New Consumers, New Challenges

She hurries into your dealership, barely on the walk side of running, looking as harried as any '90s woman on the go, as she explains that she only has an hour to spare before she has to be home for dinner with the family. Then she asks, "Do you think you can create my dream kitchen?"

Once, this might have been easy. You would have known her story. The family would undoubtedly have been the wife, her husband, and maybe a couple of cute kids, and dinner would have been a home-cooked meal, prepared by a full time homemaker.'

And knowing at least the basics about the "dreamer" would have made creating her dream kitchen that much easier.

But today, it's a whole new world out there and nowhere is that more evident than in the kitchen. Today, "dinner" might be a multi-course, home-cooked meal, a gourmet extravaganza prepared on commercial-style appliances, a quick fix vegetarian stir fry or Chinese take out.'

And "family" might include a 30-something, two-career couple, a husband and stay-at-home wife, a working wife and stay-at-home husband, single parents, children from multiple marriages living together under one roof, a senior citizen couple whose children have long since moved away, a multi-generational family whose ages range from two to 82, a same-sex couple or maybe just a single person whose "family" is a black labrador and a couple of goldfish.

Or it might include something else entirely. The fact is, it's hard to tell what today's consumer looks like, because it's changing faster than ever.

In fact, in a recent K&BDN study (see related story, Page 48), nearly a fifth (19%) of kitchen dealers surveyed said they've seen a significant change in their consumer mix, just in the past three years alone.
That's no small finding.

It's not just that the days of the "It's a Wonderful Life" family are gone. It's that the "new" American family doesn't fit any mold anymore, but rather encompasses a wide array of family configuration. When K&BDN asked dealers what the new, "non-traditional" customer looks like, their answers varied widely. A whopping 73% reported seeing more senior citizens no surprise to those following the explosive population growth of this market segment. But another 37% reported seeing more single-parent households, and 33% reported an increase in same-sex households, while nearly 9% saw more singles.

The changing face of the American kitchen consumer also reflects a growing ethnic mix, with some 30% of kitchen dealers reporting a broader base of clients in terms of ethnicities.

What does all of this mean to you, the kitchen and bath professional? Well, it means new challenges, of course. With the changing face of the American consumer comes a changing array of consumer desires and needs, all of which make today's "dream kitchen" far from "one-size-fits-all."'

But it also means new opportunities. With the "non-traditional" customer becoming increasingly prevalent, we need to rethink not just how we view today's consumers, but how we market to them. Niche marketing is suddenly more than just a sideline for many designers, as an increasingly fragmented market shows that "niches" are big business.

And, along with the changing consumer, we're also seeing a small-but-growing number of "splinter movements," reflecting the diverse interests and concerns of the American consumer. One of the strongest of these is the growing awareness of and interest in environmentally responsible or "green" design (see related story, Page 52).'

Once the sole bastion of environmental activists, this fast-growing arena focuses on using materials that are non-toxic, abundant, recyclable, energy efficient, allergy resistant, natural or renewable. Aside from the long-term benefit to the environment, this movement has obvious benefits to the consumer, tapping into both a growing social consciousness and a desire for a healthier living environment.

And therein lies the key to any designer's success, for as much as your clientele may change, one thing remains constant: It's only by recognizing and meeting the needs of your clients, whoever they may be, that you will continue to grow and prosper.