DES MOINES, Iowa - A consumer looking for a clothes washer does a load of laundry to see if an appliance lives up to its advertising claims. And a shopper considering a new oven tries one out by baking a batch of cookies.
At Maytag Corp. appliance stores opening across the country, consumers are trying the company's products before they buy them - taking the washer, dryer and oven equivalents of a test drive.
"In every other category you can experience it before you put it in your house - your car, TV, stereo," said Ron Dorf, a Maytag dealer in Minnetonka, Minn. "How come appliances are such a mystery?"
Working with independent store owners, Iowa-based Maytag is setting up more than 40 try-before-you-buy stores, with plans to triple the number over the next two years. Mr. Dorf opened his store the day after Christmas last year and said he's found customers impressed with the option of hearing and seeing an appliance work.
The concept appears to be new, and not in practice at major appliance retailers. Maytag says it came to the idea after surveying appliance buyers to determine what they wanted in a shopping experience. Consumers test clothes washers and dishwashers most often.
"These are two appliances that have water involved and people are very sensitive about the noise performance of it and its washing capability," Mr. Dorf said.
Akshay Rao, the chairman of the marketing department at the University of Minnesota's Carlton School of Management, said that with the concept, Maytag is helping to reassure its customers that the appliances they're going to buy have good quality.
"If my product was really bad, I would be a fool to provide you with that opportunity. So, it must be a good product," he said. "Whether or not people come in to check it out, it serves the purpose of convincing a suspicious marketplace that the product is, in fact, good."
Shopper Lynette Morgan, of Seattle, said, "I was thrilled to be able to try out their biggest and most roomy washer and dryer."
"I threw the laundry in, and looked around at other appliances while waiting."
She wanted to test the appliances to see if they would wash the sleeping bags for her family, who enjoy camping. Her new Neptune washer and dryer handle them easily, she said.
Larry Costello, a spokesman for Sears, Roebuck and Co., commented that "we like the concept," but said it's not practical for Sears to install the plumbing and fixtures needed to do similar test runs at its stores, which are part of malls. But he said Sears shoppers are able to at least hear how appliances such as dishwashers sound, to assess their noise levels.
Maytag plans to open another 60 stores by the end of this year and another 30 to 40 next year, said Rian Cain, head of business development. The stores also feature play areas for children, where they can play or watch a video while their parents shop
The first test site opened in 1998 in Des Moines and lessons learned there were then tested before focus groups in Los Angeles, Phoenix and Atlanta. Exit surveys found 84 percent of the customers were satisfied or completely satisfied with their shopping experience, Mr. Cain said.
More important for storeowners like Mr. Dorf, customers frequently leave with a new appliance.
"Our close rate - that is how many customers actually purchase that walk through the door - is running upwards of 70 percent," he said.
The stores sell most of Maytag's major appliance brands, including Hoover floor care products and Maytag, Amana and Jenn-Air appliances.
Maytag, a company that relies on its reputation for reliability and quality, has traditionally focused a large share of its sales on higher-end buyers.
The company's premium Neptune clothes drying center, for example, typically sells for more than $1,000. Newer style washing machines can cost around $900. Those prices compare with traditional style washers and dryers priced closer to $500.
The new stores are part of a strategy to raise consumer awareness of Maytag's brand in the markets where stores are opened.
"We want to create an umbrella in all of these markets that makes it very conducive to hear the story about Maytag, Amana and Jenn-Air," Mr. Cain said. "So, wherever they buy, Maytag becomes a much greater part of their consideration set - because of the Maytag store in the market."