Environmentally Friendly Messages Provide Basis for Differentiation in Retail Paint Market as Supply Chain Challenges Continue

During the past two years, the home improvement sector experienced an uptick in sales as customers tackled do-it-yourself (DIY) projects to improve the functionality or aesthetics of their homes—and kill time. This elevated level of activity has reshaped the landscape of the paint market.

J.D. Power research indicates that customers are recalibrating their expectations and buying habits when it comes to paint, as factors like environmental friendliness, durability and toxicity become more top of mind in this challenging environment. This shifting dynamic creates an opportunity for brands and retailers to distinguish themselves in a competitive market.

To discuss the importance of strategic messaging in improving consumer awareness–and satisfaction–of value for price paid, safety and durability of the paint they purchase, we caught up with Christina Cooley, Director, Home & Retail Practice at J.D. Power.

Here is what she had to say:

Q: While issues surrounding environmental and sustainability concerns have not traditionally been a major driver of purchase decisions, is it possible that it is emerging as an important differentiator as the global economic picture evolves over the next few years?

Christina Cooley: I believe it is. A number of trends are converging to change the dialog that the paint sector (from both a manufacturer and retail perspective) is having with customers.

After an initial period of home confinement in the early days of the pandemic, most customers still find themselves home more often, many working from home indefinitely. For some, the enforced residential confinement served as encouragement to tackle home-improvement projects. Others went further and took on ambitious renovation initiatives by redesigning their living spaces to accommodate their new work/life environments.

One of the easiest DIY projects to tackle – in terms of skills, time and financial investment – is painting, which quickly increased in popularity through the pandemic period. But the same dynamics playing out in other sectors of the economy are manifesting themselves in this market. The increase in demand has not been matched by the ability to deliver supply.

Consequently, painters—both DIY and professional—are at times struggling to find what was once a widely available staple. The high-demand low-supply environment has transformed paint from a common commodity into a treasure hunt to find the exact product desired. As a result, customers are looking at paint through a more critical lens as prices rise and options may be more limited.

For paint manufacturers and retailers, this confluence of trends is prompting leaders to evaluate how they present their value proposition to customers. It is in this context that J.D. Power is finding messages around environmental friendliness, durability and toxicity to be an emerging opportunity to differentiate the customer experience in the paint sector.

While paint may not be the first product category people think of in the context of sustainability, the industry may be well served by exploring ways to further integrate an environmental narrative into their go-to-market activity. The good news is that many of the attributes that customers have always looked for from leading paint brands are also factors that can contribute to sustainability.

The durability factor–one of the top drivers of brand performance–is a case in point. As the economic picture becomes more uncertain, durability is more essential than ever for many paint shoppers. Long-lasting paint saves time and money. But from an environmental perspective, high durability also means that customers do not have to paint as often.

Durability is also often tied to ease of maintenance. Customers are expressing growing interest in paint that is easier to clean because of attributes that make it more resistant to internal or external wear and tear. This is an area in which the industry does quite well. An overwhelming 95% of respondents surveyed by J.D. Power said that they did not experience problems or defects with their paint, another key performance indicator.

Toxicity, which represents an area of concern for customers, is a more challenging and sensitive component to track. One of the few ways customers gauge toxicity is by smelling–or breathing–paint fumes. These tend to increase every time a coat of paint is applied. In other words, when it comes to paint, toxicity is a function of quantity.

Here is where players in the industry may have an opportunity to leverage innovation to promote a less toxic message. According to J.D. Power, most customers need to apply more than one coat of paint to achieve desired results. Only 35% of customers can accomplish their project objective with a single application. In addition, only a quarter of customers said that fume levels were better than expected. This data suggests an emerging opportunity for ongoing innovation to produce paint products that can go further for the customer in terms of both coverage and fumes.

Q: How can the home retail sector leverage messages about sustainability to influence customer satisfaction?

Cooley: In general, the perception of how brands operate as members of the communities they serve influences how customer loyalty is established and maintained. This is especially true when it comes to how paint retailers communicate with their customer base. Local knowledge of environmental factors, for instance, matters when making decisions about both internal and external painting projects.

But it is also true for how brands bring new product innovations to market. Many manufacturers, for instance, have developed interior paints with low- or no-volatile organic compounds (VOC). This is a very attractive proposition for customers attuned to environmental issues and why it is becoming more common in the industry.

The challenge for the paint sector is that customers rarely hear about these product enhancements and advancements from retailers. This represents an overlooked opportunity for brands to differentiate themselves from competitors. Our research suggests that customer awareness of these features can translate into brand loyalty and improve interest in stores that carry paints with these specific environmentally friendly attributes. A coordinated brand/retail focus on these sustainability messages can also better support the paint sustainability message before, during and after the point of purchase.

Take the paint disposal dilemma that many customers face as a prime example. The majority of customers—almost 90%—exclusively store any unused paint somewhere in their homes. Sometimes homeowners keep leftover paint for touchups down the road. However, customers often store paint in their homes' basements, garages, and sheds simply because they do not know how to dispose of it properly.

Most customers recognize this as a potential environmental hazard and yet are unaware that many manufacturers and retailers have developed return and recycling programs. While paint retailers often include this information on their websites, it is not often a topic of discussion during the purchasing process. It is a classic problem statement that can be easily addressed through better joint messaging from retailers and brands. Customers should have no issues returning or recycling paint.

Q: What investments should the industry make across the ecosystem to ensure coordinated messaging across brands and retailers?

Cooley: There are significant opportunities for manufacturers and retailers to incorporate environmental messaging into customer-facing communication initiatives. Many brands have already listed specific environmental goals and objectives. Several also report on the investments they are making in related product developments. Others don’t discuss their sustainability accomplishments.

The overall effect on the public at large, however, has not been particularly strong. Only 20% of customers surveyed by J.D. Power are aware of product guarantees that obviously speak to durability. The reality is that almost all major paint brands have some type of guarantee and/or warranty. As the industry enters a new normal, environmental friendliness may become a more considerable driver for paint purchases in the future.

Context, however, is key. In the end, if the paint does not deliver on customer expectations, the sustainability conversation will not matter. It will, therefore, be important for manufacturers to create–and market–paint products that get the job done while also delivering the environmental benefits that consumers increasingly seek.

Find out More
To learn more about the underlying research behind this industry briefing or to schedule an interview with Christina Cooley, please contact the number below.

Media Contacts
Geno Effler, J.D. Power; West Coast; 714-621-6224;  

Christina Cooley
Director of Home & Retail Practice
J.D. Power