Annetta Grant

Bucknell Study Finds Home Improvement Media Influences Consumers

October 18, 2022

by Mike Ferlazzo

Professor Annetta Grant goes beyond economics to examine what motivates homeowners to spend on renovation projects. Photo by Gordon R. Wenzel

Home may be where the heart is, but new research, co-authored by a Bucknell University Freeman College of Management professor, finds that homeowners are increasingly more influenced by home improvement media than their own hearts when it comes to making home renovations — and that makes homeowners uneasy.

According to the U.S. Home Remodeling Market Report by Global Market Insights, American consumers spent some $340 billion in 2020 remodeling their homes, a figure that’s expected to grow more than 4% annually between 2021 and 2027. Yet for all the money spent, Bucknell Professor Annetta Grant, markets, innovation & design; and Jay Handelman, an associate professor of marketing at Stephen J.R. Smith School of Business at Queen's University in Kington, Ontario, wrote in their study on the consumer home renovation experience that a great many consumers find their home is never quite "finished," which creates a sense of unease.

"Historically, home is understood as a place for you and your family that represents who you are," Grant says. "The home improvement media is shifting that to an understanding of the home as your biggest asset that must meet some marketplace standards. Consumers are caught in the crossfire of wanting a home that reflects who they are, but needing their homes to meet these marketplace standards."

Grant and Handelman tracked the ways in which consumers experience the tension between representing their unique identity and adhering to marketplace standards through home renovation. In doing so, they conducted interviews with 17 homeowners and four service providers over two-and-a-half years in two Canadian cities. They summarized common patterns in their study, which was published recently by the Journal of Consumer Research.

A home designed, renovated and decorated in a way that is unique to the homeowner would likely be hard to sell in today’s marketplace. That's what consumers take away from all the home improvement television shows and magazines, which the authors identify as the modern tastemakers of home design. For that reason, they conclude that "consumers feel compelled to rely on marketplace standards rather than their own instincts in decorating their living spaces."

The study found that while consumers readily turn to the home décor marketplace for objects that help them reflect their personal identity, lifestyle media have clearly influenced an emergent cultural understanding of the home as a marketplace asset. The popularity of industrial-grade appliances, large kitchen islands with bar stools, open floor plans, neutral color schemes and spa-like bathrooms all speak to consumers working to align their homes with professional marketplace standards — even as they fret about "getting it wrong."

The researchers also observed the presence of a market-influenced pressure that casts shame on homeowners for their poor decorating choices.

"Uniqueness is shunned while professional expertise and market standards are celebrated," Grant says. "It is a common feature of home renovation television shows for homeowners to be ridiculed by expert hosts when aspects of their homes fall short of modern trends."

Even for consumers who push against the standards of the day, the market-influenced pressure is a disorienting force that contributes to consumers' unease with their homes — one the researchers define as "dysplacement" in their study. It challenges their ability to fully identify with their own home and potentially keeps them on the home renovation treadmill: If homeowners are not in the throes of a renovation, they are thinking about it.

Grant and Handelman conclude that firms can help consumers reconcile the tension between unique identity and market standards.

"They could, for example, create platforms — a physical retail setting or an online forum — where consumers' expression of uniqueness is celebrated rather than admonished," Grant says. "Based on the positive experience of place consumers have in these forums, firms that align their offerings with celebrations of uniqueness may find greater market opportunity for their products and services."

Grant will continue her research on what motivates homeowners to spend on renovation projects.