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Thursday, August 19, 2004 - Page updated at 03:07 P.M.
Go ahead, take that washer for a test spin
By J.J. Jensen
Jan Berry, a 47-year-old homemaker from Renton, had her eye on a Neptune-series washer. You know, the one without the agitator that handles the really big loads and the Neptune Drying Center the one where you hang the clothes and they sway back and forth to dry.
But before she shelled out more than $1,300, she wanted to know if the appliances could get the grass stains out of her 6-year-old's jeans or the smell of cigarettes out of her husband's jacket after his band performed in a smoky bar. She took three loads of clothes to the Maytag Store in Redmond and gave the products a whirl.
The Maytag Corp. has in the past year encouraged customers to try their products before buying them an evolution in large-appliance shopping. Other stores, such as Albert Lee Appliance Co. in Seattle and Crossroads Appliance in Bellevue, also have dishwashers and other appliances hooked up for demonstrations so customers can get a true feel for what they're buying.
"I think today, more than ever, people want to make sure if they're buying something that's quite expensive or they're not really sure it will meet their needs they want to try it first," said Don Heitlauf, who owns Crossroads Appliance. He's even had a customer bring in a salmon to steam in a dishwasher.
"We want to have customer service like people had in the past," said Darin Leonard, president of The Maytag Store in Lynnwood. "It's about meeting needs, exploring options and teaching them [customers] how to use an appliance so they know what they're buying."
Customers have put blackberry-stained pans in dishwashers, stuffed comforters in washing machines and cooked a 20-pound turkey in a convection oven as part of this "try before you buy" concept introduced this past year at Maytag stores in Redmond, Lynnwood and Tukwila.
While there's some concern that customers could abuse the system such as continually washing clothes with no intention of ever buying the washer the practice is intended to inspire confidence. "If they're willing to let me try the appliance, they must trust the appliance," Leonard said.
Maytag officials say their initiative is geared toward women, who, company research found, make the majority of appliance-purchase decisions. Maytag research also found many women were uncomfortable shopping in big warehouses and listening to a salesperson's interpretation of how an appliance functions.
"Things change so dramatically from the time you buy a major durable good, and it's hard to keep up with technology and you don't know how you'll interact with that new appliance," said Kathryn McClelland, a Maytag marketing and business-development manager. "A salesperson can talk about insulation and decibels but [people want to know], 'What's it going to sound like when I turn it on?,' 'Can I have a conversation in my kitchen over my dishwasher?'
"Clearly the point of difference is that first-hand knowledge of what the appliance can do," McClelland said. "You're not relying on a third party to advocate certain features or brands."
Berry, the Renton homemaker, said the concept makes sense.
"If you think about it, you're probably going to have a machine for the next 20 years," she said. "My husband never touches the washer and dryer, so it's pretty much my decision on what to get. It's just nice to know you're going to get something that will do the job for you."
Suzie Squier, director of marketing and communication with the Virginia-based Retail Industry Leaders Association, said the try-before-you-buy concept long associated with automobiles, mattresses and electronics likely is a result of companies looking for ways to differentiate themselves. And, in recent years, retail has not scored high with shoppers in the customer-service department.
Best Buy Co., Squier said, is also in the process of organizing its stores to focus more on customers, not the products. In some stores, living-room-like show rooms have been set up for customers to try out different electronics
And while trying something once is not the same as owning it, customers can appreciate the opportunity.
"It's just the thought they're allowing that," Squier said. "It's more that the retailer is giving them the option to test it."
J.J. Jensen: 206-464-2761 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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