Even true first home buyers are more experienced about design, thanks to catalog shopping, the Internet and stores like Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn, where good design is both available and affordable. Even shoppers at Target can find everything from woven wood window coverings to coffee tables designed by Michael Graves.
U Is for Unique
How do you win over these style-savvy new-home buyers? Determined to appeal to the retail-oriented, entry-level buyer, the John Laing Homes South Coast Division decided to hire a major furnishings retailer to bring a youthful, upscale look to its new models at St. Mays Road, an entry-level attached product in the master planned community of Ladera Ranch in Orange County, CA.
St. Mays Road is a unique community of three-plex buildings, each with two two-story townhomes and one carriage-unit flat. The architectural design of these buildings allows each home to have its own separate entrance and private garage, even the stacked carriage unit. This innovative design gives these attached homes a sense of privacy typically associated with single-family detached homes.
With such distinctive architecture to work with, it was the builder’s goal to use the partnership with a major retailer to give the project a unique marketing position. The thinking was to have the retailers furnish the models with furniture and accessories the buyers could then walk into the store and duplicate — a win-win situation for both builder and retailer, right?
Well, maybe. Local store representatives were enthusiastic about furnishing the model homes, but as team meetings progressed, the realities of what would be involved proved to be overwhelming. Designing three models aimed at a specific target buyer, each with a distinctive and memorable look and under the time constraints given was more than the retailer was willing to bear. The retailer’s corporate office didn’t see the endeavor as valuable to the company in the same way the local staff did. Ultimately, what looked like a winning strategy for this project proved too cumbersome and difficult to execute for the retailer. Unfortunately for John Laing Homes, the retailer abandoned the effort with only four weeks left to the grand opening! A new strategy had to be pulled together quickly.
C Is for Challenge
Fortunately; another strategy was already partly in place. Anticipating that the retail designers would be unfamiliar with model home design, including production needs, finish specifications and optional upgrades, John Laing Homes asked Don Anderson, president of Color Design Art (CDA), to act as a consultant to guide the process. With little more than a month to go before opening, Susan Drews, CDA senior vice president and her team took up the challenge. The key was to create models that would appeal to young single professionals and couples as well as move-down empty-nester couples and young families with one or two small children. They set out to create look sophisticated enough to capture the hearts of these buyers, yet the atmosphere needed to be accessible.
C Is for Customize
CDA created three different “looks” to customize the homes to the distinctively different life stages of the prospective buyers with each “look” using achievable furniture and addressing each home with “wall-to-wall” design.
Where possible, furnishings were included from the original retail source. For example, in the two-bedroom carriage unit aimed at a young, single professional man, the home office featured freestanding bookcases rather than a custom built-in, a very contemporary (and cool) metal desk on wheels and artwork and accessories from the retailer.
Next CDA specified finishes showing a range of materials that would enhance the perceived value of the homes and still be affordable to buyers in this market. Each home featured different countertop treatments: A stone-look porcelain tile in the Plan 1 kitchen; a decorative tile in Plan 2; and a solid surface in Plan 3.
Hard-surface flooring demonstrating value-priced materials was used to create the sophisticated look expected by this market as well as to direct traffic flow. Accent paint was used to highlight walls, establish ambiance and demonstrate an effective yet inexpensive way for these buyers to customize their new homes.
E Is for Enhancing Architecture
Finally, to underscore the unique privacy aspect of these attached homes, the interior stairways were treated as an important space, rather than just a traffic conduit. The stairway for Plan 1 was actually the entry to the upstairs carriage unit. It was painted with warm earthtone accents and then highlighted with colorful, oversized contemporary poster art. The stairway became an art gallery visually inviting buyers to climb the stairs to see the rest of the home.
In the Plan 2 townhome, the stairs featured architectural pot shelves that were highlighted with accessories and art. More importantly, CDA converted the original bedroom at the top of the stairs to an optional loft that would open this interior staircase and bring in more light. Since this was an empty nester home, it provided a wonderful home office space, made the stairs friendlier and still left the third bedroom to be merchandised as a guest room. The strategy demonstrated all of the home’s usable square footage.
S Is for Success
While the original strategy for using a national retail firm for the design and merchandising of the homes at St. Mays Road didn’t succeed, the restrategizing did. According to Marianne Browne, vice president of sales and marketing for John Laing’s South Coast division, “The merchandising for these models hit our diverse market more accurately than any we’ve ever done before. The design reflects their lives and lifestyles in a way that the retail store never could have achieved. That is confirmed by the fact that each floor plan is selling equally well.”
S Is for Strategy (and a Back-Up Strategy!)
The lessons learned from this experience are really two-fold. First, if you are going to try an innovation such as partnering with a retailer to furnish your models, do your homework early. Make sure your potential partner understands your market, can respond to your production needs and has the same ultimate goals and understanding you do. In other words, make sure your partner is a team player.
Second, always have a back-up strategy in place if your first strategy doesn’t work out. Remember that designing for the entry-level buyer is getting more demanding and challenging. The right merchandising strategy can make all the difference.
Ava Carberry, MIRM, is a principal at Color Design Art of Pacific Palisades and Thousand Oaks, CA. Color Design Art specializes in model home merchandising firms and interior design. Carberry also serves as guest editor of NAHB’s "Sales + Marketing Ideas" magazine and is a former chairperson of the National Sales and Marketing Council publications committee. For more information, call Carberry at 310-459-7844 or visit the Color Design Art Web site at www.colordesignart.com.
Originally published in NAHB’s "Sales + Marketing Ideas" magazine ©2003.
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