This is a story about the accelerating nature of change, the middle-Americanization of luxe living, and the opportunities that lie in understanding not only what really makes homeowners happy — but also knowing whether what they think they want is really the right answer for them.
Consider some products and concepts that might have seemed extravagant or impractical a few years ago: natural stone countertops, stainless steel appliances, spa-style bathrooms, outdoor “rooms,” green products and building methods. Today, all are either in or entering the mainstream. In that same brief period, land lines and dial-up Internet have given way to the expectation of wireless everything everywhere. Buyers now browse endless product variations, prices, and user reviews from the immediacy of their cell phones and PDAs. They know that whatever they want for their home — in whatever style, however customized, and probably within their economic reach — is out there.
“Very few people besides moguls and big Hollywood types had home theaters five to seven years ago,” says Everett Collier, whose San Francisco remodeling company, Collier-Ostrom, has long been attuned to the evolving mores of high-end homeowners. “Now you go to Costco, and here's your home theater in a box. Now there are specialists in the fields of low-voltage wiring, and home theaters, and single-source controls” — for home lighting, entertainment, security, even window blinds. For the next generation of homeowners, such technologies will be as second-nature as their iPods and MySpace accounts (100 million and counting) are today.
Designer Envy Technology isn't all that has trickled down. For instance, thanks to the likes of Target (tagline: Design for All) and HGTV, “consumers feel that they're designers, and rightly so,” says Vickie Abrahamson, co-founder and executive vice president of Iconoculture, which advises companies on emerging consumer values. Younger consumers especially want to create their own unique style statements, she notes. “Gen X gave rise to alternative theater and movies. They're not going to be ruled by mass-market ideas.”
In fact, the designer mindset has set across demographic categories, Abrahamson says. “If I live in Toledo, and I want a new master suite, I can go out and get it, and I can do it affordably,” at Lowe's, The Home Depot, Pier 1, or Ikea.
Collier notes a psychological phenomenon called acculturation, which refers to how cultural traits and behaviors move out from epicenters, like waves from a pond. “Acculturation patterns are much more rapid now,” he says, making it both more difficult — and more critical — to keep up with the new.
“[The problem is that] a lot of remodelers aren't as brand-aware as their clients,” Abrahamson says. She recently remodeled a home using a contractor who, though technically strong, wasn't very curious or open to new ideas. She and her husband were frustrated by having to conduct their own research into many of the materials they wanted to use.
“Remodelers should get smart about their customers,” she says. “Understand their lifestyles and passions. Help them understand what's going to work, or what's not going to work for their needs.” Nobody expects you to have all the answers or be informed about every new product. But if you know where they're coming from, you can create a more satisfying result.
Early Adoption Stay abreast of trends that have an impact on your business, and use this knowledge in ways that improve the quality of your clients' lives. Abrahamson recommends flipping through a few lifestyle magazines that your clients might relate to — whether the modern look of Dwell and Wallpaper or the more heartland style of Traditional Home and Midwest Living. Tour remodeled homes (including those in other parts of the country), attend industry shows, and chat up your colleagues through trade associations and peer groups.
Become an expert in areas of particular relevance. On Collier's reading list are electronics magazines that help him keep up with his tech-savvy clientele. For one wealthy couple who travel and frequently entertain, his company installed more than $300,000 in home electronics alone, including programmable lighting and sun sensor–equipped window shades that help their circadian clocks readjust to California time.
Early adoption doesn't always mean pushing the latest and greatest, though. Collier notes the value of being somewhat circumspect with trend-forward clients. The same couple wanted a huge plasma-screen TV, but by encouraging them to wait awhile, he was able to set them up with a set that was thinner, less expensive, and better.
“It's a discussion process,” says Collier, who is also president of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI). “Most of the time, the client identifies a need, and then we propose a solution to that need.”
Green remodeler Michael Anschel reads everything from The New York Times to the annual Greenspec directory to “all the builder magazines.” His staff clips articles about green building, and he networks with like-minded peers and suppliers through his local green building group and the U.S. Green Building Council. “I think anybody who has their pulse on good design understands how the average person needs to live,” says the owner of Otogawa-Anschel in Minneapolis.
Abrahamson suggests creating “a dream portfolio” from your gleanings, featuring a palette of images and materials. Ask, “Do you like this look?” If clients dislike something, they can say so without fear of insulting you, and you'll be that much closer to identifying what they do like.