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Sunday, October 08, 2006

Managing Consumer Expectations

Two weeks ago in Kennesaw, GA, I had a spirited discussion with two talented members of our carpet fiber group: Ann Hurley and Ben Jones. Ann comes from the contract carpet side of the business and avidly follows color, pattern and textural trends. Ben handles consumer warranty claims - among other things!

We got to talking about flooring trends -hard vs. soft surface [i.e., wood/ceramic/vinyl... vs. carpet]- and consumer expectations about product performance in carpet.

Consumers rely heavily on the store salesperson for product recommendations. And, if the salesperson doesn't listen or makes incorrect assumptions, the consumer might be steered in a direction that will lead to unrealistic performance expectations.

Ben: Application absolutely matters. Consumers feel so disappointed when they've been steered toward a carpet solution that doesn't meet their expectations for wear. A high traffic area - like a main hallway - is not a place where a soft, fluffy, shaggy construction will do well. So, why would a salesperson suggest that?

C.B.: Maybe it's that it's easier to sell one solution for the whole house rather than looking at each room as its own micro-environment. And, there is so much talk about soft, so why not push it!

Ann: Yes, texture is extremely important for carpet. It's one of the critical decision factors for consumers, along with color. And soft has been an important trend in carpet texture, as it has been in other consumer categories like sheets [think 500+ thread count!], towels and cashmere sweaters.

But, as in these categories, there isn't just one soft carpet solution for every consumer. It all depends on the end use area. I think the consumer is much more educated and sophisticated now and both understands and appreciates stores and salespeople who try to come up with a better answer or solution to what she is trying to accomplish.

C.B.: What are your words of wisdom for matching texture with end use?

Ann: I don't think we want to encourage the consumer to put "soft" down the main hall in her home connecting the bedrooms. That would be a great injustice!! For a product that will be in a high wear zone I look for something visually pleasing but one that will also have good abrasion. Now, a product with good abrasion doesn't have to feel like a brillo pad. But it won't be a fluffy, loosely constructed, soft, shaggy carpet! Good abrasion resistance is a function of carpet construction and fiber type. So is softness. So, there is a continuum for consumers to choose from to match with their end use.

It's a matter of listening really carefully to what the consumer says about her needs AND doing a good job of communicating realistic performance expectations about the product choices. A cashmere sweater is deliciously soft, but I wouldn't wear it to do my workouts in because it will not perform well. It's the same with carpet. Just observe what kind of carpet you walk on in a hotel lobby -often a densely constructed carpet with low pile- compared to the hotel room. It's often different. What about in an airport? In a commercial environment, you must consider how the high levels of traffic will affect wear. It's the same in your home.

Ben: Look at it a different way. If you purchase a sports car and a truck both with a 100,000 mile warranty, do you expect the sports car to wear out the same way as the truck if you take it off road and in ditches? No. The sports car isn't meant to go off road. It's a more delicate machine. It's the same with the carpet you choose. Regardless of the warranty on the carpet, you still need to match the construction with the end use. Do you expect the tires on your car to wear until the end of the warranty period? No. You expect to change the tires after 25,000 miles. Same with carpet, you still need to take care of the carpet and vacuum it as much as possible!

The following sites on Expert Village offers tips on how to care for carpet and about vacuuming your carpet.

The lesson here: don't make assumptions about what your consumer needs. Listen to her carefully. Don't suggest products until you've given her a chance to fully explain what she is looking for, what she wants to accomplish, and then make her a part of the solution!

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