Three styles--in theme, variation, sub-variants, and blends of each--captivate most home shoppers in the residential market today: traditional, transitional, and contemporary.
Palette, texture, line, and lighting may play as they will, but in the recesses of a home shopper's (at least one of them) viscera, the eye and the gut meet, and the sensation inside is that one of these three thematics casts a stronger spell than the other two.
Knowing the fine line between inspiration, seduction, and massive overwhelm, and further triangulating around a customer's sense of financial means is the trick when it comes to drawing prospective move-up and second-time move-up buyers through the process of "personalizing" their new homes. Atlanta-based Ashton Woods, with average selling prices in the $400s and $500s in many of its markets, is making a pretty good living of working that fine line to its advantage.
Tonight, Ashton Woods, whose revenues its executive team says are on pace to top $1 billion for the first time ever in 2015, unveils the 13th in its series of "the Studio by Ashton Woods," in its flagship market.
The "studios" elevate home builders' design center tactics to a level becoming of a strategic business model that assumes "options and upgrades" are core to the firm's plan for margins on each home sold in a market. Some home builders use options and upgrades as incentives that can chip into their margins on homes. Ashton Woods uses them for the opposite purpose, to widen margins even as land prices and labor costs exert pressure on per-home profitability. In early recovery, design studios and centers as a strategic linchpin are still finding their footing among production home builders.
"The commitment to the customers' experience here has no equal in the industry," Ashton Woods ceo Ken Balogh told me during my visit earlier this week for a sneak-preview of the studio.
The Studios were designed with extensive direction and input from Anna Simone, founder and principal at Toronto-based Cecconi Simone Inc., and what's most striking about the place she helped create is what's not there, rather than what is. With accent lighting and nuanced luster, with noise absorbent flooring and walls, and with tons of white-on-white space and carefully flowed boundaries between functional areas, the studio has nipped the problem of an avalanche of alternatives firmly in the bud.
Here, we experience home building's version of Apple store design, which subtracts the obvious and adds the meaningful in a "conceal-and-reveal" manner, so that the business of listening--and ultimately selling--can thrive. Muted tones, neutral backdrops, dramatic lighting, and a splash of high-tech visual mosaics blend into the feeling of a high-end retail experience; not a big-box store mind-numbing thrash. The studios speak to customers' desire for choice; and their equally potent desire not to be pounded with options. A delicate balance.
"Our designers work consultatively," says Balogh. "There's no rush. First it's all about finding out who our customer is, what they're drawn to style-wise. Do they prefer traditional, or contemporary with some traditional touches mixed in, or is it more of a transitional feel they're going for? We'll go through images from Houzz and the magazines, and get a pretty strong sense of what they want, how they want to live, etc., before we start them through the process."
The studios' "Hall of Inspiration," the key memory point of the venue, features three bath and three kitchen vignettes. These idea-blasts jive with the three aforementioned styles—traditional, transitional and contemporary—and demonstrate how large details like countertops and cabinets work together with smaller nuances such as hardware and textures to create a cohesive look.
What's more, as further evidence of Ashton Woods' belief in the business model validity of its design studio strategy, it's reaching out among suppliers to source exclusive deals for particular product lines.
Through an arrangement with Timberlake, for instance, AW has cornered exclusive access to a line of Italian-made kitchen cabinets from Veneta Cucine, which up to now has only been available among custom home builders and remodelers in the Miami market.
"It's a good feeling when you can safely tell your customers, 'go down the street--to the competitive new home builder community nearby--and find out what you can get from them for the money,' and see what happens," says Balogh. "What we can do for our customers, and now, the experience we can give them as they choose how they're going to personalize their new home, is pretty unique in the move-up and second time move-up tiers."
Underlying the gains from strengthening customers' experience as they navigate the build-to-order process over a few months' time, Balogh notes that Ashton Woods' cancelation rates are best-of-breed among volume builders. This points back to the way that AW and its designer consultants engage buyer prospects in setting their goals and reaching their expectations for a personalized new home.
So, Ashton Woods, which has been on a 12-month tear, opening 69 new neighborhoods in that time period, is poised for continued growth as it looks forward to 2016.