Exploring the emotional connection consumers have to their plumbing fixtures.

It's been said that home is where the heart is. But the heart can specifically be found in the bathroom if today's consumer trends ring true.

Last month PM investigated a modern approach to the growing middle market and took a closer look at the phenomenon of “trading up” to purchases previously out of reach. This New Luxury, according to the authors of the consumer research book “Trading Up,” applies easily to the way homeowners respond to their bathroom fixtures.

The authors reveal that though people have been trading up and enriching their lives for centuries, today's trend is reaching a much larger percentage of consumers, and the offerings are expansive. The book also identifies four “Emotional Spaces” that influence the buying habits of New Luxury consumers:

  • Take Care of Me - well-being, relaxation

  • Connecting - membership, attractiveness

  • Questing - adventure, learning through play

  • Individual Style - status
In the bath especially, consumers have undergone a transformation in which the utilitarian aspect of the bathing experience has been replaced by a need for rejuvenation and relaxation. New Luxury items in the bath include multiple body jets, shower panel systems, jetted tubs, handshowers and oversized soak tubs - and emotional attachment is always at its base.

This month in Part II of the Bathroom Series, we'll put our finger to the pulse of today's consumers and explore the emotions behind purchases in the shower and bath.

From The Heart

Consumers are a worldly bunch nowadays. They are better educated and more sophisticated in their tastes. Increased usage and accessibility of the Internet, the proliferation of home shows on television, and affordable travel have allowed Americans to “Connect” to European and global style without copying it exactly. They've been exposed to experiences from other cultures, which seem to have a slower-paced lifestyle: soaking rituals of Japan can be replicated with Kohler's sôk tub; ThermoSol's steam generators simulate Turkish steam baths; and drenching showers in the hills of Tuscany can be achieved through Hansgrohe's large-diameter Downpour Air showerheads.

Also, destinations when traveling usually include hotels, resorts and hostels. And in trying to reclaim the vacation experience, homeowners will work to replicate their emotions through remodeling their bathrooms.

Today, 61 percent of bathroom projects involve upgrades, not just replacement of old fixtures. And while the kitchen functions as a connecting port for family and friends, the bath is viewed oppositely as a hideaway of relaxation and rejuvenation. A person can retreat to the bathroom where they're reasonably certain they won't be disturbed. In the vein of “Take Care of Me,” spas now are considered an essential part of your health - mental and physical - and beauty regiment, not just an occasional place of pampering.

“There is big profit opportunity for installers due to this market trend,” Chris Marshall, Hansgrohe USA president, informs us. “However, they should not equate the price of a shower or bath fixture with functionality and quality. Consumers are not frustrated by high prices so much as poorly made products.”

Hansgrohe recently introduced two premium series of bathroom fixtures - Interaktiv and Retroaktiv. The high quality but attainable price point marries sought-after design with advanced technology, a key element to tapping into New Luxury.

“Consumers do not overlook function, style or design because these are a part of what makes the bathroom special,” says Marshall, whose observation underscores the emotional aspect of “Questing,” or finding fulfillment through knowledge. Consumers today do their homework before making a purchase, and a product that offers all the bells and whistles is researched thoroughly.

Hansgrohe also offers the Pharo Lift Showerpanel, an “easy solution” for retrofitting existing plumbing to transform a shower into a spa. Designed for regular house pressure - between 40-50 psi - it features a 7-inch showerhead and six big body sprays, all on a hydraulic system that provides an extra 8 inches of vertical movement.

The Wow Factor

“There's no question that in the past four to five years middle America has moved up to decorative fixtures in the bath,” says Jeff Pratt, vice president of sales for Danze. “They're more open to the idea of 'Wow!'”

Along with the need for individual style expression, consumers are subtly communicating what's important to them through their purchases. New luxury is not marketed as elitist, the authors say; it avoids class distinctions and appeals more to a “value system” than a dollar sign. In short, buying New Luxury fixtures in the bath doesn't say, “I make the big bucks,” it's an understated, nonverbal way of communicating, “I am intelligent and discerning.”

Pratt believes the surge of New Luxury in the bath is in part thanks to pressure balancing and thermostatic valves, which allow homeowners to do more with the water they have, and offer a spa-like shower experience without the headache of a complete remodel.

Danze showerhead offerings are myriad, featuring water control for users without sacrificing style and design. Its sunflower showerhead is offered in sizes from 4 inches to 10 inches, and comes in finishes that speak to a consumer's eclectic style as well as meets traditional styling needs. Spinning, spoke and fan shower heads from the company also offer a whimsical approach to the bathing experience, but still are highly functional.

His advice to installers about the emotional nature of the new middle market? “Don't be afraid to upsell you customers,” says Pratt. “And don't get stuck in a rut selling the same old, same old. If you want to make money, reach out and try something different.”

Marshall agrees: “Most consumers do not want to buy products previously labeled as 'builder-grade.' They want products that truly represent their individuality.”

New Luxury consumers are complex, say the authors of “Trading Up”:

  • “They want it all but are often exhausted by trying to get it.”

  • “They are influenced by their friends and cultural figures, but they have strong tastes of their own.”

  • “They don't believe in debt, but they don't let money stand in the way of buying what they want.”

  • “They need a lot of understanding. When they get it, they are not only appreciative, they are also likely to open up their pocketbooks and spend.”