By Jay McIntosh
When Jamie O'Boyle and Margaret King saw kids making a beeline for some Berg Furniture bedroom sets on display in a store, they got interested.
Their curiosity was professional, since both work for the Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis, a Philadelphia organization that does research on consumer behavior.
They were watching the children and their parents while on assignment at Gallery Furniture in Houston, where owner Jim McIngvale had invited them to look into why people buy the furniture they do, and how Gallery could do a better job selling it.
What made the Berg bedrooms so attractive, O'Boyle and King realized, was that they looked like they were fun as well as functional. Instead of a ladder, Berg's bed systems have steps leading up to the bunk, and the steps double as drawers. Many of the beds have desks and cabinets and shelves attached.
"The kids speeded up as soon as they saw them and went straight up the steps," said O'Boyle, the center's senior analyst. "I lost count of how many times parents uttered the same phrase - ‘Why didn't they have beds like this when I was a kid?' I heard it in English and I heard it in Spanish."
Staffers from the center learned that Berg was based in this Philadelphia suburb, just across the Delaware River from the center's offices, and visited the company.
Berg executives were impressed with the organization's insights and invited O'Boyle and King, the center's director, to the Las Vegas Market in September to give a two-hour seminar to the Berg sales team.
In part, they talked about what children need in order to develop into well-rounded adults. One answer: An environment that can spur creativity. When parents sense this, it can affect their purchase decisions.
The researchers said that at Gallery, they saw shoppers come in with a $600 budget for children's furniture and then suddenly consider a purchase at several times that amount after watching their kids react to the Berg bedroom systems, which retail at $1,600 to $2,800. This showed a key principal of consumer behavior, they said.
"Cognitive science has demonstrated that the emotional centers of the brain respond first, followed by the logic centers. In other words, ‘facts' are what people use to validate decisions they have already made at an unconscious level," O'Boyle said.
The analysts said the Berg pieces create an environment that encourages children to exercise their imaginations.
"Are we saying that this furniture can make your children smarter and more creative? That's what we are looking at," said King. "There are countless research studies that link a creative environment in childhood to success in later life. This furniture encourages and facilitates many of the behaviors that child psychologists believe are necessary for a child to become a well-rounded, confident adult."
Almog Lieber, vice president of marketing at Berg, said the researchers' analysis will affect how the company markets its products.
"The way to make a change is first of all to understand how the consumer buys," said Lieber. He said it had never occurred to company executives to say, "This will make your children smarter," but now they will begin to work the message into Berg's marketing efforts.
"We were maybe lacking the right vocabulary, the right approach, when it comes to marketing," Lieber said after listening to King and O'Boyle's presentation.
The analysts said they could find little research on the emotional effect of furniture - how it shapes behavior and how people assign meaning to it. That information could help the industry understand how their customers find value, and how to sell that value, they said.
O'Boyle said some salespeople intuitively understand that if consumers see furniture in a store that they respond to emotionally, they'll be willing to spend more. A question for the furniture industry, he said, is, "What can you do or say or display to bring that out?"
"We're only in the early stages of our research," said King. "But we've learned a tremendous amount about how people really assign value to certain pieces of furniture, how they intuitively use them, and how it affects them emotionally.
"In the children's furniture area, for instance, it won't be enough in the future to simply provide a bed, a dresser and a desk. Consumers want ‘smart' furniture that can enhance and foster their child's psychological as well as their physical needs," she said. "Parents want the smartest thing in the room to be the child, not the PlayStation."