retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

It is amazing what you can learn from reading a newspaper. And not just learn; it also is amazing how the most unlikely article can give birth to an idea.

It started the other day as I was reading the New York Times and saw an interesting story in the Home section about interior designers who specialize in creating new living spaces for divorced men. But the story grabbed my attention because of the clever way that the writer, Emily Weinstein, built her case.

Her premise was that this Valentine’s Day, because the economy seems to be getting better, a lot of people who have been putting off their divorces because of the recession may now be ready to take the plunge. (Or, since taking the plunge refers to getting married, maybe what they really want to do is climb out of the deep end. Whatever.)

The drop in the nation’s divorce rate since the crash of 2008, by the way, is a proven fact. It has been compared to a similar occurrence during the Great Depression. I suppose that the good news is that if economic good times lead to more divorces, this in turn will prime the pump of the economy because more lawyers will be gainfully employed, more houses or condos will be sold and/or bought, etc... Happy days are here again. (Well, maybe not for the people actually getting divorced. But maybe for the economy as a whole. I should hasten to add here that despite the fact that I read this Times piece with great interest, I am not getting a divorce, am not considering a divorce, and have no personal experience with divorce. Though I do live in constant fear that Mrs. Content Guy will realize that she could have done a lot better...)

But I digress.

The Times piece about interior designers for newly divorced men made the point that a lot of newly divorced men have no sense of style (their wives did all the decorating), no real idea how to live on their own (their wives did most of the cooking, cleaning, bill paying the child rearing), and are desperately in need of a civilizing influence. And so these designers help them navigate these waters, designing homes that, for example, might have a masculine aesthetic without being overbearingly macho, be child friendly without looking like a day care center, and be attractive to members of the opposite sex. They also manage to integrate into their designs things that guys simply need to have, like the biggest possible flat screen HD TV that a room can handle.

Here’s what really got me. One of the designers told the Times that when working with newly divorced men, she often found herself acting as a therapist as much as a decorator. She wasn’t just helping these guys turn an house or apartment into a home, but also was helping them create needed structure as they began a new chapter in their lives.

Bingo.

That struck me as an enormous insight, and one with great application for many companies in the retail business, but especially the food business.

If there is going to be a sudden influx of people in this country who are going through a divorce, which is what historians and economists suggest is going to happen, then a lot of those people (mostly guys) are going to have no idea how to feed themselves, how to equip and stock their kitchens, and how to cook for their kids or their dates. Retailers in markets where there are a lot of these people - let’s call them transitional customers - now will have a marketing wedge, if they care to use it.

And it isn’t just people going through divorce. Not to be gloomy, but the same opportunity exists in markets where there are a lot of elderly people. The simple reality is that some of these folks are going to pass away, which may leave a lot of their surviving spouses in a state of transition, needing help as they adjust to a new stage of life. You’d think that stores in certain sections of Florida and Arizona could be using such a concept to really differentiate themselves, and to create lasting and meaningful connections to such shoppers.

And yes, there’s even a movie connection I can make here. Think about that moment in The Descendants when George Clooney’s character, a self-described detached parent dealing with the fact that his wife is in a coma, has no idea who to call to get his swimming pool cleaned, or how to handle his two daughters. He is the prototypical transitional customer, and he’s in the market for help ... even if he doesn’t know it.

Retailers with cooking schools - ranging from supermarkets with such offerings to Sur la Table - could offer cooking classes specifically designed for these transitional customers. Stores like Sur la Table could market special kitchenware packages to this group, while grocers could help them with a “stock up your new kitchen” package.

Think of it as offering a kind of Apple Store Genius Bar,.

It takes the retailer beyond the role of just selling stuff. It allows them to be a resource for information and guidance, not just a source of product. And, it also is a concept that does not just cater to high end shoppers (which, let’s face it, is the market on which those decorators-for-newly-divorced-men are focusing), but conceivably to transitional customers at all ends of the economic ladder.

I could be wrong, but I think it is a big idea.
KC's View: