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DALLAS — Fashion retailers desperate to engage consumers and create loyalty in the midst of this stubborn economy and signs of a possible war — when simply getting shoppers to come into a store is a challenge — might want to look at ovens.

This story first appeared in the March 14, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

There are no price tags on the array of cooking devices on display at the Viking Culinary Arts Center here. Rather, the primary purpose of the VCAC is brand building — raising awareness of Viking’s professional ranges, refrigerators and grills.

Potential customers can come in and test drive an appliance at VCAC, a facility that includes a retail store stocked with high-end cooking tools, a culinary school and 40-seat theater for chef demonstrations.

“Educating the customer is the most crucial thing to our success,” said Joe Sherman, president and chief executive officer of VCAC, a division of Viking Range Corp. “We let them see firsthand how the product performs.”

There are some parallels in the fashion industry. Specialty stores such as Chanel hold mini-runway shows, and makeovers have been a staple of department store cosmetic floors for years. These days, however, the fact that most makeovers require a minimum purchase of $50 has left some customers disillusioned.

To be sure, a customer who balks at the minimum purchase requirement is probably not one who would have sprung for the whole line anyway. But there is something charming about a company that offers a service without a blatant quid pro quo.

What companies such as Viking have learned is that affluent folks — those who’d consider buying a Viking stove at price tags that range from $3,000 to $10,000 — are interested

in learning about the product in a stress-free environment without the hard-sell of a commissioned appliance salesman breathing down their throats. Similarly, many serious cosmetics customers respond to scientific and technological breakthroughs, while designer customers have come to expect thoughtful personal attention.

VCAC has found a formula for cross-promotion. The people who attend its cooking presentations will lust after the stainless steel-clad appliances the chefs use to prepare the food. If they’re not prepared to buy one right away, they can take home some of the gleaming cooking tools sold in the store.

The retail area is densely merchandised with goodies for foodies, including lots of Viking cookware and cutlery, and a myriad of sophisticated tools and gourmet condiments. Bestsellers include $20 Orka silicone mitts that can be used to pluck an egg from boiling water and $40 Rosle professional garlic presses. There are also Microplane cheese and vegetable graters, priced from $10 to $17; Global steel knives, $44 to $110, and copper duck presses, $2,000.

“We try to carry tools and bakeware so we can make a strong presence in those categories,” said Sherman, a former executive vice president of McRae’s department stores in Jackson, Miss. “We have an extensive assortment, but we stay out of tabletop and fringe classifications such as linens because our purpose is to complement the professional feeling of the Viking range.”

The store also sells products that enhance the gourmet dining experience, which often includes an appreciation of fine wine. Riedel Austrian stemware, priced from $20 to $30 a glass, is designed to maximize the flavor of various wines — bringing out the oak in some vintages, for example —through their shape, which determines where the wine hits the palate.

A lengthy roster of cooking classes attracts 150 to 200 students a week, and the VCAC here will present seminars given by seven guest chefs in its theater in April and May. Viking mails a quarterly newsletter and cooking class schedule to current and prospective customers.

The stores have been doing $400 to $600 a square foot in sales, Sherman said.

The 4,380-square-foot Dallas VCAC, which is a prototype for future centers, consists of a 2,500-square-foot store, a 700-square-foot teaching kitchen and a 1,180-square-foot theater.

Viking founder and chairman Fred Carl got the idea for a “test drive” center for ovens while visiting a Land Rover dealership. He started the concept by buying four Home Chef locations in California and opening the first branded Viking center in Memphis in 1999. The sixth VCAC is expected to open on March 22 in Garden City, N.Y.

Units are slated to open in April in St. Louis, followed by Cleveland in the fall. Sherman continues to scout for sites in Los Angeles, Boston, Phoenix, Washington, Houston, New Jersey and the Carolinas. He expects to have a total of 40 centers within six years in markets where Viking already has a strong presence via its distributors and dealers.

Customers with an interest in Viking’s flagship product — ranges — are directed to local dealers. They also can walk to the rear of the store and visit the adjoining showroom of Milestone Distributors, Viking’s regional wholesale distributor and a partner in the Dallas VCAC. Milestone provides product information to shoppers, then directs them to a dealer, the closest of which is a block away, for the actual sale.

“It’s hard to measure whether they go and buy the products, but I think that over the next few years we will see the impact of the VCAC,” said Mary Miles Temple, Milestone’s marketing manager. “Our dealers say it’s fabulous that we have this center. The brand awareness has been great.”

Located on McKinney Avenue around the corner from Dallas’ prime strip of home furnishings retailers, the VCAC earned a fast buzz after its October opening. Most of its culinary students and shoppers fit Viking’s target demographic: women, aged 30 and older, with a household income of more than $70,000.

“In the culinary basics class, they start out with sanitation and knives, and it introduces them to all the things we have on the sales floor,” noted manager Laura Plumettaz. “They get to keep the chef’s coat, and they receive a 10 percent discount in the store.”

Sherman mused that other retailers might get some ideas from the focused, multifaceted strategy of the Viking Centers, which give the company a high profile and level of credibility that only a substantial advertising investment could create. (Viking advertises in shelter magazines.)

“In creating a classification you need to dominate the category,” Sherman said. “If you don’t really believe in it then get out of it. Offering a class or some type of education online are some of the things retailers can do. You have to offer something extra. The classes and the information customers get from our sales associates about the difference between lemon squeezer A and juicer B is what sets us apart.

“There is nobody doing what we do,” he concluded.

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