Design outside the box

Selling design in 2021 goes beyond style. Consider… security.

Whose design is it, anyway? For residential wood-products retailers and installers, there may be some interest in a recent study from the Real American Hardwood Promotion Coalition. The RAHCP was formed in 2019 to identify opportunities and challenges in promoting the American hardwood industry. (Frequent readers of Wood Industry will recognize the idea of parts of the industry cooperating within the industry to achieve goals relating to the whole, and our frequent call to our associations to recognize the necessity of effective public relations. However, that is not our discussion for today.)

The RAHCP study reported findings from consumers and renovators buying hardwood flooring.

One of the findings is that 83 percent of purchasers visited big-box stores, and only 30 percent visited small kitchen or bath boutique stores. Of the 18 to 34 age group, 83 percent visited big-boxers and 39 percent visited specialists, and 85 percent of over-65s visited big-boxers and 26 percent visited specialists. As an aside, the age groups most inclined to visit boutique shops were nest builders from 18 to 34 and 35 to 44, each with 39 percent.

From a design perspective, these numbers suggest that the purchaser may be making some design decisions autonomously in the store, especially if the choice involves cutting costs and adding margins on a contract job. Keep in mind this is a hardwood-floors study, but it has ramifications for designers that wish to specify premium hardware or materials.

Looks first, green last

One telling, yet unsurprising, fact revealed in the study is that consumers and renovators in all age groups value materials’ appearance over durability at 70 percent to 64 percent, respectively. Also unsurprisingly, sustainability — the clarion call of the media — comes in at only 30 percent and “environmentally friendly” comes in at 23 percent.

This fact becomes critical in looking forward in manufacturing, since our new employees coming in from the school systems on the design side are chock-full of advice on how the industry must change to meet an evolving market for “green” production. The ideas of conserving and preserving are not nearly as new as some would lead us to believe, and the consuming public is becoming aware that “green” also means disposable in a disposable society. Mother Nature does not approve of people mouthing platitudes about conservation while chucking Ikea kitchens and Lowes home offices into the landfill every five years.

Granted, it makes sense to target your products to a sustainable culture, but only if you realize that the “sustainable” message is neither universal nor majority and often does not meet its own standards. In those realms, looks and value still matter.

According to the RAHCP study, even though looks and appearance are the pinnacle of “extremely important” at 71 percent for looks in the 35 to 44 group and 76 percent for the 45 to 54 group, durability comes in a close second at 69 percent “extremely important” for the 35 to 44s and 62 percent for the 45 to 54s.

Practical and pretty?

Unfortunately, nowhere in the study does it refer to sex. Studies should always refer to sex, not in the giggly, selfie-centered, pop-culture fascination with its endocrine systems, but in the sense that women and men think differently. Any retailer that has not figured this out is already out of business or selling into a very narrow market. For those that are confused, read the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the early 1400s. This is not new stuff.

Sex may move up in the designer’s mind, now that the world is trying to figure out how to respond to the current pandemic. Whereas appearances have led the priorities on the North American mind for the past many years, the trade tensions between Canada and the U.S., along with concerns for long-term safety and conservation of family resources over “global” resources may drive consumers to see functionality over looks.

Our industry has long known the difference between functional hardware and decorative hardware, and we have known the difference between natural hardwood and printed melamine finishes. And we know that the consumer has not necessarily either known about the differences or been willing to learn. “Quality” can mean excellence in construction and design, but it can also mean “perceived value,” in which the value point may be neither solid wood nor particle board, but somewhere in between, wood laminates being one example.

Design for the times

Eight years ago, Wood Industry asked its readers in its Annual Readers’ Survey whether they use outside designers or in-house. Over 56 percent of you said you provide in-house design for your customers. Assuming that has not changed, what is a designer supposed to do when addressing such matters as the concerns of women, Covid, China and social fads?

One response to uncertainty may be for consumers to look toward value instead of decoration. That may be hard to imagine if you’ve been in retail very long. However, producers of wood products have long been aware of the dichotomy between function and decoration. We have had to be. We even have an industry separation between decorative hardware and functional hardware, although the definition gets hazy at the edges.

If we look at our own marketing, we have tended to display model kitchens, bedrooms or offices, as if to say, “Look at that!” Then we rely on such value statements as the quality of materials, etc.

Safety in a box

However, what if we, as an industry, were to hire a professional PR firm, as did the RAHCP?

A professional PR firm, representing the industry as whole, would tell us to study the habits of our customers. The firm might tell us what we already know. For example, it may tell us that women are the primary decision makers in a kitchen or bath purchase.

So we can say, “We already knew that. This is worthless.” And that would be the end. But what if the next info-bit was that women, as a group, tend to be more risk-aversive than men and more interested in security? That might lead the PR company to recommend moving to a slogan that would appeal to the primary customer base, and it might recommend to portray a kitchen as a film star: the strong, silent type.

Quiet kitchens are a fantasy to most consumers. In those noted 18 to 54 age groups, kids are romping, and the kitchen is one place where childhood and adulthood clash, and with good reason. No. You cannot pull the handle on a stove pot to see what’s cooking. No. You cannot use chef’s knives to dig up an anthill. And no, you cannot pull out the drawers to use as a ladder.

However, “no” often does not prevail in kid-world, so what might a consumer think of a drawer system that can hold the weight of three tykes simultaneously? Not that it should, but the dream that a kitchen could be tightly organized, quiet on its hinges and slides and strong goes, emotionally, where it should: to security, and security is safety.

The oldest adage in kitchen cabinetry may well be that a cabinet is nothing but a box with a door is the truest adage, as well. But selling that product requires thinking outside the box if you are looking to attract a customer that is driven by more than geometry and price.