These guinea pigs hate the garage Marketing: Ryland Homes found it pays to listen to focus groups in perfecting the designs for its new Howard County development.

April 13, 1997|By Mary T. McCarthy | Mary T. McCarthy,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

They were the guinea pigs. They were there to make sure that what had been planned and sketched would be good for the masses and that the project would be a success.

Thumbs up on larger family rooms. Thumbs down on protruding garages.

Spying from behind a one-way mirror, Jim Joyce, Baltimore division president for Ryland Homes, waited for this final moment.

The focus group had checked off everything they wanted in a new home planned for an Ellicott City development. He had a price range in mind, but experience told him that focus groups rarely get it right. They want a prince's castle at a pauper's price.

But when he heard "$150,000 to $180,000" for a townhouse and "$240,000 to $300,000" for a single-family home, he couldn't believe this group had hit it dead on.

"When they came out that way you could have knocked me over with a feather," he said. "I've done a couple of these [focus groups] in the past few years and people come back and say, 'Oh yeah, I like that! Give me that big porch. Give me that picket fence. I love that lot line and I love those town squares and parks.' And, 'How much would you be willing to pay for this product?' and the answer is 'Zero.' "

The focus group with the dead-on answers was one of two Ryland recently used in a single day to market Hollifield Station, a townhouse and single-family development opening next month Howard County.

"Since we're introducing a new product which essentially is an upgrade of our old product, we wanted to get a feel for the reaction of the public to the new plans in the new location," Joyce said. "The focus group process is really a great drill. We don't always have the luxury of the time to perform this research if there's a tight production schedule, so it's really worthwhile to get the feedback when we can."

Ryland used Marketing Directions Inc. of Falls Church, Va., to conduct the focus group.

"The real estate industry in the past was not consumer-oriented; it was a fragmented industry," said Paul Duffy, the firm's president. "When Ryland did these focus groups, they saw that their market is even broader than they thought. It has a big impact on a company like Ryland to be able to see their customers in real flesh and blood evaluating their product."

Joyce said Ryland specifically uses focus groups "to confirm the things that we had already planned, but haven't put to bed."

The focus group participants were first asked what they look for in a new home. Joyce and other Ryland executives then wanted their reaction to sketches of three older houses and of three new models proposed for Hollifield. The two focus groups never knew whether they were looking at the drawings of older or newer houses.

And when the two groups started to dissect the plans, Joyce and his team were listening and learning.

Said Joyce: "When we showed the old plans they said of the exteriors, 'We don't like these houses that don't have a covered entry way. We either want some kind of porch roof or a recess so that if somebody is standing in the doorway they'll be out of the rain.' "

Joyce made note and a change was made.

Then there were the window treatments. They wanted more trim detail around the windows, especially on the second floor.

This was more of a challenge, but he thought it was a good suggestion and later had the roof trusses redesigned to allow the room needed for the detail on the second-floor windows.

But then there are those focus group responses that still have Joyce shaking his head.

"Here's one we heard, but we know people won't pay for," Joyce said. "People say they want the garage doors to disappear. They want them on the side or in the back. That's nice. But to do that you need a lot to be 20 feet wider. Well, they will absolutely not pay the difference it costs to build on a lot that's 20 feet wider. That will add $30,000 to the price of the house and there's no way that's going to happen.

"The good part about these exterior comments, with the exception of making all the garage doors disappear, is that it is an upper-end product. It's $300,000 by the time you get done. So we feel we can accomplish most of these things [recommendations] and feel we can get paid for a terrific-looking street scene," he said.

The members of the focus group were varied: young and old, married and single, with children and without them.

Joyce said half the participants were people who had inquired about the property because of Ryland's sign announcing the Hollifield development. The other half of the group was selected from the area. Having participants who knew so many details about the area was a plus, Joyce said.

"We had an 80 percent recognition factor from the entire group on both site and the fact that the schools in the area were excellent, and almost a 60 percent recognition factor that there was a new elementary school being built on the site," Joyce said, adding that Howard County schools enhance the marketability of a development.

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