What Dealers Want

Few will argue that in a challenging economy, customer service becomes more critical than ever. Kitchen and bath dealers and designers are well versed in this credo, and many have taken their customer service practices to new heights in the past year in order to stay competitive.

But when the tables are turned and they’re the customers, are they getting that same high level of service? And what are the most critical services that kitchen and bath dealers and designers want and need from their suppliers?

These were some of the key questions posed by a recent survey that looked at supplier services in the kitchen and bath industry, as well as dealers’ and designers’ future plans and overall business outlook for the next 12 months (see related Editorial). The results of this exclusive survey, conducted by the Charlotte, NC-based Research Institute for Cooking & Kitchen Intelligence (RICKI) for Kitchen & Bath Design News, were presented at KBDN’s inaugural Kitchen & Bath Industry Leaders Conference, held in Chicago in late September (see Industry Barometer).

The survey, which polled more than 300 kitchen and bath dealers and designers from across the country and Canada, looked at how dealers and designers rate supplier services, products and features they are most likely to add or change over the next 12 months, how dealers/designers view their relationship with manufacturers and what products and features they see as most needed right now.

Topping the Want List

Because different economic climates evoke different needs, respondents were first asked about what supplier characteristics they view as most critical right now. Interestingly, while price was high on the list, the number one answer was prompt, reliable and complete delivery. This was cited by a whopping 98% of those polled, proving that there’s no substitute for getting the order right and on time (see Graph 1).

Next on the list were fast response to inquiries (96%) and consistent and competitive pricing (96%), followed by consistent availability of product (94%) and supplier rep knowledge/helpfulness (86%). Also high on designers’ and dealers’ wish lists were product warranties (85%), comprehensive sales literature and product info (85%) and a helpful Website (81%).

Of somewhat lesser importance to those polled were product, sales or business management training (65%), purchasing incentives (63%), exclusive product representation (57%) and marketing/advertising assistance (57%).

Respondents were also asked to rate supplier services now as compared to three years ago. Although a slow economy usually creates more pressure to upgrade customer service, this appears not to be the case, with half of those polled rating the quality of service as about the same now as it was three years ago. Another 26% rated it as worse now than three years ago, and only 22% saw it as better now (see Graph 2).

Perhaps more disturbing was the fact that the majority of those polled (56%) believe manufacturers do not see themselves as partners who are genuinely concerned about dealers’ and designers’ business success, but rather are just interested in selling them products.

But while survey respondents feel there’s definitely room for improvement, neither is the news all bad; in fact, those polled reported that an average of 71% of their suppliers provide “very good” or “excellent” service and support, with dealers giving slightly higher ratings than independent designers (72% vs. 68%). Additionally, 59% rated their supplier rep knowledge and helpfulness as “very good” or “excellent,” and 57% gave “very good” or “excellent” scores to their suppliers for prompt, reliable and complete delivery and fast responses to inquiries.

Areas where reps need to improve, according to those polled, include marketing/advertising assistance (which only 28% rated as “very good” or “excellent”), purchasing incentives (viewed as “very good” or “excellent” by only 30% of respondents), and exclusive product representation in primary market area (rated “very good” or “excellent” by 33% of those polled). Likewise, another key area where suppliers need work, according to survey respondents, is product, sales or business management training, which only 34% rated as “very good” or “excellent.” It should be noted, too, that dealers rate their suppliers significantly better than do independent designers in this area.

It could be argued that the areas suppliers fell short in were by and large areas that dealers and designers did not rate as most critically important. However, it could also be argued, particularly in the case of business management and sales training, that what dealers and designers most want may not always coincide with what they most need (see related Letters to the Editor).

Additionally, three-quarters of those polled said they experience some product availability issues, two in five said they would like suppliers to respond more quickly to inquiries, and one in six said they want suppliers to be more proactive making visits to them, especially when new products are available.

That said, respondents gave high marks to suppliers overall for product warranties and rep knowledge. Dealers and designers also expressed satisfaction with the pace of product introductions (rated “adequate for my needs” by 79% of those polled), and distribution channels (rated as “adequate for the products I want most” by 85% of those surveyed).

When asked to define what makes a supplier stand out in terms of customer service, they noted qualities such as better support and follow through, better communication throughout the buying/delivery process and rapid responses to questions/concerns.

Adding Products

Respondents were also asked about what products they are most likely to rethink over the next 12 months, and the results showed plenty of changes, in both adding new lines and re-evaluating current ones.

In a climate where fewer people are expanding their kitchens and most are trying to maximize existing space, it should come as no surprise that organizational products topped the list of products to be added. In fact, a whopping half of all respondents said they plan to add interior storage accessories to their offerings over the next 12 months, while 29% said they expect to change out these lines (see Graph 3).

Perhaps another result of the desire to maximize existing space without paying for a costly expansion, outdoor kitchen products came in second on the list, with 49% of survey respondents saying they plan to add to these offerings, while 17% said they expect to change their outdoor product lines.

For those who aren’t ready to invest in a full kitchen or bath remodel, simple upgrades like changing out the hardware or replacing the kitchen countertops or bath vanity can provide an updated look, and the growth in popularity of these upgrades was evident in the survey results. Some 48% of respondents said they plan to add decorative hardware lines, while 47% said they plan to add new countertop and bath vanity lines.

So what inspires kitchen and bath dealers to add or change product lines? According to the survey, 60% do it to offer product features unmatched by competitors, while 56% will add or change lines in order to improve the quality of the project and 55% will make a change for a superior product (see Graph 4). Price also matters; 53% of respondents said they would add or change lines to get more favorable prices and/or terms.

By contrast, only 21% view brand as a key factor in adding or changing a product line, and only 17% say they would change or add a product line based on seeing it at a trade show.

Poor quality is the number one reason dealers or designers said they would drop a line, with 73% of respondents citing this (see Graph 5). Another 46% said they would drop a product if it received negative client feedback, 37% reported problems with delivery as a reason to drop a product line and 26% cited lack of adequate availability, not enough or poor rep service/support or decreased client demand as key factors that would cause them to stop carrying a product line.

Interestingly, while 86% of survey respondents said product pricing is more important now than three years ago, less than a quarter (23%) said they would drop a product line based on low profit margins and only 22% said they would stop carrying a line for being too expensive.

While this may at first glance seem contradictory, the overall optimism cited by many respondents about future business conditions may have convinced many to hold onto more expensive product lines in order to entice high-end customers back as the market improves.

Most Needed Features

While kitchen/bath dealers and designers have clear ideas of what services they’d like to see improved upon, some also felt the industry has a void with regard to certain products/features. When asked what they believe to be the most needed products and features today, the most-asked-for item, cited by 23% of respondents (see Graph 6), was better design for function and fit (Universal Design, accessible products, etc.).

Some 22% cited a better selection of reasonably priced products as much needed in today’s economy.

Another 17% asked for more choices of materials/colors/finishes, while 13% said they would like to see better availability/in-stock products, 7% wanted more readily available product info, 6% asked for more green options and 5% wanted more technologically advanced products.

Other common requests were for cabinet door hardware that swings up and takes up less space in the cabinet, side-hinged wall oven options, shower jets with economical environmental qualities, green, low-cost countertops and lighting alternatives and more innovative and contemporary-styled lighting for bathrooms.

Optimistic Outlook

Kitchen and bath dealers/designers were also surveyed about their overall business outlook and plans for the coming 12 months – and the results showed more than a few rays of optimism. More than half (53%) said they anticipate their business improving in the next 12 months, with only 8% saying they believe it will get worse.

Additionally, 17% expect to increase their showroom space and 14% plan to add a showroom in the next 12 months, while half plan to add full kitchen displays or vignettes and a third plan to add full bath displays or vignettes.