MILFORD — Brittany Wezner earned an undergraduate degree in nutrition at the University of Maine before receiving her culinary degree at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, never thinking she’d end up working in an appliance showroom.
Wezner, 28, is one of two full-time chefs at the Clarke kitchen and design showroom about an hour south of Boston, whipping up risotto or searing New York strip steaks with high-end stovetops and ovens for customers several days a week.
“People look at me as a resource, not just a chef,” said Wezner, who also makes customer house calls. “It’s really something special to see people so excited.”
Excited about appliance shopping?
It appears so, as dealers shower potential customers with cookies, pulled pork sandwiches, and other culinary delights.
It’s part of a broader trend in retail as merchants try to appeal to customers who don’t just want to buy new things. They also want to learn to make an omelette in seconds, create homemade beef jerky, or brew the perfect cup of Turkish coffee.
A survey by Westfield Corp., an Australian shopping center operator with malls around the globe, found that 32 percent of US consumers want to learn new skills at their favorite stores, whether it’s master classes for applying makeup or book clubs. So retailers are responding — and not just with cooking demonstrations and classes.
In London, for example, the coffee machine retailer Nespresso offers coffee connoisseur classes, and the diamond seller De Beers provides gemology courses at its shops.
“What retailers are doing is thinking about what’s going to make the customer experience interactive,” said Ani Collum, a partner at the Norwell consulting firm Retail Concepts. Retailers are asking “how can we keep people in our store longer — because the longer they’re there, the more money they’re likely to spend.”
That is particularly true in the world of appliance sales, where consumers have a bevy of choices about where to buy utilitarian products like refrigerators. Known as experiential marketing, the interactive programs give retailers a way to combat “showrooming,” when a customer visits a store to test a couch or an appliance, but buys it online from a lower-cost vendor.
A showroom with a festive atmosphere, one-on-one attention, and great-smelling food can make it more difficult for a customer to pull away. Lauren Beitelspacher, a Babson College retail professor, said demonstrations and classes also help to minimize post-purchase regret.
If a buyer is confused or doesn’t know how to work an appliance, regret ensues, and customers are unlikely to rate the experience well and want to buy more, she said. This is particularly important as advancing technology makes products more sophisticated and complicated.
There are a dizzying array of new kitchen tools, from home sous vide systems to cooktops that sear steak using infrared light. Some kitchen appliances can be controlled by smartphone apps.
“You really want to minimize the cognitive dissonance after the purchase, when you feel like your expectations aren’t met,” she said. “This is a fun way to do that without the consumer feeling like they’re being lectured to.”
Steve Sheinkopf, chief executive of Yale Appliance and Lighting, said the showroom-as-classroom lets customers learn how to make a perfect plate of buffalo chicken wings that taste fried, for example, but are made in a steam oven. Yale Appliance has built its showrooms around several working kitchens and routinely invites local chefs to its stores in Dorchester and Framingham.
“It’s a competitive advantage,” said Sheinkopf, who hired a full-time chef eight months ago. “You have to offer someone a reason to shop in the store.”
Jose Duarte, the chef and owner at Taranta, a Peruvian-Italian restaurant in the North End, said he recently conducted a cooking demonstration using quinoa in Yale Appliance’s showroom because he wanted people to learn about the South American grain.
Duarte, who cooks at Yale several times a year, also likes the interaction, which brings him out of the restaurant kitchen and directly in front of people who are interested in food and how to create it.
“One of the favorite things is Peruvian pork sandwiches — I bake the bread right there,” he said. “For me it’s a way to promote and sell my brand as a restaurant, as a chef.”
Clarke’s Milford showroom, with its 14 “vignettes,” or functional model kitchens spanning 18,000 square feet, features only Wolfe and Sub-Zero ovens and refrigerators. The average buyer will spend about $25,000 on a kitchen package, said Brian Bugler, marketing manager.
Clarke does not sell directly to clients, but makes sales through other vendors, including Yale Appliance and Lighting. Customers are seen by appointment, usually for two hours, he said, and get to learn from a pro.
At the Milford showroom, chefs work six days a week giving demonstrations, hosting parties, and filming cooking and appliance video demonstrations in the company’s 100-seat amphitheater. (It’s the same place that chef and restaurateur Ming Tsai films the PBS show “Simply Ming.”)
Recently, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski visited and bought what he needed to create an outdoor kitchen complete with patio dishwashers, Bugler said.
“We want people to come,” he said. “We treat it like a playground for adults.”