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Jennifer Marks

Heart Trumps Handbag

For those who missed it, Business Week recently posted an online interview with Robyn Waters, formerly Target's vp of design, trend and product development, now a consultant and author. With the July and August show season rapidly approaching, it seems an apt time to consider Waters' philosophy on the science of bringing good product to market.

Waters follows what she calls the 3H design theory: head (perceived need), handbag (cost and value) and heart (emotional pull). Her rules: Don't be trendy just for the sake of trendiness; keep it simple so that a product's “inherent goodness” is obvious to the consumer; and when you know in your gut that something is right, just do it — don't analyze it to death.

Today's environment looks to be challenging for product makers and retailers. Despite strong economic metrics, consumers are unsettled. There is no need to catalog here all the factors dampening their mood; suffice to say that none of the factors appear likely to evaporate over the coming months.

It is in this atmosphere that the industry tends to become reflexively promotional and opening-price-point-oriented. To what end? I would argue that a woman who doesn't need new towels is no more likely to buy them at $5 than she is at $7.

But what of the woman who does need new towels? Those towels with the $7 tag will have to be demonstrably superior to the $5 stack.

Retailers and suppliers alike have a stake in pushing $7 towels out the door. The past few years of price deflation have seriously eroded margins, and most retailers have logged several quarters of pitiful sales in their home departments When consumers are wary, advertising $5 towels might drive them into the store, but for business to pull out of the doldrums, those consumers need to be converted to the higher price-point alternative.

As is often noted in this space, it all comes down to product. In my early days covering retail, I was walking a new store concept with an editor who'd been in the field for several decades. I told him I thought the store was wonderful. He asked if I was tempted to buy anything. “Well, no,” I stammered. “None of this stuff is for me.”

“Congratulations,” he sneered. “Now you're thinking like a typical buyer.”

The moral: Despite the very real need to address head and handbag, don't forget the heart. And every now and then, go with the gut.

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