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Breaking through the Screen Door

The near future of indoor/outdoor living

The screen door represents the traditional boundary separating indoor from outdoor home life. But recent research suggests consumers, more than ever, wish to soften that boundary — physically and technologically.

The emerging trends point to this barrier breaking, and retailers and manufacturers alike should be poised to take advantage.

Major retailers like Ikea, Lowe's, Home Depot, Wal-Mart and Target have sold indoor/outdoor products for years. But interestingly, dominant indoor and outdoor brands remain focused on either inside or outside the screen door. Ikea and Target have done more boundary-breaking with their house brands. Lowes and Home Depot are certainly growing their house brands, but they tend to use discrete brands for different segments vs. globally branded ones using the retailers' name. Therefore, in addition to speculating about the kinds of products consumers might value in the near term, we're wondering which brands and retailers may deliver the goods to them.

Our research concepts related to breaking through the screen door are driven by professional curiosity as part of our ongoing product development practice. We used primary and secondary research, with technology audits, to identify unmet consumer needs. Then we fed this information directly into the ideation process to create novel new product concepts. We do this confidentially for our clients — including consumer brands like Black & Decker, Thermadore, Dewalt, GE, Applica and others — but we also like to peer into the future to keep our creative juices flowing.

The concepts featured in this piece were created by our product design staff for public consumption. This indoor/outdoor concept exploration looks a couple of years into the future and all the technology represented in the concepts is either commercially available or will be in the near term, likely at a reasonable cost.

Trend watch

So let's start with big picture trends. We pulled information from sources as diverse as CNN, Organic Gardening, the American Institute of Architects, Supermarket News and the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association.

Our analysis of this data led to identification of the following global trends, which can influence consumer behaviors and drive new product development:

  • First and most obvious is the economy. Homeowners in these times are reassessing patterns of consumption and, as they're able, reinvesting in their current homes. According to the Produce Marketing Association, bad economic times also mean a return to the "nesting instinct" and comforting activities around the house. People recognize that their home, in most cases, represents their primary asset and that when they decide to sell they will have significant competition. As such, investing in the beauty and utility of their outdoor living space makes a lot of sense. This same sensibility is also driving the "staycation" trend where homeowners forego travel in lieu of adding at-home niceties and luxuries.

  • Aging boomers are a market mover, but look out for Gen Y growing into home ownership and raising families. Boomers have been an ideal consumer base for years, and they will continue to be a force. Nevertheless, younger generations have different sensibilities and priorities. They will also tend to be more ethnically diverse. However, there are some unifying themes related to accessibility and usability. For example, architectural trends driven by the Americans with Disabilities Act make access to the built environment easier for everyone. Moreover, advanced electronic user interfaces strive to create easier to understand and use devices that are less language dependant.

  • Related to the generation gap is ubiquitous computing, including more "smarts" in everyday objects at very low cost. This has also driven connectivity through wireless networks and smarter mobile devices such as a smart phone with myriad specialized applications. The cost-performance ratio will continue to rebalance, and advances in simple and accessible interfaces will ensure continued integration of technology into more and more traditionally "dumb" devices, such as watering and lighting systems or even patio umbrellas.

  • Finally, environmental consciousness — including conservation and pursuing healthier lifestyles — is growing steadily. According to the Cone marketing report, over the past few years, there's been an 88% increase in people who are more interested in eco-issues. "Green" has become mainstream with implications for how people build and grow things, what they consume and what they discard.

We combined these broader trends with our in-depth interviews with consumers on gardening and entertaining and gathered the following insights:

Gardening and yard care

Younger generations are exploring gardening as they begin raising families. They are interested in the health benefits of growing their own produce but are more comfortable using tools driven by electricity (corded and battery powered) than gas.

Older gardeners want to continue working and enjoying their time outdoors. They want to reap the benefits of gardening but are increasingly interested in minimizing the risk of injury and discomfort while gardening.

Consumers across age groups enjoy the satisfaction of working their land. They value power tools and, increasingly, the integration of advanced technologies but will resist overt automation.

Outdoor entertaining

Grilling can be a very interactive and social activity. Many consumers we surveyed look for more convenient ways to cut down on shuttling cookware, food and serving pieces between indoors and outdoors. They strive for the comforts and convenience they're used to in their indoor entertaining spaces but resist purchasing too many specialized (outdoor only) products.

Summary of key findings

Behavioral Trends — Increased participation in gardening at both ends of age curve. Bringing the kitchen outside. Combined enjoyment of outdoor cooking and entertaining.

Technology Trends — Wireless networks, RFID tagging, ubiquitous computing...battery-powered tools, solar powered systems. Reusable containers that are less wasteful.

Unmet Consumer Needs — Better access to information to spend gardening time more efficiently and effectively. Greener gardening tools to provide power and labor-savings without the noise, smell and mess of gas. More ergonomic and convenient method of shuttling food, utensils and supplies between garden, kitchen sink, fridge, kitchen and outdoors.

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