Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Black: The New Stainless-Steel

Last weekend I was in the middle of my daily trip to the local "home store" (the inevitable consequence of a remodel project in its latter stages) when I noticed an attractive refrigerator sitting near the entrance. In front of it was a sign in large handwritten letters that read:


Now this I had to check out. The "prime directive" of every home makeover/flipping/buying/selling/trading/renting show on cable TV mandates that all kitchen appliances must be stainless-steel. I have seen episodes of these real estate orgies in which a woman rejected an eight bedroom, 11,000 square foot mansion with ocean views, offered for fifteen thousand dollars, because it didn't have stainless-steel appliances. (The husband subsequently appeared on a reality crime show as a prime suspect in the disappearance of his steel-obsessed wife.)

In spite of overwhelming evidence that I was committing a home makeover felony, I selected black appliances. This choice was a no-brainer: stainless-steel comes with about a 30% price increase over its humbler, color competitors. I simply can't see paying several hundred bucks just to get a permanent installation of kindergarten finger-paintings in my kitchen. (By the way, aren't fingerprints stains??) The only concession I made to this expensive surface choice was inside the dishwasher. This doesn't count with style nazis because it's invisible 98% of the time.

The reaction of my family, friends and even total strangers to my choice has been so virulent that I sometimes think it would have been worth the extra money to spare myself the umpteenth repetition of my "In Defense of Black" speech. Once the subject of my remodel comes up, the appliances confrontation is inevitable. It goes something like this:

"So you got stainless-steel, RIGHT???"

"Uhhhh.... no, actually. I got black."

"Black?? BLACK??! You got BLACK APPLIANCES????!!!"

(If the conversation is occurring in a public space, this is the point where people start turning around to take a look at the idiot who wants his kitchen to look like a funeral parlor.)

"Oh come on.... what's so great about stainless-steel anyway?"

"Oh you poor demented fool! Haven't you watched HGTV? Don't you know that steel appliances can increase your resale value by tens of thousands of dollars??"

And now it seems I could have avoided all of this conflict without paying an extra penny. But then I looked more closely at the home-store display and discovered that, like most advertising, it wasn't as simple as it appeared. On top of the fridge were the prices for the three versions of the model in question:


White: $1199

Black: $1199.

It was true that no premium had to be paid for stainless-steel, but that was because the price of the less desired models of color had been raised significantly to match that of the steel-clad version!

It was the perfect advertising ploy: tell the literal truth while leaving the lies unspoken. There is nothing particularly remarkable about this approach: politicians and used-car salespeople do it every day. But will it work?

I have every reason to believe that it will. I suspect that, like the hula-hoop craze, the stainless-steel mania is abating. It's the nature of fads. Whoever came up with the "no premium for stainless-steel" concept no doubt saw some disturbing sales figures and realized the hit the refrigerator food-chain would take if people only bought appliances that had, in effect, a 30% discount. The only answer was to raise the prices of the non-stainless steel items. But how to do that when all of the retailers are constantly screaming that they have the lowest prices in town?

The answer, of course, is magic. Or to be more precise: sleight-of-hand. If a magician doesn't want you to see what he or she is doing with her right hand, make the audience look at his or her left instead. In this case distract the shopper with the seemingly great bargain of offering stainless-steel at "colored" prices so they won't notice that the price of the latter has just gone up very steeply.

Ask a car dealer whose been in business, say, for 40 years whether he's ever raised prices and you might get him to concede that he did it once during the Great Inflation of the 1970s. Really?? So how come I can't buy a car for four thousand bucks like my Father did when he bought a new Pontiac Catalina in 1972? In spite of this undeniable fact, the dealer would be telling the literal truth. GM didn't raise the price of a Pontiac Catalina. Instead they slapped a new name on a reworked body enclosing better bells and whistles, placed it upon the same chassis as the Catalina, and sold it for 30% more.

All that the appliance food chain needs now is one or two reality crime shows featuring a husband wanted for questioning in his wife's disappearance because the real estate deal of a lifetime she passed up had stainless-steel in the kitchen.