Consumers think of themselves as logical creatures, but of course that is not always true. Emotional and irrational factors come into play when we buy things to impress our friends or to make us feel better about ourselves -- even if we don't ever quite admit it. Still, there are limits, right? A particular make of car or a designer suit might function as a source of fulfillment or personal identity, but not, for instance, a washing machine.
Actually, there are no limits. Even a washing machine can be a source of consumer meaning. Whirlpool, the appliance maker, was betting that this was the case when it introduced a washer-and-dryer line (or ''fabric care system'') called the Duet. And this has turned out well, as the washer is now the fastest-selling machine of its kind, capturing almost 20 percent of sales in its category in less than three years.
To the extent that an appliance has an author, the Duet could be attributed to Charles Jones, Whirlpool's global vice president for consumer design, who joined the company from Xerox a few years ago. He surveyed the U.S. ''white goods industry,'' meaning big appliances, and ''it struck me that it was just a sea of undifferentiated boxes.'' Whirlpool undertook a study of ''washer architectures'' around the world and started a lengthy consumer research campaign to try to figure out what appliance buyers might respond to. As a result, the company developed a front-loading washing machine that uses less energy and can handle more clothes than a typical top-loading model, has a curvy, futuristic design and comes in different color schemes (like pewter and biscuit-on-biscuit). According to Jones, ''We're looking to make an emotional connection.''
This sounds silly. But even in focus groups, the company got a clue that it had hit on something, as participants started throwing around phrases like ''the Ferrari of washing machines.'' Accordingly, the Duet washer alone was priced not in the typical $400 to $500 range but rather at a Ferrari-like level of $1,300 or so. The dryer runs you another $800. The machine is a standout example of a ''new American luxury'' described in the recent book ''Trading Up,'' by retail experts associated with the Boston Consulting Group. The authors, Michael J. Silverstein and Neil Fiske, did their own interviews with Duet buyers, who ''revealed multiple layers of their emotional connection with their appliances.'' One such owner of the washer and dryer told them: ''They are our little mechanical buddies. They have personality. . . . When they are running efficiently, our lives are running efficiently. They are part of my family.''
To be fair, the Duet is also pitched to the consumer's logical side, as the improved energy efficiency is supposed to pay for itself over time and its larger capacity means you can ''wash up to 22 bath towels in a single load!'' And the front-load design eliminates the agitator that top loaders use, which means it is easier on clothes (according to Whirlpool).
But the emphasis on the machines as aesthetic showpieces is not something the company shies away from. Sure, the laundry room has traditionally been a workhorse domestic zone that gets left out of the pre-dinner-party house tour. But maybe, Jones suggests, that's because before now there was nothing in there to show off. ''What we found with Duet is that we could change the model.'' To that end, Whirlpool is pushing a whole suite of products tied to the idea of the laundry room as domestic focal point, or ''family studio.''
A brochure shows a model example: sunlight pours through a window, cabinetry and plants abound and there's a table where family members can loiter while their mechanical buddies wash 22 bath towels at once. It's a delightful room, nicer than my own living room, frankly. And it makes the underlying theory plain enough: maybe you have the Viking range and the Sub-Zero fridge, and you have the home-theater system. ''Now,'' Jones says, ''one of these designer laundry rooms is a great thing to have.'' Naturally. Who wouldn't show off such a place? Who wouldn't wander into it on occasion just to contemplate the kind of life such a room must represent? And who wouldn't, lost in such thoughts, get a little emotional?
Walker, Rob. "The Duet Washer and Dryer." The New York Times Magazine 11 Jan. 2004: 16. Academic OneFile. Web. 31 Oct. 2009.
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