Wanted Now: Industry Partnerships

A new year, and new decade, is underway in 2010 – with the kitchen and bath industry facing a new economy, a new consumer mindset and a new, more challenging market.

Perhaps it’s time for a new focus on how business is conducted.

For years, it seems, the industry’s focus has been almost entirely on product. And that’s understandable. Stated simply, consumers have demanded a flood of new and innovative products. At the same time, dealers and designers have required a broader-than-ever range of offerings to remain cutting-edge and competitive. And manufacturers have needed to push waves of new products through their factories simply to stay a step ahead of the rapidly changing fashion curve.

But perhaps the industry’s focus needs to shift now that the market has changed. Perhaps the focus now should be less on product, and more on building partnerships.

The notion of partnerships, of course, is hardly new. Many of the top suppliers in the trade have focused for years on maintaining productive, long-term partnerships with their retail customers.

But a renewed emphasis on that approach, it seems, is sorely needed now.

KBDN surveys consistently reveal, for example, that while kitchen/bath dealers feel the pace of product introductions is adequate, and product lines are broad enough to meet most needs, supplier services, they say, are no better now than they were years ago.

Especially problematic is the finding that the vast majority of dealers believe their suppliers are concerned solely with selling them products – not with helping them, in any meaningful way, to improve their company’s profitability.

This dynamic needs to change.

I suggest that the manufacturers who truly differentiate themselves in the marketplace of 2010 will be those who stand out not merely on the basis of product, but on the basis of service and support. I suggest that the manufacturers who truly shine will be those who address dealers’ most pressing needs, and maintain a core value that helps retain their customers through challenging times … not the ones who simply throw more and more product out there.

In truth, for manufacturers it’s no longer about focusing simply on product innovation, diversity – and even quality. Instead, it’s about offering prompt, reliable and complete deliveries, consistent and competitive pricing, warranties and guarantees, purchasing incentives, and co-op assistance. Instead, it’s about providing marketing and sales training. Instead, it’s about developing, outsourcing and sponsoring educational programs to sharpen the business management skills of dealers and their personnel.

In other words, it’s about partnerships – relationships in which manufacturers are perceived as true business partners, not merely as vendors, and which retail customers are given the support they need to remain stable, profitable and committed.

Product differences tend to blur in a tough, competitive, challenging market like this. They blur almost to a point of invisibility in an industry that’s already glutted with offerings. Other things, however, never blur. Partnerships are among them. In times like this, in fact, they make all the difference.

Editor’s Note: It’s show time for the kitchen and bath industry again, with the annual Kitchen/Bath Industry Show set to run for three days in Chicago next month. And KBDN readers can catch a glimpse of the 2010 K/BIS in our Show Guide of this issue. Readers can also garner helpful tips on attending the show from Bryan Reiss’ “Successful Selling” column, and review a sampling of the products on display in a series of e-newsletters from KBDN, set to arrive before, during and after the big event.

Hope to see you at the show.