To Buy Or Not To Buy?

Whirlpool and Viking show their wares in new Atlanta spaces—but none are for sale.

One late November afternoon in Atlanta’s up-scale Buckhead neighborhood, as the city’s swarming rush hour began to course by on Peachtree Boulevard, Alton Brown—Atlanta native and host of Good Eats, one of the most highly rated shows on the Food Network—prepared a meal in front of a group of food writers. The setting was the new Viking Culinary Arts Center—a 6,500-square-foot emporium that blends a retail space replete with myriad exotic kitchenalia (Instant Marinator, anyone?), a teaching kitchen, and the 1,200-square-foot theater in which Brown deboned a chicken and jauntily debated the merits of Poke Salad, a Southern folk classic. The kitchen spaces were dominated by Viking’s iconic stainless-steel ranges and refrigerators, but there was nary an appliance for sale.

A short while later, a few miles down the boulevard, a similar group watched some other well-known (if untelevised) Atlanta chefs ply their craft in a series of kitchen “vignettes” at Whirlpool’s new Insperience Studio, a 12,000-foot space the company describes as “offering hands-on interaction with working appliances and ideas for enriching the home experience.” A series of model kitchens, segmented by the contemporary language of psychographics (such as “Culinary Enthusiasts” and “Active-Balancers”), showcased various of the company’s Whirlpool and KitchenAid brand ranges and dishwashers. A model laundry room, created in conjunction with a local builder, featured the new Personal Valet, a compact in-home dry-cleaning unit. As with the Viking space, none of the appliances were for sale.

What’s going on here? No surprise that two home-related stores would be opening on the same day—this is Atlanta after all, the country’s top market for single-family housing starts and home to 40 percent population growth over the past five years. But two stores owned by home-appliance brands that do not actually sell their own appliances? Welcome to the latest iteration of the “experience economy,” the phrase christened by James Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine II in their 1999 book of the same name. “The newly identified offering of experiences occurs whenever a company intentionally uses services as the stage and goods as props to engage an individual,” they write. The experience economy, as their theory goes, emerged from a variety of factors. Just as the automation of the manufacturing sector led to the growth of the service economy, so too has the automation of service led to a search for new value along the supply chain. Technological improvements have made it harder for manufacturers to differentiate their products and have distanced the consumer from the company (by allowing them, for example, to purchase their own airline tickets via the Internet). How then to engage the consumer in something more than a purely price-driven purchase of a mere commodity?

This is of particular concern to the appliance industry, where sales tend to occur in an anony-mous Big Box atmosphere in which the buyer chooses from a row of similarly styled (and nonfunctioning) models. “We wanted, in essence, to break up the ‘sea of white’ and enhance our relationship with the consumer,” says Karen Howard, marketing manager of the Insperience Studio, “even if they eventually go to Lowe’s or Sears to make their purchase.” The Studio will give users a chance to “test-drive” appliances—even to do their own laundry with one of its consultants.

For Gilmore, simply rejiggering the retail architecture is significant. “As soon as you line those appliances up it screams sameness, even if they are different goods. And how different can they be if you’re able to line them up against each other?” he asks.

As it happens, Gilmore is a longtime consultant for Whirlpool. He and Pine put on a conference for a group of 200 of the company’s top executives several years ago at Whirlpool’s Brandywine Creek Performance Centre. The two challenged the company, then faced with stagnant growth and shrinking profits, to think of ways it might enhance the consumer experience. That conference spawned several fledgling efforts, such as the Inspired Chef program, a Tupperware-like initiative in which chefs put on cooking classes in people’s homes (with an accompanying catalog of kitchen gadgets they could buy). The program (which ceased operations in September) was not only taking advantage of the burgeoning cooking-instruction market but sought to bring the brand into the home. Another initiative, Real Whirled, involved housing a group of Whirlpool sales trainers for eight weeks in a Real World-style reality-television environment to get them to better understand the products they were selling, as well as the experiences customers had while using them.

Although Gilmore was not directly involved in creating the Insperience Studio, he did take a number of Whirlpool executives on what he calls “learning excursions” to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Last year in New York, the group hit sites ranging from the carnivalesque Toys “R” Us flagship to the high-concept furnishings store the Apartment, with its just-like-home layout. In addition to serving as a source of inspiration, the stores had some features that Gilmore advised the executives to avoid. “At the NBA store, the stairs spiral down like a basketball spirals around a rim,” he says. “That’s good. Then you get to the bottom and there’s a basketball court, but instead of a real basketball there’s this floppy little pillow. And on the backboard there’s a sign that says ‘No Dunking Allowed.’ That’s precisely the activity that should be allowed at the NBA Store!”

Cooking, then, is the dunking of the kitchen appliance world. That is why at Viking’s Atlanta Culinary Arts Center (the company’s ninth such store since 1999), even though the ranges are not strictly for sale, employees will eagerly walk you through the features of one—even firing up a 15,000 Btu burner to boil some water or evenly melt some chocolate. “If you can test-drive a luxury vehicle,” says Joe Sherman, president and CEO of the Viking centers, “why can’t you test-drive a luxury appliance?” However, beyond selling appliances, Viking is trying to sell the culinary lifestyle. The store makes only about 35 percent of its revenue from hosting cooking classes; it makes the bulk from its retail operation—and many of the sales are of accessories that have just been used in a class. Above his desk Sherman keeps a cross-stitched sampler from his mother’s house that reads, “Wherever I serve my guest, it seems they like my kitchen best.” Viking is not just building upon the ascendant cult of high-performance cooking it helped spawn; it is creating a version of the classic hearth—a place for people to gather round. “We want this to be entertainment as well as an educational venue,” Sherman says. “If you want to get ten guys together and have a men’s-only steak-and-potatoes kind of thing, that’s great.”

At Whirlpool’s studio the company, by placing its products in a series of lifestyle-oriented environments, is merging the commodity of its machines with the service of an interior designer. In other words, it is trying to sell its new fabric-care line by first showing consumers a new kind of laundry room into which the products can be incorporated. Thus its Family Studio envisions a kind of “power laundry room” that the company describes as “a place to do crafts and pay bills, for kids to do homework or surf the Internet—not to mention a beautiful space to take care of the entire family’s wardrobes.” And, not surprisingly, that space will be outfitted with a panoply of new Whirlpool gadgets—the DryAire Drying Cabinet, the SinkSpa Jetted Sink, the Impress Ironing Station, and the Personal Valet Clothes Vitalizing System. The rinse cycle may never be the same.

This is not the first time, however, an appliance company has tried to effect a revolution in domestic space. Indeed there is a hoary tradition of the “Home of Tomorrow” and the “Kitchen of the Future”—usually sponsored by a consumer-goods company seeking new markets or publicity. At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, a Westinghouse exhibit featured a popular battle royale between “Mrs. Modern” and “Mrs. Drudge,” the former equipped with a gleaming Westinghouse dishwasher, the latter performing manual labor. A clever gimmick—and very seminal, shall we say, “brandwashing?” (Kruschev and Nixon reenacted this “kitchen debate” on a national level at the 1959 American National Exhibition, in Moscow.)

Will consumers go out of their way to experience appliances rather than just buy them? Viking’s mix of retail and pedagogy (surrounded by the dream Viking kitchen) seems to be paying off—the company plans three new Culinary Arts Centers in 2003. Gilmore thinks Whirlpool, which is treading lightly into the experience economy (and of late beating profit projections), may have to kick it up a notch. “They better layer experiences on top of that place so it’s not just a place. It will get old real fast to consumers,” he says. “They have got to put experiential offerings in there, including but not limited to cooking classes.” Anyone for a rematch between Mss. (or Messrs.) Modern and Drudge?

Tom Vanderbilt is the author of Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America.

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