Ex-Target VP Says Consumer Paradoxes Change Sales Rules
Consumers these days are sending out contradictory signals and for every trend that can be spotted there is an equally important countertrend, according to Robyn Waters, the former vice president of trend, design and product development for Target Corporation. But by making the most of these paradoxes, home builders can come up with some fresh ideas to galvanize their business.
“There is no next big thing anymore,” Waters told a PCBC audience in San Francisco at the end of May. In tracking trends, she said, “most look out at what’s happening,” but the real advantage comes from “learning to go inside to the hearts and minds of consumers to find out what’s important to them. Figure out what’s important, not what’s next.”
Drawing on her most recent book, “The Hummer and the Mini: Navigating the Contradictions of the New Trend Landscape,” Waters calls these the days of “the contradictory consumer” and she provided several examples of changes that are bending the old marketing rules and that need to be considered by home builders:
- The consumer who wears Prada shoes, drives a Mercedes, goes to Costco to stock up on paper goods and is always looking for opportunities to cut costs
- The proliferation of fast food but the emergence of a slow food movement emphasizing natural ingredients and taking the time to cook
- Expanding waistlines at a time when health club memberships are running at an all-time high
- McMansions ruling at a time when families are getting smaller vs. Sarah Susanka's “Not So Big House” and building on a smaller footprint
- Bringing the inside of homes outside, but also bringing the outside in
- The Mall of America vs. lifestyle malls modeled after Main Street with independent stores evoking the feel of old strip malls
- The prominence of an expensive top-of-the-line Viking range in the kitchen along with such affordable design elements as a Michael Graves teakettle from Target and cabinets from Ikea.
Waters, who helped transform Target from a small regional discount chain into a national shopping destination, said that the challenge is “creating unique products with heart.” Builders who follow the retailer’s example will sell a brand that promises consumers they can “expect more and pay less,” she said, and it will match design and quality with good value.
Builders from the outset need to tune in to a basic psychological paradox that is part of human nature: people desire to fit in and belong, and at the same time they want to be perceived as unique individuals, she said.
And builders are in a position where they can help guide their customers on the way to establishing their individuality through a complicated maze in which there are more products for them to choose from than ever before. Today, supermarkets stock their shelves with 30,000 items, up from 15,000 not too long ago. There are 12 versions of Oreo cookies to decide upon, and at Starbucks there are 19,000 different ways a customer can order a cup of coffee.
Among the macrotrends with implications for home builders:
“Everything old is new again,” Waters said. Consumers are looking for products that will enable them to escape today’s technologically advanced world. Vespas, for instance, the motor scooters enabling Italians to get around their battered country following World War II, have become an icon for urban hipsters in the U.S. They are selling well, she said, and they are purchased in a boutique, not a dealership.
Around since 1924, Montblanc pens are selling well, she said. “Because of the Internet, a hand-written note on good stationery means more than it used to.”
On the market since 1924, Kitchen Aid blenders look back to the best of the old, dressed in new colors with a contemporary resonance.
“Crumbled to perfection” is a trend that appeals, Waters said. “Even if it’s new, we want it to look and feel old.” Some people prefer to live in “ruins,” where things break and crumble.
Mass-customization is producing products that are uniquely geared to each individual. For example, 95% of all the Mini Coopers that are sold are custom designed by buyers who go online and choose from 150 options on everything from hubcaps to LED lights. During the average 10- to 12-week waiting time, customers can monitor the process through an online program. Half of those who track the progress of the manufacturing of their car give it a first name, and customers receive a “birth announcement” from the company when the car is ready.
- In the trend toward luxurious commodities, basic necessities are turned into something special costing a premium. Examples range from an infant’s sippy cup designed by Philippe Starck to look like cut crystal to the $700 Eglu by Omlet that allows “urban farmers” to keep chickens so they can have fresh eggs whenever they want. “Take a risk and do something different,” Waters exhorted home builders.
More closely related to the housing industry, she cited the example of Whirlpool’s Duet Fabric Care System, which sells for more than twice the cost of a regular washer and dryer. In three years, she said, it has grown to a 20% market share and has played an important role in reframing the home buyer’s perception of the laundry room, which increasingly is being relocated from the basement to the first floor. “This is a commodity that can be called the Ferrari of washing machines,” she said.
For a little over $300, Ecopod can enable home buyers to add a recycling center to their kitchen or office.
There is a countertrend toward “counterfeit authenticity,” Waters said. “Today, there is a heightened demand for the real thing,” yet counterfeit products often prove that “fake is better than the real thing.” Las Vegas is a prime example, with faux destinations such as Venice, the Eiffel Tower, New York City and Egypt allowing visitors to “take a vacation around the world.”
In the building industry, slate roofing from DaVinci
replicates authentic shingles that are made of polymer materials and, unlike the real thing, are lightweight, fire-resistant and color-fast. And an innovative showerhead from Kohler is designed to make taking a shower feel like standing in the rain.
- Working on average 350 hours a year more than their counterparts in other industrialized nations, Americans are in the market for “extreme relaxation,” she said. This has created a new marketing and design angle for “the five-minute vacation,” an opportunity to fit some meaningful moments of relaxation or exercise into a busy schedule.
- Consumers these days are giving the edge to companies that practice “social capitalism,” Waters said, which can be defined as “staying on top by doing good and making money.” Customers are increasingly interested in the culture of the company with which they do business, including what they are doing for the environment and for the good of their community and their employees. “It’s time to bring something else into the boardroom,” she said. For example, Dakloos, which is Dutch for homeless, lists 6,000 hotels on its Web site. Customers who book a night’s stay in one of them get a 10% discount and the hotel gives 3% of their rate back to an organization for the homeless. It is this sort of reframing of the social fabric of a business “that will resonate positively with customers,” she said.