Forget that old white washing machine and dryer. Buyers of major appliances today want quality, aesthetics and value - and branded manufacturers had better be ready to deliver, says Brian Hancock, vice president of supply chain with Whirlpool.
The world's largest seller of appliances, Whirlpool is an old-line company with a well-established brand in the marketplace. But that doesn't mean the company is standing still, when it comes to product innovation. "The customer is looking for us to be cutting-edge and [devoted to] absolute best quality," says Hancock. In particular, the company is focusing on green technologies with respect to cutting water and energy usage.
Whirlpool doesn't have much time to attract a given customer. Most go shopping for large appliances about once every 10 years, says Hancock, and they're in the market for just seven days. Within that narrow window of decision-making, they have to be brought up to speed on the current technology and benefits of each model.
To stay responsive to the consumer, Whirlpool has adopted a formal product lifecycle management (PLM) approach. The process helps the company to keep tabs on all aspects of its supply chain, including the suppliers that furnish key components. Wherever possible, Hancock says, it strives to design parts that can be used in multiple models. Differentiation occurs at the level of aesthetics and machine capacity.
What the customer seeks in terms of design is changing. "It used to be that everybody wanted the same white machine," Hancock says. "Now they're looking for designer-type opportunities."
They might also be purchasing more frequently than before. In the last five years, Whirlpool has seen a shortening of the buying cycle. Some consumers are changing out models every five years. Reasons include a greater emphasis on fashion, and a growing awareness of the environmental benefits of the latest models.
In future, Hancock says, "the customer is going to expect more for less." At the same time, the pace of technological advancement will accelerate, driven by the ability of Asian producers to transfer innovations from premium to low-end models within a relatively short period of time.
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