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Connecting with customers

Features, Management, Marketing | May 1, 2009 | By:

Making design trends and economic realities work together.

It is difficult to focus exclusively on design trends when the economy is the overwhelming trend these days, but the truth is that colors and patterns and economic trends have an impact on each other. With grim economic news and changes in our political world, now may seem like the time to hang on and just stay afloat until the storm is over; however, savvy marketers will take a different approach. They know that now is the time to adjust strategies and strike out in search of new business, following three relatively easy paths:

  • Adjust to what’s going on in the marketplace.
  • Look for strategic partners.
  • Keep up with trends.

The marketplace

It’s no secret that consumers are watching every penny and looking for good values, as well as searching for items that are long-lasting and on-trend. Warranties, long-term savings (such as decreased energy use), ease of use and styling are all critical. While the mortgage crisis has been horrible for many consumers, the lower interest rates have made it possible for others to refinance and, in some cases, have created available funds for home improvements. To get our share of those available funds, we must be in touch with our customers’ wants and needs.

Glen Raven sponsored two focus groups in December 2008 to determine consumer insights and opinions about awnings. The groups included homeowners who had purchased an awning in the last 12 months, and those who had spent a significant amount on outdoor improvements but had not purchased an awning. The study found that consumers understand the major benefits of awnings—protection from the elements, enhanced aesthetics of the home exterior and increased flexibility in how the deck or patio is used. However, none of the participants cited energy savings or ease of use as awning benefits.

Educating consumers

Energy saving. With the “green” movement, and consumers focusing on purchases that return long-term savings, promoting the energy-saving aspects of awnings could be a growth opportunity. An awning over a window or glass door can reduce heat gain significantly, reducing air conditioning costs. With retractable awnings there is added benefit during the winter months, when the awning can be closed to allow the sun to warm the home’s interior.

The focus group participants knew little about remote-controlled operation, wind or sun sensor availability, or even the availability of light kits for installation under an awning. These are great add-ons, and fit with consumers’ search for products that make their lives easier.

Income-based spending. With daily reminders of the banking crisis we are experiencing a shift from asset- to income-based spending: consumers are spending what they have in their pockets for smaller projects rather than financing larger projects. This makes adding an outdoor bonus room an economically sound and timely project.

Adding a brick and mortar home addition is costly and time consuming, but creating an outdoor room with a fixed or retractable awning is affordable. If you consider the speed at which an awning can be installed as compared to adding a fixed roof structure, an outdoor room seems like the ideal home improvement project.

DIY. The economy is also spurring an increased interest in do-it-yourself projects. Typically a homeowner first undertakes landscaping, or adds a deck or patio; then decides to add an outdoor seating or dining group. Often consumers don’t realize how badly they need protection from the elements until they try to use their new outdoor room, so they consider an awning. With this purchasing cycle it’s easy to see why strategic partnerships are so important.

Strategic partners

We all hope that homeowners know about awnings and where to buy them; if we’re extremely lucky, they might pick up the phone and call their local awning fabricator. Recent research tells us that is not normally the case. More often than not, homeowners return to the patio shop where they purchased their furniture, where they are likely to find umbrellas or free-standing shade structures such as gazebos. They are not as likely to encounter an awning there, which creates a disconnect for the customer but an opportunity for the awning fabricator.

A partnership between an awning fabricator and a patio shop creates the ultimate one-stop shopping experience for the consumer. Not only can they learn the pros and cons of all their shade options in one location, they could actually select an awning fabric as part of their total fabric package and leave the store with the satisfaction that all the pieces of their outdoor spaces work together perfectly.

Steps toward profitable partnerships

Seeing is believing. There is tremendous value in a consumer seeing an awning displayed attractively. Whether it’s featured at a home show, on display through a partnership with a local landscape resource or the central feature over a neighbor’s new deck, the vision eliminates preconceived, outdated notions about awnings and opens the consumers’ eyes to new possibilities.

Customers as partners. Once you complete an installation that showcases your work, ask for permission to share a photo of the project with other potential customers. Offer to help host a party where the homeowner can bring in friends and show off the new outdoor room, while potentially providing you with new customers.

Use the media. Consumers often turn to shelter magazines to do research when starting a home improvement or decorating project. With elaborate outdoor rooms and awnings showing up in publications such as Architectural Digest, Traditional Home and ELLE Décor, the time is right to increase your visibility. Consider submitting an idea to a regional or local magazine, which are often in search of editorial content. You could secure new customers just by submitting photography of a new installation. These publications are also a resource for trend information at the consumer level. Whether regional or national, it’s important to be familiar with design trends to increase your credibility with potential new customers.

Make trends work for you

There was a time when indoor decorating trends had very little to do with how outdoor living areas were appointed, but that is no longer the case. With advances in textile technologies, high-performance fabrics look as good as their less durable counterparts, and it is difficult to tell whether an outdoor room trend was initiated by the influx of beautiful new performance fabrics, or the fabrics themselves spurred the move to more elaborate outdoor decorating. Elegant, durable fabrics exist for every style, and the lines between indoor and outdoor decorating are forever blurred.

Consumers often think that it takes a huge investment to update their homes to address the newest trends, but changing out cushion covers or adding throw pillows and accessories can make a huge difference. Replacing an outdated umbrella or awning cover has a major impact on the look of an outdoor room, and changing accessories, such as rugs or throws, can update and personalize a look.

The economy-driven trend of purchasing items that will have a long life leads consumers to be less trendy and more conservative with big ticket purchases such as mid- to high-end furniture. At the same time, a down economy and suffering consumer confidence also evokes a need for lightness, fun and something that brings a smile. While those two trends might seem in conflict with one another, they can live happily in the same room.

The color of change

Textured neutrals. A sense of conservatism and environmentalism is provoking use of textured neutrals as a canvas on which to place color. Nubby silk- and linen-like textures create a sense of warmth and comfort, and provide an interesting contrast to decorative patterns. Neutrals are tending towards cool taupes, charcoals and soft greys, and away from the coffee-inspired warm browns that have been popular. The tendency is towards a cooler ground, although not the cold, metallic silvers often viewed as ultra modern. Instead, they are livable, soft colors that partner well with many other hues to inspire looks that are transitional or soft modern.

Oranges and golds. For a sophisticated palette, pair oranges and deep golds with the new, cooler neutrals for a look that is both livable and lavish. While orange can be viewed as flamboyant, it is also energetic, warm and welcoming, and a natural choice for an outdoor environment either as an accent or as the star color. The on-trend orange is less yellow and has a red to rusty cast, making it ideal for use year-round.

Sunny yellows. Yellows are key to any trend-worthy palette to carry us through 2010 and beyond. A symbol of optimism and energy, yellows serves to both spice up and soften cooler neutrals. Most prevalent in a buttercup shade that suggests happy times, it is also timely in a slightly muted, wheat hue that evokes images of a plentiful harvest. These two colors work beautifully together, as well as with soft blues and greens.

Soft blues. Although not new, blues still feel fresh and are a strong choice for indoor or outdoor applications. Blues are cool on their own and, when combined with other cool colors, can be less than welcoming; however, when combined with soft parchments, ivories or heathery beiges they evoke a sense of tranquility.

Today’s green. The “green” movement is, in fact, anchored by the color green, which stands for renewal and resurgence. Providing a beautiful accent to yellow hues, the trend-worthy green is a little softer than the limey, acidy greens of past seasons making it more welcome in interior applications. While this hue translates well into pop art graphic patterns, it is most comfortable with a hint of texture that ties it back to its nature-inspired roots.

Comfortable customers

We can all use a comfortable place to relax and gather our thoughts, or seek refuge from the stress of daily life. That place can be a chaise lounge under a canopy of trees, a cozy corner of a bedroom, or a quiet patio under the shelter of an awning. Regardless of color fashions or economic indicators, the most important trend is the one that makes your customer feel at home.

By Gina Wicker, a design and creative director for Glen Raven Inc.

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