Whirlpool Corp.'s pla product line was designed specifically for urban consumers ranging from 18 to 24 years old. To meet this market segment's demand for portable and adaptable appliances, Whirlpool has used a "building block" approach, designing modular products that can easily form a multi-functional unit. Pictured is a configured work surface supported by Whirlpool's 4.3-cu-ft "FunCold" refrigerator (120 L) on one side and a bookshelf on the other. The tops of the refrigerator and bookshelf have pegs that can be used to support the desktop surface, or they can used to hang a wire basket off the side of the unit for additional storage. Other appliances such as a microwave or water cooler could be attached to the top of the unit.
Know Thy Customer. If following the first commandment of consumer product design simply meant hosting a few focus groups and charting generational income levels, R&D departments could take the rest of the century off. But to find out what's "phat" for Generation Y and "cool" for their parents, appliance companies are getting knuckle-deep in the lives of real people using real products in real life.
For some of the industry's heavyweights, that means pulling pages out of college social sciences textbooks.
"We have people on staff who are trained as anthropologists and ethnographers; their job is to go native," notes Charles Jones, vice president Global Consumer Design for Whirlpool Corp. (Benton Harbor, MI, U.S.). "They go to college campuses and to places where Gen-Yers hang out and really immerse themselves in understanding, 'How do they eat? How do they prepare meals? How do they live their lives?'"
Design teams worldwide are dreaming up solutions to coincide with how people are using appliances - products taking cues from consumers, not the other way around. For example, Italian appliance producer Merloni Elettrodomestici (Fabriano, Italy) has taken a close look at what younger European consumers do with their time and designed features into new Indesit refrigerators specifically geared to their habits.
"With these new products, Merloni is targeting young people, specifically young people who like to spend their time outside watching sports and so on," says Marketing Director Giuseppe Salvucci.
For example, some of Indesit's new refrigerators feature double doors with what Mr. Salvucci calls "play zones," basically special devices where people can store a large number of beverage bottles and cans to take with them on trips.
Another product that has arisen from Merloni's drive to stay "extremely connected" with younger buyers is a washing machine that offers fast cycle times. "The target is people who want to spend their time doing something other than washing their clothes, so [we offer] fast cycles and cycles for washing special dresses worn while playing tennis or doing something special outside the home," Mr. Salvucci explains.
Whirlpool, for its part, uses a three-prong approach to research - on-site observation, traditional focus groups, and first-hand observation of people using the company's products in a lab setting that looks very much like a normal home setting. The idea is to piece together what Mr. Jones calls a "rich mosaic" and then adapt the products to that multi-dimensional perspective.
"If you go into most college dorms or first apartments today, you see people force-fitting products to the way they live their lives," Mr. Jones tells APPLIANCE. "They're doing the best they can with whatever tools they have at their disposal."
Trends emerge out of that kind of research; trends such as the demand for portability and multi-functionality as the 18- to 24-year-old set embraces what's been called the New Urbanism. Since it doesn't take an ethnographer to figure out that "urban" means tighter living quarters and premiums on space, Whirlpool decided to launch what it's calling the pla product, a line that emphasizes portability and adaptability.
One design within the pla concept is a refrigerator that customers can use as a building block, adding furniture extensions later on to make an entertainment center for a TV, for example. Another discovery from the college dorm research: Young people want room for a full-size pizza box in their refrigerators.
"They have very strict expectations about maximizing space, and they want one thing to do multiple operations," Mr. Jones explains. "That's not necessarily an expectation we see from Baby Boomers."
And what do the Baby Boomers - the largest generation in American history and recipients of the greatest transfer of wealth perhaps in the world's history - want? In a few words - big, built-in, and buried. Companies that have studied the Baby Boomer market know that the premium market is the growth market right now. Several years ago, appliance makers began increasing the production of commercial-grade stainless appliances that appealed to one overriding demand from middle-aged buyers: to be viewed as a serious culinary artist.
"That trend has been unfolding for quite some time," Mr. Jones says. "I think it really comes back to the 'aspirational' nature of Boomers: If you have a piece of equipment in your home that's serious and commercial, you, by extension, must be serious and commercial. Whether you actually possess those skills or not is a whole other debate, but you certainly look the part.
"Gen-Yers expect expressive products; they want them to scream and jump out," he continues. "Boomers tend to want them to blend in. Right now what we're seeing is that Gen Y wants small, affordable, [and] adaptable. Baby Boomers want it big, hulking, and in stainless [steel]. Both are legit; both are appropriate, but they just have wildly different expectations."
Phil Uihlein, president of built-in premium specialist U-Line Corp. (Milwaukee, WI, U.S.) said this is the perfect time to be in the premium market because the target audience has never had more buying power.
"I said this three years ago to my sales people, 'The typical Baby Boomer hits 47 years old, which is when their kids leave,'" Mr. Uihlein notes. "At 47 years old or 48, they've peaked out in career; they're generally not going any higher. [They're at] maximum earning capability. They've gotten rid of their biggest single expense, which is their kids. They've got more disposable income than they've ever had, and they're earning more than they ever have.
"You couple that with the greatest generational transfer of wealth in the history of the United States, which is [from] our parents," he continues. "They didn't believe in spending money. They're Depression babies, so they saved every nickel they had. Talk to your stockbroker friends; they've got clients inheriting hundreds of thousands of dollars from their parents. That didn't happen two generations ago. So where are they going to put it? They're going to put it in homes and in the market."
And soon, more and more Boomers will be putting money into appliances that accommodate their changing ergonomic requirements as they age.
Whirlpool recently completed a study on advanced and early onset arthritis sufferers. From that, the company began to gather a library of push, pull, and torque force information to help it better determine customers' needs. Mr. Jones notes: "As the effects of aging begin to creep into all of us at one point or another, what can we be doing as a consumer design company to begin to proactively understand what we might be able to do to ensure that we're designing products that will address that segment's needs?"
Overarching Whirlpool's attention to the desires of certain age groups is a philosophy Mr. Jones calls "universal design" (UD), which is based on the idea that if a company makes a product that is easy to use for someone with limited abilities, every consumer segment benefits. "The notion of UD is really our guiding product development philosophy," Mr. Jones says.
So far, it seems this new generational strategy in appliance design is not only proving successful today, but is helping to lay the groundwork for tomorrow's designs.
While Mr. Salvucci of Merloni reports "great success" with Indesit's new styling among its target market, Whirlpool is hoping its pla concept aligns with what its people saw on the front lines of consumer research.
"I think what we're trying to do with the pla brand is to pick up on that and say 'Hey, we've got lot of competence and expertise around cooking [and] around keeping things cold,'" Mr. Jones says. "How can we begin to put a twist on this and address this segment that hasn't been addressed yet?"