While a gradual recovery has been offering glimmers of hope for the kitchen and bath industry, there's no question that the last few years have had a tremendous impact on product choices. This is particularly true of kitchen cabinets, where the slow economy, smaller kitchen footprints, an emotional climate that favors more simplistic styling and a growing interest in environmental concerns have all played a key role in current trends.
While early 2010 figures from the Reston, VA-based Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association suggest that the long tailspin in cabinet sales is beginning to abate (see Barometers, Page 10), consumers are still looking more carefully at all high-ticket purchases to make sure that they are both necessary and imbued with real value. As many consumers have "traded down" from high-end to mid-brand lines in everything from cars to appliances to cabinetry, custom cabinet manufacturers, in particular, have been forced to rethink their offerings.
Technology has evolved to allow semi-custom and even stock cabinets to offer more features and better storage options, and as a result, semi-custom cabinets are gaining in popularly. At the same time, some custom cabinet manufacturers have been forced to create new, more value-priced lines, while others have found ways to market unique storage features or other elements that speak to quality.
At the semi-custom level, consumers are demanding more options, with a greater focus on the interior of the cabinet and the functionality it will add to the home.
From a style standpoint, consumers are less about designing for resale than about choosing something they truly like, and that means popular styles range from traditional to ultra-modern, finished in everything from dark stains to pastel paints. Green options, too, are making some inroads. But while style certainly matters, the interior of the cabinets are taking center stage, as smaller kitchens make better organization and less wasted space the watchwords for the day.
Damand for Value
While a diversity of trends is evident in today's cabinet choices, the one mainstay through all of this, cabinet manufacturers agree, is the idea of "value."
Yet even the definition of value has changed in recent years. While once, value was considered by most to be a euphemism for "cheap," that's hardly the case anymore. Today's definition of value means the product incorporates features that matter to the homeowner, and that offer improved functionality or style benefits that make it a good investment for the money spent. And today's manufacturers agree that the desire for "good value" holds true at every price point.
"Value and quality are more important than ever as people shop for the best deal," says Cindy Draper, marketing manager for Canyon Creek Cabinet Co., in Monroe, WA.
"People want style, quality and value for the best possible price," affirms Robert Nusbaum, president and CEO of Berloni America in Troy, MI.
Manufacturers also note that the search for value doesn't mean consumers aren't spending; they are just spending more wisely.
"Customers who are ready to invest in a new kitchen are more conservative than they may have been in the past; however, quality and options are still important," says Galyn Bennett, Cabinetry by Karman, in Salt Lake City, UT.
"These buyers are not willing to downgrade."
"What we are finding is that a consumer who might have splurged on high-end custom cabinets is now more open to the idea of a semi-custom offering," says Scott Korsten, marketing director for Showplace Wood Products in Harrisburg, SD. "For those people, price isn't really an issue, but they want the most they can get for their money."
One result of the value trend is that semi-custom cabinet lines are gaining market share, and this has given rise to improved and expanded semi-custom cabinetry lines.
Semi-custom lines, such as Embassy House from Rich Maid Kabinetry, now contain more custom features than were ever available in a semi-custom line in the past, "all at a price point that makes it very attractive and affordable," says Barbara Umbenhauer, marketing director for Embassy House, in Myerstown, PA.
"We have created product lines that can be sold with optional upgrades ala carte as well as offer product lines that include all of the upgraded features a homeowner may desire; either way, pricing must be simple and reasonable," says Bennett.
The economic climate is not only forcing customers to be more selective, but also designers and manufacturers, as well.
"Consumers are demanding more for less, so dealers are looking to products where quality detailing and premium features come standard, but the pricing gives them room to make a profit," reports Betty Hitchcock, v.p. sales and marketing for River Run Cabinetry, in Harrisonburg, VA.
"A range of technologies have been developed and incorporated into the cabinetry to obtain combinations that better fit the customers' needs," says Antonia Gomez, spokesperson for Spazzi, in Badajoz, Spain. "A more efficient kitchen has risen from these hard times."
To deal with price pressures and assist the customer with the right selection, Wellborn Cabinet Co. is working within its "Good, Better, Best" system for choosing cabinetry, according to Angela O'Neill, director of marketing & advertising for Wellborn Cabinet, in Ashland, AL. "We have really focused a lot of our additions on the ‘Good' area. We've given homeowners more options at that price point, including more color options and more cabinet sizes."
And those types of options are important to clients, notes Brian Yahn, sales manager for Plain & Fancy Custom Cabinetry, in Schaefferstown, PA. Now that homeowners are planning to stay in their homes long term, they are more willing to take risks with cabinetry and kitchen design. "They want a space that reflects their personal taste and accommodates their family's needs – whether it be a bolder, more unique color or special storage features," he says.
"While consumers still look to styles that stand the test of time, they want to add their own signature to the layout and design," agrees Hitchcock. "Dealers need to give customers options. That translates into accessories, mouldings, embellishments and a variety of case sizes."
Consumers have taken a more simplistic and responsible approach to living, according to Yahn, and that has definitely affected the kitchen cabinet industry as kitchen footprints and square footage have decreased. There is a feeling in the industry that the monster-sized kitchens of the past decade may appear now and again, but they are mostly a memory.
Working in smaller areas demands well thought out space planning and creativity, manufacturers agree. "Smaller kitchens demand better efficiencies and consequently, cabinet organization systems are a definite trend," says Umbenhauer. "No longer does a designer have the luxury of adding a cabinet ‘just because.' Today's designs require that every cabinet work, and work hard."
Yahn says this is where custom cabinetry plays a key role. "The beauty of custom cabinetry is the ability to utilize almost every nook and cranny so that there's no wasted space," he says. "Storage solutions such as pull-outs, drawer organizers and built-in lazy susans make kitchens accessible, convenient and efficient."
"There is definitely a big push for ease of access and storage in a cabinet," stresses Jeff Ptacek, CKD, product manager for StarMark Cabinetry, in Sioux Falls, SD.
Canyon Creek Cabinet Co. has also focused on more designs with hidden storage units, such as a lazy susan inside a corner cabinet, a tip-out drawer in front of the kitchen sink, or multiple pull-out trays and shelves to store belongings in a non-cluttered, organized fashion, says Draper. She also mentions larger pantry cabinets that can incorporate bulk-purchased items and larger drawer space and drawer organizer options as key.
One of those out-of-sight storage requests currently in high demand is the recycling center. Storage containers built into cabinets have gained in popularity due to the interest in living greener and mandates from local governments to separate paper from plastics, metals, glass, etc.
"Some consumers even request specially built cabinets to accommodate their recycling efforts – a drawer for newspapers with a string dispenser to tie them up when the drawer is full, three or four trash bins on a lazy susan, one for each type of recyclable, etc.," says Umbenhauer.
In keeping with the interest in living greener, the demand for more environmentally friendly materials has impacted the cabinet industry – probably more so than any trend in the past decade, according to manufacturers.
Many manufacturers welcome the challenge to adopt greener manufacturing processes and create appealing, more environmentally friendly products to meet consumer demand (see related Sustainable Design Supplement).
"Obviously, protecting the environment is the right thing to do and the industry is working hard to offer greener materials while satisfying consumer demand," says David Greenwood, v.p./sales and marketing for JSI Cabinetry in Fall River, MA. "We are looking at consumer demand, then working within the parameters to do our part."
One way manufacturers are doing that is by becoming members of the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association (KCMA) Environmental Stewardship Program (ESP). While this was viewed as an add-on idea of interest just a few years ago, today it has become an industry standard that is part of the everyday world of kitchen cabinet manufacturing.
"The ESP from KCMA has been a wonderful tool for those of us in the kitchen cabinet industry by giving us the opportunity to ‘prove' that our manufacturing processes and resultant products are ‘green' to a suspicious 21st century consumer who has heard it all," says Umbenhauer.
Formaldehyde-free wood, CARB-compliant products and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) materials are some of the more popular green requests.
As a certified ESP member, Yahn says companies have to maintain certification annually with compliance in five categories, including air quality, product resource management, process resource management, environmental stewardship and community relations.
Yahn notes that the ESP has become so accepted as a standard in the industry, it is almost expected that a cabinet manufacturer be certified.
"We are being asked less about our environmental position," reports Korsten, "perhaps in response to the broad acceptance of the KCMA's ESP."
However, while many consumers still ask environmental questions, kitchen and bath dealers report that their customers' final choices are not necessarily based on the answer – ultimately, consumers still buy what they like. Having said that, if customers can find an environmentally friendly specie at a reasonable price and they love the look, that is what they will pick.
"Lyptus continues to be a specie that fills that need for our dealers, and its volume continues to gain traction," Korsten says.
While green is a popular conversation topic, it is not a driving force, affirms Ptacek. "If customers see that being green hurts their wallet, they will lean towards a more budget-friendly alternative from a company that they see as environmentally responsible," he says.
"While the green factor might not always drive the final decision, it is considered more and more in the selection process," notes Hitchcock.
"Customers will purchase from companies that are environmentally responsible and ESP certified; a manufacturer does not need FSC/LEED certification to be on a homeowner's list of possible vendors."
Raymond Ducharme, director of marketing, Transition Team, for Executive Cabinetry, in Simpsonville, SC, agrees that while everyone says they want to do their part to be green, not everyone is willing to pay more for the product.
"Purchase decisions turn back to value again," he says. "Successful manufacturers will be those who can offer a truly green product at moderate additional cost. Of course, as the demand grows, cost for green cabinetry will come down."
The green trend has impacted pretty much every facet of daily life, and manufacturers agree that their kitchen cabinet choices provide an easy way to go green.
"Wood is environmentally responsible and sustainable; homeowners need to know that," says Ptacek. "There is a big push to educate consumers on the ‘renewability' of wood and industry involvement in forest conservation."
For the truly eco-conscious, bamboo cabinets are gaining in popularity. "We offer bamboo, one of the fastest growing, easy-to-cultivate wood species on earth, and beech, a plentiful wood product sustainably harvested under some of the toughest forestry laws in the world," say Draper. She stresses, however, that maple is "still number one in universal appeal."
"For us, maple remains the king," affirms Greenwood, with Korsten and O'Neill providing a confirming nod.
"Maple is our number one specie, with cherry a close second," says Ptacek. "We have seen a slight resurgence in oak, perhaps because of the price point, but maple and cherry can receive the most variations of glazes and paints, which is why they remain so popular."
For those looking for natural finishes and glazes, rich woods such as walnut and mahogany tend to be popular because, as Yahn says, they offer a rustic "back to basics" look that is warm and inviting.
Today's kitchen cabinets feature sleeker, simpler and cleaner designs than their predecessors, confirm kitchen and bath designers.
Ducharme believes people are primarily looking for fashionable looks and unique door styles. "Wider frame widths on flat-panel doors with applied moldings and cherry wood continue to grow in popularity," he states.
Draper sees variations of Shaker door styles emerging as a new trend. "The timeless look of Shaker-style doors continues to hold strong," she says, "especially variations with wider stiles and rails, as well as with a different species for the center panel or a different finish on the center panel."
Most designers confirm a continuing shift to transitional and even contemporary styles, with oak and walnut finishes. "Integrated handle styles and gloss finishes are becoming more popular, as is the European design trend to use open shelving," reports Nusbaum.
Transitional is definitely most popular right now, according to O'Neill. "It is safer than going completely contemporary, and features clean lines, less fuss and fewer mouldings…unless they are clean, cove mouldings and corbels," she says.
Yahn also confirms an increased interest in transitional cabinetry, although he sees a look that walks the line between traditional and stark modern. He thinks the look is appealing, especially in cabinetry, because it's lasting and subtle but can be dialed up or down with the right accents and finishes.
Plain & Fancy uses one of distinctive finishes in its Modern Chinoiserie kitchen. The cabinetry features traditional Chinese Chippendale details and updates them with Silver Veil, a finish created by "using black veiling to accomplish an antiquated appearance on a rather modern color," according to Yahn.
While a variety of stains have been a staple in kitchen cabinets for years, painted finishes are receiving renewed attention.
"The painted finishes seem to be well received as homeowners' tastes become more sophisticated and the trend of combining two colors for cabinetry appears to be gaining popularity," says O'Neill. She notes that Wellborn recently added painted finishes to broaden its selection.
Nussbaum adds that oak and walnut finishes on contemporary or transitional cabinetry are becoming trendier, which is leading to more designs using pastels and shades of white.
Transitional designs typically use two finishes, and Umbenhauer is noticing a lot of kitchens with painted islands and stained perimeter cabinets. "Islands tend to be white or linen, although some are black paint, and the wall and base cabinets are a light stain on cherry," she says.
One of the reasons for the move to color has to do with the size of the kitchen. For those dealing with limited space, "cool paint colors may be used to open up simplified kitchen designs," says Bennett.
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