Barely a family gathering
or social event ends before someone, knowing that I write for a trade publication
about appliances, takes the opportunity to tell me how their own appliances
are meeting their needs (or sometimes, not meeting them). A typical question
asked is: "Can't you call someone and tell them what I really want with
my dishwasher (or washer, or VCR, etc.)?"
While the appliance industry has always met consumer's needs, recently there has been a major push to anticipate them. It's a strategy that has long existed within the marketing community, and one that is learned in many college marketing classes. But the major appliance industry recently has shown us that it's very much aware of the relationship between the manufacturer and the consumer, anticipating what the consumer wants.
For example, at a new Maytag Store in Costa Mesa, CA, U.S., dishwashers are spraying dirty plates, refrigerators are keeping cream chilled for the brewing coffee, and ovens built into oak cabinets are turning out chocolate chip cookies, bread, and pizza. It's the appliance industry's own "retail theater," a concept first staged by active wear and electronics retailers that host in-store shows, kids' play areas, and after-hours parties. It's also an example of a major appliance company taking a more proactive stance towards the purchasing experience.
The store, which carries Maytag, Jenn-Air, Amana, Magic Chef, and Hoover brand products, also offers wider aisles and educated appliance experts and was established to provide consumers with a more friendly shopping environment. It is also equipped with a complete kitchen for cooking demonstrations and classes.
In December of last year, Whirlpool opened its first Insperience Studio, described as a combination of a public showroom and innovation laboratory. The facility, with 12,000 sq ft, enables consumers and home professionals to test-drive Whirlpool and KitchenAid appliances. National accounts and other customers from across the U.S. will visit the facility for training and insights on how to improve products and distribution.
"We are constantly searching for new vehicles to bring us closer to our customers, and Insperience(TM) Studio will do that in so many ways," said David Swift, executive vice president of Whirlpool North America.
Adds David Provost, director of purchasing-experience execution for Whilrlpool, "We've done a lot of research, and consumers are not happy with their experience shopping for appliances."
While consumers can't buy an appliance at the store, they can see how an appliance really works by turning the knobs and opening the doors on working appliances. Whirlpool, in turn, can see how consumers are using their products to anticipate further needs.
According to Matt Kueny, manager of Product Development Group for Miele Inc. in Princeton, NJ, U.S., this isn't the first time that an appliance company has had to anticipate the needs of consumers. Mr. Kueny says that as a result of some confusion and misunderstanding among consumers about how to effectively use Miele's products, the company has adapted its appliances to be more intuitive, for example, where the selection of temperatures, spin speed, and wash temperatures are made for the consumer. Mr. Kueny says that Miele knows this information by watching consumers use Miele's and its competitors' products.
"From that we determined that there were two key criteria from the product," he told me in a recent interview. "First, there's ease of use. Regardless of every other product characteristic, the consumer wants it to be easy to use and second is the design aspect. Regarding ease of use, we've tried to make the operation of our appliances as intuitive and as straightforward as possible without the need to read a 400-page manual or operating instructions."
Like other appliance companies that do business globally, Miele's job of anticipating consumer needs is differentiated between consumers in Europe and those in the U.S. "The needs of the American consumers are distinctively different from the needs of the European customer," Mr. Kueny says. "I always equate it to a car. If you go to Europe it's almost impossible to find an automatic transmission, because customers in Europe want to have that complete control over how they drive, accelerate, and change gears. That's the complete opposite in North America, where consumers want to push the gas and go. From a design perspective with appliances, we've had to adapt that sort of mentality. In Europe, the manufacturers tend to provide tremendous levels of precision control for the consumer to utilize at their discretion."
For example, he says, "When we began selling major appliances in North America 15 years ago, we had European control panels that used symbols instead of clear language. In Europe , where you have multi-lingual environments, rather than building control panels for each country, it's common to have a symbol-based control panel, and it's up to the customer to decide what that symbol means and how it operates the appliance. We initially tried to do that in North America, but immediately came to the realization that was going to be unacceptable. Over the past few years, we've progressed toward LCD displays that operate in multi-languages. It's a way that we anticipated how consumers in North America would operate our appliances."
He adds that European consumers tend to place more pressure on the manufacturers to be ahead of the curve in terms of technology, while American consumers tend to look for what their parents may have used. "In Europe, there's also an extreme amount of pressure on the manufacturers to provide more bells and whistles, new technologies, and new applications," he notes. "At the end of the day I think consumers still want the same fundamental results, but there's just an impression in Europe that it needs to be there."
"We are a more market-driven R&D facility than in the past," Mr.Kueny adds. "Miele has always provided a technically superior product, and our engineers have always designed features that consumers want, but now we are much more aggressive about anticipating needs and then responding to them through technology."
"Give them bells and whistles" used to be the mantra when designing appliances. While that may still be the case with some appliance companies, in today's economy, the ability to anticipate consumer needs and provide the right products, at the right price, in the right place, and at the right time may be the future recipe for success.