Spend a few minutes with veteran kitchen and bath professionals, and you’ll come away impressed by their widely varied backgrounds and success stories. They carry the same rugged individualism into their marketing strategies.
Some kitchen and bath firms like to promote in a quiet, understated way, while others seek to rock their customers’ worlds with head-turning, attention-getting promotions. There are dealerships that pursue timeless techniques when publicizing their businesses, while others prefer to tie their promotions to the most topical issues of the day.
Clearly, there’s no one singular route to successful marketing. However, a host of similarities can be found in the strategies of seasoned kitchen and bath professionals.
Successful dealers have the ability to mold their companies to the changing demands of the marketplace. They have the rare talent of being able to “see around corners,” anticipating how consumer and trade preferences will evolve before they do, and adapting their companies accordingly.
They also believe in the marketing magic resulting from educated designers and very attractive showrooms spotlighting their in-demand products and services in the most appealing ways imaginable. And they are decisive enough to recognize when a selling or business plan isn’t working, replacing it with another tactic more likely to succeed.
Above all, successful marketers are capable of transforming basic products into distinctive home décor pieces that expressly meet their customers’ desires and needs. They are, in the final analysis, artisans who keenly listen to clients, then create precisely what clients want at attractive price points.
Evolving with the Times
From “Ugly Kitchen” contests to a zany promotion that incorporated bright yellow kayaks, Copper River Cabinet Co. excels at evolving with the times, re-inventing itself as needed to stay competitive. Indeed, the Ft. Wayne, IN firm has come a long way from its humble origins back in the late 1960s, when it was known as The Panel Mart.
According to Mike Thomas, who co-owns the company with Bill Pontius, the dealership started out as a cash-and-carry home improvement store selling molding, ceiling tile and paneling. As the home improvement market grew in the 1970s, the owners knew they had to expand, and added kitchens, baths and cabinetry to the product mix. That proved an auspicious move, as cabinet sales ballooned through the next two decades, far outstripping sales of paneling, Thomas recalls.
The surge in cabinet volume spurred the 1991 establishment of a 4,500-sq.-ft, showroom, with multiple home vignettes showcasing the latest and greatest in kitchen and bath cabinets. The same year, the company was renamed The Panel Mart Kitchen & Bath Showroom to better identify its evolving mission.
As this decade dawned and cabinet sales climbed to account for 90 percent of the business, the store re-branded and became Copper River Cabinet Co. The name was chosen as an homage of sorts to the co-owners’ fondest childhood memories. Pontius savored recollections of his youth in Copper Harbor, MI, while Thomas held warm memories of summers spent in the Rocky Mountains of Red River, NM.
The new name was shrewdly calculated to appeal to a more discerning, higher-income consumer base, Thomas recalls. “Panel Mart Kitchen & Bath was perfect in the 1990s, because we were riding on 30 previous years of reputation for being well-known and well-liked,” he says. “But re-branding in 2000 positioned us as a much more upscale company – changing the image, the expectations and the buyers.”
Despite the name change, Thomas and Pontius didn’t forget the customers who had helped make their business a success. “The trick from a marketing perspective is to not sound too upscale,” Thomas observes. “Perception of one’s business is just as important as the reality of that business.”
Thomas continues, “One of our suppliers, HomeCrest Cabinets, was a company with products that gave us a lot of options. We took this popularly priced product and did a lot of special design – designs with lots of detail. The result was a cabinet line that might have started as a commodity, but was transformed into whatever customers wanted it to be.”
As Copper River Cabinet Co. has added customers in and around Ft. Wayne, Thomas and Pontius have become known for colorful, even zany promotions. Several years ago, the shop staged an “Ugly Kitchen Contest,” in which contestants were invited to enter photos of their less-than-beautiful kitchens in the hopes of winning the grand prize of a free kitchen makeover. The event was such a success that the company repeated it last Halloween, renaming it the “Nightmare Kitchen Contest.”
Each time they’ve staged the event, the response has been approximately 40 times what was expected, Thomas says. “We invite people to come in and vote for their favorite ugly kitchens, and it drives traffic like crazy,” he reports. “It drives sales, too. If they don’t win, they are still excited about getting a new kitchen. They have ‘mentally won.’ And when they don’t win in reality, they buy anyway.”
Having learned the value of attention-getting giveaways, Thomas and Pontius last February placed bright yellow kayaks on top of all of the company trucks, then affixed on those trucks signs reading, “KAYAK SALE.” This move was accompanied by advertising that informed customers, “Buy Your New Kitchen, Get a Free Kayak.”
“There was no correlation between the products, but I can’t tell you how much traffic it drove,” Thomas laughs. “We had people call and ask, ‘Why are you driving around with kayaks on the roof?’ It created a lot of curiosity, and a lot of buzz.”
Several years ago, Copper River Cabinet Co. opened a second location in Warsaw, IN, 30 miles west of Ft. Wayne. The store’s location was chosen for its proximity to recreational lakes where many new vacation homes were being built.
For six months prior to the store’s opening, Warsaw residents continually noticed signs reading, “Copper River: It’s Not a Sporting Goods Store,” “Copper River: It’s Not a Restaurant,” and “Copper River: It’s Not a Golf Course.” By the time the store finally opened, it was an immediate hit, and has remained so, Thomas says.
“[The signs] created so much anticipation, curiosity and water cooler discussion,” he adds. “That was five years ago, and people are still talking about it.”
Distinctive living Spaces
An entirely different marketing approach is favored at Cranbury Design Center, a Hightstown, NJ-based design-build firm. Third-generation builder Charlie Rini and his partner, second-generation builder Frank O’Leary, joined forces in 1995, quickly cementing a reputation as innovative designers and builders of home additions featuring kitchens and baths for folks who appreciate distinctive living spaces.
“Our clients say, ‘We’re staying in our house, and we want to make it different than the typical cookie-cutter home. We want to make it our space, and unique to our family’s lifestyle,” Rini relates.
“When we sit down with them and identify what their needs are, they understand the value of our design-build capabilities.”
About 10 years ago, Rini and O’Leary undertook an ambitious whole-house renovation project in an upscale home, building a state-of-the-art kitchen and new circular-ceiling family room in space that had formerly housed the home’s family room, dining room and kitchen.
The owner of the house, Kim Evans, was an executive with a New York City financial services firm. During the course of the work, she approached Rini and O’Leary and presented a remarkable proposal.
“She said, ‘Would you entertain the notion of another partner?’” Rini recalls. “By coming aboard as a partner in our company – which we then renamed Cranbury Design Center in January 2000 – she allowed me to do what I do best as a designer, and allowed Frank to do what he does best as the hands-on builder. She relieved both of us from having to worry about the day-to-day business management.”
Today, headed by Rini, O’Leary and Evans, Cranbury Design Center (CDC) can accommodate projects from a simple “refresh” to full renovations, and for a variety of different budgets, Rini says.
Cranbury Design Center’s advertising appears in Design New Jersey, House Beautiful, Architectural Digest, Remodeling News and other publications, including local newspapers. In addition, the company builds good will in the community by donating to golf outings and the YMCA, and by sponsoring youth athletic teams.
But its most noteworthy marketing efforts center around CDC’s 2,500-sq.-ft., two-story showroom, housed in a more than 150-year-old building rebuilt from the inside out. “When you walk into the showroom, you feel you’re coming into my house,” Rini says. “We have some open houses at the showroom where we open it up to past and current clients, and have a little social gathering. We have eight kitchens here, and where do you think everyone wants to congregate? The kitchens. And what do you think they all talk about? Redoing their kitchens.
“We have a guest chef come in from Princeton to do some cooking demonstrations, and we do some wine tastings. During those events, we can show how well the cabinets and countertops hold up, and how well the appliances work,” he notes.
Among the shining stars of these shows are the cabinets, Rini adds.
“We’ll take average kitchen wall cabinets, base cabinets, and introduce custom modified features to them. We take the basic and pump it up,” he says.
Marketing by Training
Sometimes, the best marketing is about education. This was the case for the Grand Rapids, MI-based Williams Distributing, which was founded in 1968 as an Amana appliances distributor, with connections to a cabinet-making company called IXL. When IXL moved its operations to North Carolina in 1971, some of its employees stayed behind in northern Indiana to found HomeCrest Cabinets.
In those early days, Williams worked with the fledgling cabinet-making company, stocking and distributing virtually everything it produced. In the mid-1980s, housing took off, and Williams Distributing achieved unprecedented success supplying product to kitchen and bath showrooms and lumber yards. “At that time, we began to develop more builder-direct relationships with single-family home builders,” Jim Williams remembers.
By the mid-1990s, Williams Distributing had begun opening showrooms that allowed it for the first time to market to retail consumers, rather than solely to the trade. The firm not only sold to consumers, but also referred builder and remodeling contractors to those homeowners, Williams recalls. Today, Williams Distributing continues to serve all three groups of customers: builders, dealers and consumers.
Because of the broad knowledge that was gained through this growth, education became a key part of Williams’ promotional efforts. In fact, the company’s most distinctive promotional strategy focuses on developing training programs to help dealers stay current with trends in salesmanship and design. “We bring in speakers from the factory or industry to offer insight and education that helps make our dealers more successful,” Williams says.
“In 2008, we launched an education component on universal and accessible design. We had one session for our builders in the Grand Rapids market, and now we’re preparing to take that subject to our independent dealers in southwest, southeast and northern Michigan.”
Universal and accessible design will become an ever-larger issue in the coming decades as the 80 million Baby Boomers begin experiencing sight, hearing and mobility challenges.
“The market is big, and it’s getting bigger. There is $40 billion being spent now on creating solutions for those who will be aging in their homes in the years ahead,” Williams says.
Historic Alton, IL,. just across the river from the St. Louis Gateway Arch, is the home of Lam-Tech, a company that was launched in 1990 as a light manufacturer of commercial fixtures for restaurants and medical facilities. In 1995, Lam-Tech owner and president Doyle Hale and his partner Dennis Schillinger decided to open Cabinet Solutions, a regional residential cabinetry company.
“We realized that there weren’t any custom cabinet shops in the area,” Hale says. “We felt we could bring a full spectrum of solutions, from custom re-facing all the way to custom cabinetry. We already had the commercial facility, the people and the assets to expand our offerings.”
Today, the 2,500-sq.-ft. Cabinet Solutions showroom, nestled within the 40,000-sq.-ft. Lam-Tech manufacturing facility, serves Alton-area homeowners, as well as builders and commercial designers, Hale says.
“We’re growing both the commercial and residential sides and having a pretty good year, despite the economy,” he says.
Much of the success of Cabinet Solutions has been driven by its ability to take a basic cabinet product and turn it into something unique for each customer, Hale says. “We have a custom shop with full finishing capabilities, and take basic HomeCrest cabinets, add millwork and trim features that make the semi-custom cabinet into precisely what the customer wants. If you’re an independent dealer and have that capability, it’s an awesome selling point to the customer. You can start with a good quality, value-priced product and make it appear very high end,” he explains.
It’s this capability and others that Cabinet Solutions seeks to promote, utilizing a mix of print and outdoor advertising and a well-timed promotion or two.
While newspaper and radio advertising haven’t yielded noticeable sales results, the company has witnessed more success advertising in a quarterly magazine from The Telegraph, the Alton daily newspaper. This lifestyle magazine is mailed every three months to an upscale demographic that mirrors Cabinet Solutions’ customer base.
“We’re also beginning to look at the idea of billboards,” Hale says. “What we always hear from customers about how they found us is, ‘I was just driving by,’ or, ‘I happened to see the showroom while on my way somewhere.’ The billboards will give us an opportunity to expand our territory.”