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Household companies need to address home-based lifestyles

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Editors Note: In this two-part series, the authors set out to show that household goods companies that have taken a siloed approach to merchandising and marketing can — and should — take the opportunity presented by the pandemic to broaden out into lifestyle companies that go beyond the reach of the home.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced one industry after another to confront new market realities and shifting consumer habits. But the transformations wrought by COVID-19 have posed particularly tricky challenges for that vast and tough-to-define sector known by the catch-all phrase “household companies.”

These companies are among the most familiar in the entire economy — they are, quite literally, household names. Those names are all over your living spaces: on your kitchen appliances; on the myriad soaps and cleansers on your counters and under your sinks; on the food you give to your pets; on the toys you give to your children. They’re as familiar as the furniture, which makes sense because they actually made the furniture.

But these are the unpredictable times of “No Normal,” and they present the household sector with a unique opportunity. The pandemic has changed how we interact with our own homes and has reshaped the rituals and routines that take place there. But beyond COVID, Houzz, Pinterest, Etsy and TikTok have helped drive a huge amount of this shift to consumers’ home focus.

To an extent that would have been difficult for many of us to imagine as recently as a year and a half ago. Home isn’t “just” where we live — it’s where more and more of us perform our jobs, attend school, work out and conduct our social lives.

Early indications are that some of these pandemic-related changes may be here to stay. According to one survey, 71% of Americans say they will continue to cook more at home even after the pandemic ends (Hunter Food Study Report, January 2021). A majority of people (66%) said employers should be more flexible in terms of requiring people to go into an office (Ipsos and World Economic Forum, July 2021) after pandemic restrictions are lifted.

Those who got their exercise at a gym before the shutdowns drove a 218% increase in at-home fitness equipment, and a 135% increase in online fitness classes as the best way to achieve their fitness goals (RunRepeat, August 2021).

We’re talking here about a new home-centered lifestyle — albeit one that extends well beyond the four walls of one’s domicile and includes digital connections to household products and services as one shops, travels and otherwise interacts with the world. This emergent lifestyle demands that household companies redefine themselves as lifestyle companies, providing holistic solutions for the domestic — and now, to a degree, professional — needs and aspirations of their consumers.

Taking frictionless to the next level

This highly diverse and somewhat amorphous sector has historically been categorized or limited by customer expectations. How can companies break out of these limits; or conversely, how can they keep from remaining suspended in subcategory silos of their own making? Referring to themselves as “cleaning product” companies, or “garden and patio” companies, or “pet-care companies,” or “home improvement and hardware” companies, or “sporting goods and exercise” companies, for example, misses a new basic truth: When we’re at home, we’re constantly shifting from one of these categories to another — we feed the cat, then we clean up a spill, then we water the lawn, then we get in a few kettlebell reps, then we clean up another spill.

Life at home is all one confluent blur. This is how everyone’s household works (or doesn’t) — yet the sector that claims to serve this all-purpose-Dr. Bronner’s-of-a-space insists on seeing it as a tidy mosaic of clearly separated and distinct activities that are wholly unrelated to one another. The reality is that with changes wrought by the pandemic, our domestic spaces are now multifunctional areas with shifting spatial uses and patterns of need. In addition to being the place we eat, sleep and watch TV, our homes now double as workplace, gym, in some cases school, party space.

Our contention is that a truly consumer-first approach would be to yank off the blinders and see the household whole — which is how the consumer experiences it. Companies aren’t yet thinking this way, and the result is a huge gap in the market. To address this gap, companies can and should help consumers rethink their newly multifunctional spaces.

To date, some companies have sought to fill that gap by offering a “frictionless” shopping journey, in which everything conveniently pivots on brand selection. Once a consumer has signaled a brand preference, that brand would escort them through a shopping journey that was both highly personalized and virtually effortless, with options proactively provided by the brand itself.

The consumer would build a lasting bond with the brand; in turn, the brand would gather new data to further personalize and inform the consumer’s future purchases. The ideal would be seamless fulfillment, a frustration-free experience that gets products and services to the consumer as pleasantly and efficiently as possible.

We have seen some forays in this direction: Blueland has sought to position itself as a one-stop shop for cleaning supplies, with a full range of affordable, eco-friendly and refillable products with solutions for every room in the house; Feather offers online furniture rentals and even monthly subscriptions, delivery service included.

The rise of the lifestyle company

But such imaginative approaches are still outliers in the household sector — and they don’t really address the siloing problem. The truly effective way for household companies to fill the present gap in the market is by recasting themselves as lifestyle companies that provide solutions responsive to the activities and events of everyday life.

Many successful apparel and luxury brands have long thought of themselves as lifestyle brands — think Ralph Lauren or J. Peterman — and some luxury brands are moving in that direction in new ways — Gucci moving into lifestyle. Brands in mid-market such as Zara, H&M and Gap are exploring household products in order to become true lifestyle companies. Clearly, lifestyle is a way for brands to stay relevant. In the world of household goods, this is just beginning to happen, Restoration Hardware being a prime example, with its studio-like showrooms and in-store restaurants. But the concept is readily adaptable.

It’s an approach that requires a great deal of empathy and insight into the needs of consumers; for these retailers, the objective should be to solve for questions before the consumer even has to ask.

To see how a lifestyle-services approach might work, let’s consider one life event in a typical consumer’s life: adopting a dog. Just look at all the questions this consumer now needs to solve for:

• Which dog food should I get?

• What rooms will my dog be allowed in?

•. Do I need new cleaning products?

• Do I need new furniture?

• Should I redesign or fence in my yard?

• Are my child’s toys ­dangerous?

Notice that these questions cut across several of the traditional household product categories. Now imagine the potential market for any company that could seamlessly address all of these related needs.

In the next and last part of this series we’ll look at what it will take for household companies to succeed as lifestyle companies.

Timothy Derr is a partner, Wade Bjubrey and Steven Cunix are principals, and Ben Lowden is a manager in the Consumer practice of Kearney, a global strategy and management consulting firm. They can be reached, respectively, at [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected]


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