I don’t think anyone can argue than an AstonMartin is not a luxury car. A yacht is definitely a luxury item, as is a mink coat and a diamond necklace. But when it comes to the home, the boundaries blur.
Working in the high-end decorative plumbing and hardware arena, luxury is a concept we think about often. It’s one that is important to our business. But what makes something a luxury?
Luxury is not defined exclusively by cost, even though many luxury items carry a hefty price tag. And many expensive items are not luxurious; they’re just expensive. It’s not how a product is made that determines its status as luxury. It’s more complicated than that.
Is a luxury something you don’t need but want? Again, not really. Other than those living in large, congested urban areas where there is a functioning, reliable and safe public transportation network, most everyone needs a car. Therefore, the car itself in most of North America isn’t a luxury, but the type of car can be.
Recently, my husband purchased a top-of-the-line Stihl powerhead and chainsaw. My husband does not consider this a luxury, but rather a necessity. After all, his motivation was utilitarian. Our home is heated with wood and we live in the country. And, after Hurricane Sandy, few would question our need for a high-performing chainsaw.
The perception of luxury becomes cloudy when functionality is the driving motivation behind a purchase and usage. If you need the item to perform better than products offered by lower-priced competitors, does the higher-priced product stop being a luxury? And, if you don’t need the top of the line and get it anyway, is that a luxury?
A few years ago, flat screen TVs were aspirational purchases, but now that’s all you can buy. So, can flatscreen TVs still be called luxuries? Do some luxury items have a time limit?
Feeling vs. Product
In my quest to better understand the concept of luxury so I could apply that knowledge to working in the luxury plumbing and decorative hardware industry, I started asking everyone I knew, “what do you own that you consider a luxury?”
Answers ranged from something they possessed to something they did. Most responses were a combination of the two.
My favorite response was from a woman whose “luxury” is a down comforter she uses to snuggle with her two dogs on Sunday mornings. This is the only day this comforter is brought out, as it’s the only day she can truly enjoy it. She and the dogs bundle up together while she does The New York Times crossword puzzle.
“What makes it a luxury?” I asked?
Her reply was, “Everything: The feel of the comforter, the love of the dogs, the entertainment of the crossword puzzle and the time to enjoy them all.”
This suggests that luxury is as much about a feeling as it is about an actual product.
Luxury in the Bath
From here, it was natural to segue to what luxury means in the most private of places: the bathroom. Everyone needs a bathroom, but what turns an ordinary bathroom into a luxury? Bathrooms serve a utilitarian purpose and many of us sell fixtures to meet those needs: toilets, sinks, faucets, showers and tubs (or combinations).
But our industry is dedicated to move from the purely utilitarian to the world of luxurious baths. Steam showers, towel warmers and jetted tubs are all luxury items. Sinks and vanities can range from the basic to the exquisite. They can be produced from bronze or hand-carved wood to beautiful glass and everything in between, turning the basic pedestal into a work of art.
What about faucets? What makes a faucet luxurious? Some companies transform lavatories from purely functional to luxurious by adding beautiful crystal handles, unique and more elegant and durable finishes and design characteristics that are not available on most other faucets. This is where I begin to better understand luxury.
Every faucet performs that same basic function. Faucets can get you wet and clean, but how you feel while using it defines whether it is truly luxurious. Adding steam to a shower can certainly add luxury, but so, too, can having a great valve with a great showerhead. How you feel is the most important thing.
Like many people, I love standing in my shower or soaking in a hot bath. After a crazy day at the office, taking a nice jetted bath or long steaming shower makes me feel special. As I thought about this, the proverbial light bulb went off.
Luxury is how something makes you feel. I remember the definition of old and new luxury provided by Trading Up author Michael Silverstein at a DPHA Conference. He hit the nail on the head when he noted that old luxury items such as a Rolls Royce or a Chanel handbag connotes status, class and exclusivity. New luxury items connect emotionally with consumers, and therefore consumers have a much stronger emotional attachment to them than to other goods.
Luxury products are what consumers connect with emotionally. That is why high-end showrooms have products that consumers can’t live without.
Beyond Features and Benefits
It’s no longer about a price point when emotion enters the equation. That’s the lesson we need to constantly reinforce to those who make their living selling decorative plumbing and hardware.
Our customers don’t associate heated floors in the bathroom, towel warmers, multifunctional showers, soaking tubs, jeweled cabinet hardware and most of the other products that are sold in brick and mortar showrooms with status, class or exclusivity. There are few, if any, brand names in plumbing and hardware among the consuming public.
Rather, the products we sell become luxurious when we help consumers connect emotionally with them. We need to teach our sales teams to move beyond features and benefits and get over the fact that most of our sales professionals can’t afford the products we offer. We need to teach them not to sell with their wallets. Instead, approach each project as if there was an unlimited budget.
Luxury can include many things: how something is made, how it looks and how much it costs. All of these are important to luxury, because they help create emotional attachments. It’s not about price alone. Our success in the luxury arena revolves around explaining to our customers how the products we sell will make them feel better.
Sarah Jenkinson is president of Witter Enterprises, which is the U.S. agent for Barber Wilsons & Co., Ltd. She is also the 2013 president of the Decorative Plumbing & Hardware Association.