A Year to Forget ... and to Remember

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

With apologies to Charles Dickens, it’s easy to describe 2009 in the same terms that the great English novelist described 18th-century London and Paris in his classic, A Tale of Two Cities.

2009 was, in many ways, the worst of times for a housing industry mired in a steep, unprecedented slump – with housing starts, home sales and residential remodeling reeling under the weight of job losses, tight credit, evaporating equity, a rash of foreclosures and weak consumer confidence.

It was also the worst of times for a kitchen/bath industry that saw cabinet sales drop 30%, appliance shipments fall 17%, and demand for other key products post equally sharp declines.

That said, it’s understandable to ask exactly how 2009 could’ve also signaled the best of times.

The answer, while far from obvious, is simple.

2009 was the best of times because it provided a glimpse of the kitchen/bath industry at its finest…revealed its character and grit…offered a learning experience that was memorable and invaluable.

To me, the kitchen and bath industry shone more brightly in the dark days of 2009 than at any time during its many years of glitter and growth. All year long, I heard nothing but optimism, confidence in the industry’s long-term viability.

All year long, I heard little panic – and even less whining. People didn’t abandon the industry in droves, didn’t quit, didn’t lose hope. Instead, they rolled up their sleeves and went to work. Instead, they made plans, developed contingencies, adapted, fought, created good news in the face of bad.

All year long, I heard stories about resilience and resourcefulness…about business strategies founded on insight, faith, experience and savvy management tactics. All year long, I heard about companies trimming costs and implementing prudent financial controls; about companies diversifying into new products and niches, launching new customer service initiatives, forging alliances, arming themselves with profit-generating sales and marketing strategies.

All year long, I heard stories about survival.

2009 left a great deal of damage in its wake – no doubt. Companies closed their doors. People lost jobs. Others struggled mightily simply to make ends meet.

But the calendar year is nearly over. That’s good news all by itself. So is the fact that most of us made it through. So is the feeling that better times are ahead.

Signs abound that the housing slide has bottomed out. Remodelers are reporting more stable market conditions. House price corrections, positive affordability and cuts in production should spur recovery. Stock market gains should boost confidence. Last month’s extension of the tax credit for first-time home buyers should provide stimulus. Polls reveal, too, that affluent consumers are likely to increase home-related spending as the market recovers (see Industry Barometers and Consumer Buying Trends).

While a sustained recovery faces a long uphill climb – and economic realities will surely reshape consumer spending patterns – the long-term outlook is also positive, since remodeling continues to rest on a solid foundation of demographics and lifestyle factors.

2009 may be a year that many people want to forget – put behind them as quickly as possible and turn the page. That’s understandable. But the past 12 months should also be a year to remember, a year we learned what we’re made of, a year we discovered what our industry is all about.

Best wishes for the holiday season – and for a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.