surprisingly, is quite a bit.

Luxury, you see, has become more than something ordinary people envy or desire; it's become the newest hot trend. And, the desire for luxury products extends far beyond the traditional upper echelon of the market.

Sure, the super-affluent want the best products, service and designs that money can buy, as illustrated by the growing interest in such events as the recent Luxury Kitchen and Bath Collection, held in San Francisco last month (see related stories, Page 12 and 59). From ultra-high-end appliances to crystal studded faucetry, an abundance of opulent new products are targeting the growing luxury market.

But, even those of lesser financial stature are increasingly showing a willingness to spend disproportionately in specific areas to achieve the feeling of getting special treatmentbeing surrounded by a few really beautiful-quality thingsgetting to see what it feels like to live "like the other half does," if only for a little while (see related story, Page 37).

There's a new affluent attitude that's rapidly filtering down to the mainstream consumer, and whether your typical clientele drives a Jaguar or a Toyota, you need to understand this if you're going to continue to be successful in the new millennium.

Here's the key: The new affluence and the new affluent attitude is about more than just buying stuff. It's about buying an experience.

People who are super-affluent want to be treated in a way that shows that they are special with personalized service at every point of interaction, and customized products that allow them to have kitchens and baths that cater to their every whim.

But people who are not super-affluent have seen enough of the way the other half lives to want the same things. Consumers who once were mostly content with stock products purchased in a mass market environment by a harried-but-(hopefully)-competent sales staff now want more. In fact, they think they deserve more. Like the L'Oreal commercials of old, they're asking themselves, "Aren't I worth it?" And the answer is a resounding yes.

Aging baby boomers, having worked hard to raise their children and build their careers and bank accounts, now want to have some fun. Some priority treatment. Some luxury.
And, it's not just to impress the Joneses anymore, either. Rather, they want things for themselves.

It's the little black dress, whispering, "You have to have me." But instead of saying, "If you have me, you'll impress the gorgeous green-eyed guy over there," it's saying, "You should have me because you deserve to wear a dress like me. You work hard, you should be able to go into an exclusive little dress shop where they serve you tea and petit fours and let you try on dresses in front of a gilt-edged mirror that doesn't make you look like a fluorescent-lit Great White Whale that somehow escaped the sea and ended up beached in a discount store dressing room."

The new mainstreaming of luxury proves that there's a wealth of things we can learn from the affluent. Like the fact that money really isn't everything.

And, sometimes, it's all about attitude.