Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Retirement Downsizing - Plain Vanilla Staging

By now, some of you are weary of my grousing about what’s involved in staging my house to list it for sale. You have my permission to skip today’s post. Those who have been following my rants know that it’s my contention that the Plain Vanilla school of staging is not the optimum way to market a 100-plus year old Victorian. I now have some ammunition from the retail arena to support my case.

It comes from one of my frequent sources of inspiration, the New York Times. (And let us not forget that even “the gray lady” added some color years ago.) A June 15 article by Stephanie Clifford on retail mannequins made a claim that immediately caught my eye. “The generic white, hairless, skinny mannequin is being pushed aside by provocative alternatives that entice shoppers.”

“Aha!” (said I.) “She has just described my repainted and staged kitchen.” Generic white. Hairless and skinny. I commented to some friends that a potential buyer who sees several properties staged by the same team will get confused about which kitchen was which. Here’s a clue: mine is the one without granite counter tops.

I guarantee that a large percentage of homes on the market in Providence have kitchens painted Fossil and White Dove. Likewise hardware in brushed nickel, and very likely my same new chandelier. I would be snorting up my sleeve after being shown three houses with identical plain vanilla décor.

More importantly, the potential buyer who is drawn to this décor is (IMHO) likely someone who really wants a new house. People who like Victorian houses are drawn to their character and charm. Staging a Victorian in plain vanilla is hiding its light under a bushel basket. Or in my case, inside a packing box in the basement.

Let’s get back to Ms. Clifford and her report on the trend in retail mannequins, which she describes as “a new appreciation for old-fashioned window dressing.” (Take that, stagers! So much for naked windows.) Retailers are using mannequins to “personify their brand” and focus on a specific customer. That’s what I feel staging should do for a house, especially one that has distinctive architecture.

It all comes down to Marketing 101. The seller shouldn’t do things that will alienate a large number of potential buyers. However, trying to appeal to everyone’s taste runs the risk of having everyone like your house a little bit, but having no one fall in love with it. If you use period-appropriate touches (in my case Victorian) to target the buyers who are most likely to truly appreciate your house, aren’t you more likely to find a match?

Let me illustrate my point with descriptions of two types of mannequins—one from the seventies and one from today. In the 1970’s, retailers kept costs down with generic mannequins that had no wigs and no make up. Bald and nondescript—in other words: plain vanilla.

Today, one designer store has mannequins that lie down, per Ms. Clifford, “to help shoppers imagine wearing lingerie.” A professional stager would be shocked. “What? Suggest that they should wear something specific? What if they don’t want lingerie?” Hello-o-o! You’re selling lingerie. If they don’t want it, they should be shopping at Pottery Barn.

Some of these new mannequins even have muscles. That’s tantamount to putting color on a wall in the house. My stager would have apoplexy. He feels white walls let the buyer use her imagination about how she would decorate. I think he gives buyers too much credit. He’s also out of touch with how busy women are. Most of us would be happy to be handed a home that has tastefully colored walls, ones that are relatively neutral, but not plain vanilla. It saves us hiring a decorator. Excuse me. An interior designer.

I’m having one of Oprah’s “Aha!” moments, the ones where a light bulb goes off above your head. I think I’ve stumbled upon the real reason that stagers want everything done in vanilla. As my mother would have said, they’re in cahoots with the interior designers. By having houses done all plain, it forces the buyers to hire designers to add character to the interior of their shell of a new home.

So, the seller (or the seller’s real estate agent) pays the stager to clear out every vestige of décor from the home. The buyer then hires the stager’s partner (legal or unofficial) to redo the décor. If there is any justice in this world, the interior designer attends the seller’s tag sale and buys most of the décor the seller was forced to dispose of. It then winds up back in the house where it started out.

Is this a great country, or what?

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