Falling in love with the new Jenn-Air convection oven but unsure whether it can handle a 25-pound turkey? Maytag Corp. has a novel idea: Bring in the bird and cook it.
As part of a new program, the company is encouraging consumers to test-drive appliances before buying them. Shoppers can throw in a load of laundry, wash dirty dishes and bake their favorite dinners. There's even a package of cookie dough on hand in case people forget to bring their own.
"Try it before you buy it" used to apply to cars, clothes and sporting goods. Now it's weaving its way into such major household purchases as refrigerators and TiVo. National retailers, fighting low-priced discounters and the Internet, say the strategy is giving them a much-needed edge.
It's proving a powerful tool in selling appliances and electronics, complex gadgets whose technical-sounding and price-increasing distinctions -- higher resolution, extra gigabytes, more pixels -- can easily be lost on consumers.
One major target of the effort: women. They make the most household purchases but are more interested in understanding how a product will fit into their lives than hearing a salesman tick off its bells and whistles, executives said.
Maytag has opened 41 stores with the new format and plans 50 more this year. "You don't buy anything else at that price without testing it out, and we don't think an appliance should be any different," said Jill Spiekerman, a company spokeswoman.
Best Buy Co. is rolling out stores featuring mock rooms, each filled with chairs, lamps, rugs and thousands of dollars worth of electronics. Salespeople encourage shoppers to kick off their shoes and watch satellite TV on wide-screen plasma monitors.
James Damian, a senior vice president at Best Buy, said multiple product and service sales have risen sharply in stores with the mock rooms. "It's kind of like going to the Ralph Lauren Polo store," Damian said. "They are selling you a wardrobe, not just a shirt. Before now, big box retailers have never done this."
Retailers say the interaction sells. At Whirlpool Corp.'s 12,000-square-foot studio store in Atlanta, shoppers spend an average of two hours each turning knobs and pushing buttons. Afterward, 90 percent of them buy a Whirlpool appliance, the company said.
"I think we are going to see a lot more of this," said Raymond R. Burke, a professor of business administration at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business, who predicts the trend will help consumers sift through a crush of nearly identical devices. "This is an overdue way to communicate what makes a product unique."
In a study of 1,000 consumers, the Arlington-based Retail Industry Leaders Association recently found that between 75 and 80 percent leave a store without making a purchase because of an inability to find products or differentiate between them.
Some high-end boutiques, such as Bang & Olufson, have been encouraging consumers to test-drive their goods, but executives credit the success of Ikea, the Swedish purveyor of trendy assemble-your-own rooms, with generating the current interest in this approach. The company devotes about 25 percent of its floor space to fully furnished -- and, where electricity is required, functioning -- rooms showcasing Ikea products and some non-Ikea appliances. The so-called vignettes encourage sales not only of single products, the company says, but also of entire collections.
To sell Maytag's latest ultra-quiet appliance, Brian Baumgarten, who owns a Maytag Store in Sterling, used to launch into an elaborate explanation of its sound insulation package. Now he just turns it on. "Isn't that quiet?" he said as he passed one of them.
Cindy and Woody Himes seemed to think so. The couple, who are upgrading appliances in their Ashburn condominium, came to the store in search of a new dishwasher. A salesman showed them three options, opening doors, pulling out dish racks, and moving around glasses and bowls.
Then he turned each on. As the machines began to hum, Woody Himes crouched down and listened. He stopped at the Maytag Quiet Series 300, the most expensive of the trio, at $499.99. "I'll take it," he said. "It's the quietest."
Newton, Iowa-based Maytag, which manufacturers the Maytag, Jenn-Air, Amana and Magic Chef appliance brands, does not own its retail stores, which are independently operated. But it was the company that developed the concept for the new Maytag Store.
At about 5,000 square feet, the new stores are at least twice the size of the older format. They contain color-coded signs for appliances tied to cooking, laundry and dishwashing. And the stores are strategically located near home goods stores such as Bed, Bath & Beyond.
Inside a Maytag Store (the traditional format is called a Maytag Home Appliance Center), appliances are installed into full kitchens, complete with fruit baskets on the counter and spices in the cabinets. Employees put cinnamon water in the oven and bake it to create the smell of home cooking.
Baumgarten, who has owned several traditional Maytag stores in the region, opened the Sterling store in 2002. He estimates sales in the larger, interactive store are twice those of the older one. The biggest difference, he said, is how many appliances consumers buy. "Instead of buying one range, they buy the range and the refrigerator, and maybe the dishwasher, because they see how it works together," he said.
Minnesota-based Best Buy, the nation's biggest electronics seller, has installed vignette areas in 32 stores and eventually plans to introduce them in each of the chain's 600 stores, Damian said. The mock rooms, which include everything from kitchen appliances to home electronics, are positioned across the store, underneath large banners that read "Test Drive: Try it before you buy it."
In Sterling, for example, there are three versions of a home theater. Each room contains a hardwood floor, a chair and a coffee table. But the real focus is on the electronics: In one room, there is a $9,479 package that includes a 42-inch plasma TV, satellite TV, TiVo and wall-mounted speakers. A touch-screen guide allows shoppers to watch a DVD or satellite television, both for sale.
In the computer department, a laptop is set up with wireless Internet and a printer. A few aisles over, new electronic games can be played on wide-screen monitors.
Maytag and Best Buy are betting the experience zones will give them a competitive advantage in a crowded market for appliances and electronics.
Maytag, the nation's third-largest appliance manufacturer, is chasing Whirlpool and General Electric. Best Buy is locked in what it expects will be a long battle with Circuit City Stores Inc. and now Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp., which have moved aggressively into electronics.
The retailers said the product experimentation is especially designed to appeal to women. Maytag, for example, is putting its interactive stores "where women shop," said Spiekerman, the spokeswoman. Best Buy hopes that by demonstrating to women how gadgets work, it can begin to shake its image as what Damian calls "a male toy store for technology."
Damian said that in the past, electronics retailers have not directed enough of their marketing toward women. "It's a very underdeveloped audience," he said.
In a survey of more than 1,000 women conducted earlier this year by Frank About Woman, a marketing group in Winston-Salem, N.C., 92 percent said they are the primary decision makers when it comes time to buy big-ticket items.
Just how many consumers are actually using products inside the stores is unclear. Maytag said 40 percent of shoppers experiment with its merchandise. At Best Buy, some appliances, such as stoves, are not functional because of different safety rules in place for big box stores, the company said.
And Burke, the Indiana professor, warns that mock rooms take up valuable retail space in a store. "There are serious costs associated with it," he said.
For their part, consumers expressed surprise that is has taken mass retailers so long to realize they prefer a trial run. In the game section of the Sterling Best Buy recently, Jonathon Rippe, 18, was breaking a sweat to keep up with a new Sony PlayStation game that requires stomping on a foot pad.
"I won't buy a game until I try it," he said. "Either at a friend's house or here."