Here’s what happens when people visit Whirlpool Corp.’s Insperience Studio in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood: They bring their chores with them. One man brought a bag of trash to crunch in the compactor. A family brought dough and baked bread. Jan Walters, manager of Insperience, a soft-sell showcase for Whirlpool- and KitchenAid-brand products, sees such odd behavior as a good sign. Her company wants to change the way you buy your next washing machine. If that means having you bring in a load of dirty laundry to do at their place . . . well, come on in. You won’t need quarters.
Whirlpool opened Insperience last November to address one of its key distribution problems: the “sea of white.” “Customers go into a store, and they see row upon row of white boxes,” says David Provost, director of purchase experience. “They get confused, because everything looks alike. When they talk to a salesperson, they feel as if they end up buying what the salesperson got the best commission on or what was overstocked.”
Insperience is Whirlpool’s attempt to part the sea of white — a place where consumers, interior designers, and home builders can learn about the company’s products without feeling pressured. It’s also a boot camp for salespeople and a laboratory to help the company’s product developers understand how consumers interact with appliances.
Visitors enter Insperience Studio through the Hearth Room, where they meet with one of four on-staff “selection consultants” to discuss what they’re looking for. Most people spend about 90 minutes going through the series of kitchen, patio, and laundry-room “vignettes” at Insperience.
All of the appliances are hooked up, which means that a selection consultant can demonstrate, for instance, how easy it is to program the Polara Refrigerated Range, which can keep a tuna casserole cool until 6 PM, then begin cooking it. Insperience also regularly hosts holiday parties and children’s birthday parties that center around activities such as baking cookies.
From the beginning, the team that created Insperience knew that it would need a solid business case behind it. Whirlpool, after all, is a company that is “used to justifying every nickel’s worth of metal that goes into a washer,” explains Scott Phillips, the Whirlpool exec who came up with the idea for Insperience. Phillips developed a list of metrics that Whirlpool is using to gauge Insperience’s payback. Such measures include foot traffic, Whirlpool’s market share in Atlanta, the number of new builders that Whirlpool wins as a result of visits to Insperience, and sales figures at retailers whose salespeople are trained at Insperience. Selection consultants also follow up with consumers who have visited Insperience to see whether they need any more information — and find out which appliances they decided to buy.
How those metrics look in November, the first anniversary of Insperience’s opening, will likely determine whether it is viewed as a temporary experiment or a lasting institution. “We’re fighting every day to show that this is a great investment for Whirlpool,” Provost says. “There’s a lot of pressure. But we’ve got big visions of transforming retail, and we think this is the way to get started.”