While death and taxes have long been recognized as two elements in life that can always be counted on, another less-mentioned sure thing is that life will always follow a path of peaks and valleys.
The economy, and therefore industry in general, will also experience that inevitable ebb and flow. For businesses, the key to not only surviving – but flourishing – during those lower periods is to prepare for them during better times, and venture outside the traditional lines to create new business opportunities.
Many kitchen and bath dealers claim that most clients are either referrals or repeat customers. However, in leaner economic times, this client base is not enough to sustain the majority of design firms. Implementing innovative tactics is a necessary part of drumming up new business and keeping companies in the black.
“When things get tight, there are more clients out there that everyone is going after harder and faster,” stresses Linda Whitcomb, president, Village Kitchen & Bath in Hyannis, MA.
Those clients are being wooed with free educational seminars and through innovative marketing tactics and heightened customer service, to name just a few. Several kitchen and bath dealers have shared their approaches with Kitchen & Bath Design News.
Certainly, one of the ways that kitchen and bath dealers have maintained consumer interest in these more competitive economic times is through the hosting of educational seminars. Industry players agree that today’s consumers are much more educated and savvy than in decades past, and they look for ways to learn as much as possible before making major investments.
Village Kitchen & Bath began hosting free informational seminars about 18 months ago. The seminars were an alternative to the general ads that the company had been running in local newspapers and magazines.
And the strategy paid off, according to Whitcomb. “We have found that the majority of our never-heard-of-you clients found us through these seminars,” she reports.
The one-day seminars cover two topics – “How Much Should a Good Kitchen Cost?” and “How Much Should a Good Bathroom Cost?” They are held several times during March and April and again in October and November.
“People are definitely interested in learning about these subjects,” stresses Whitcomb, “and the seminars supply us with an audience of qualified potential clients.”
Jack Kellerman, president, Kellerman Kitchen & Bath in Baton Rouge, LA, agrees that seminars bring in clients who might not have previously known about the business. “I really believe that those attendees who have more immediate projects are ones that we would not have ordinarily signed up,” he comments. “They are a direct result of the seminars.”
His firm’s seminar, “How to Save Thousands When Buying Your Next Kitchen or Bath,” is held about six times a year, and averages 12 attendees per event. Free of charge, the seminar is “kind of a way to do a soft sell on attendees, even though they don’t realize they’re being sold,” comments Kellerman.
Even those attendees who are just coming to the seminars to gather information and are not planning immediate projects are likely to become customers when the time is right, Kellerman believes. “The way the seminar is crafted, it builds a level of trust between the attendees and our company,” he offers. “After the seminar, they’re not going anywhere else to look for a product.”
Kellerman advertises seminars in his promotions, including in magazine and newspaper ads, and on the firm’s Web site. “A lot of our leads come from our Web site,” he says. “I just think that is because more and more people are using the Internet as their sole way of finding things.”
Kellerman Kitchen & Bath tracks its leads by having customers fill out a form when they enter the showroom. “We ask their name and address, and then how they heard about us,” he notes. “That way, we can qualify what’s happening with the money that we spend on the Web site and seminars and other areas.”
In fact, so many people were finding the company through its Web site that Kellerman no longer places its traditionally large ad in the Yellow Pages. “Fewer and fewer people were finding us from that ad and more were finding us through the Web site,” he comments. “So, it’s definitely important to have a good Web site, as well as optimize it in such a way that people can find it on a local search.”
Kellerman also changed his marketing strategy this past spring to include direct mail. The company targeted certain neighborhoods in Baton Rouge, “specifically the ones that have older homes that would probably be in need of a kitchen remodel,” he states.
The real key to successful direct mail, adds Kellerman, is to conduct consistent mailings, rather than a one-time shot. “The company that is handling our mailing recommends that we do a targeted mailing a minimum of four times to the same addresses, as opposed to doing four times the number of addresses only once,” he states.
Meeting Client Needs
While marketing strategies are key to bringing people to the door, finding innovative ways to meet specific needs is what makes them sign on as customers.
Matt Plaskoff believes he has identified a need in the bath remodeling industry, and is rapidly growing his business by providing a specific service for that segment. The owner of a successful, high-end design/build firm for over 20 years, Plaskoff created One Week Bath in 2004, and has built over 600 custom baths in just a few years – each fully installed in one week.
Plaskoff notes that his company, which is based in Gardena, CA and services primarily the southern California market, deals with two primary client types. The first is made up of very busy people who can’t put their lives on hold for a two- or three-month bath remodel. The other group includes those who aren’t comfortable having subcontractors in their homes for long periods of time.
“For the first customer, I think convenience is critical,” he comments. “In a time when people don’t have disposable time because they’re trying to work harder to make a dollar,” this idea is very appealing. “I think that quick, get it done, minimal disruption thing is really critical to people,” he stresses.
In the second instance, “many people are really paranoid to leave their house wide open while they go to work for 10 weeks with vendors coming and going, hoping that everything is okay,” he offers.
The company doesn’t use any subcontractors when doing a job, which translates to safety and security during remodeling, notes the company. “In addition, our employees and installers are all trained in our school that is unique to our business,” Plaskoff comments.
“I just think that there is a segment of the population that has lived with a disgusting bathroom for 20 or 30 years just because they don’t want anybody in their house,” he continues. “One Week Bath provides them with an opportunity to change that.”
“It almost creates its own market,” he continues. Noting how Starbucks changed the coffee industry and created a market that didn’t really exist before it came along, Plaskoff remarks, “The coffee business grew because of them. It wasn’t a market that they tapped into. They created their own wind.
“This is kind of the same thing,” he continues. “There is a segment of the population that will never remodel a bathroom because it’s too much of a hassle. I was hoping to create a market by noting that you don’t have to kill yourself when remodeling your bathroom.”
Along with filling a need, kitchen and bath dealers understand the importance of heightened customer service when vying for customers in a competitive market.
“We recognize that what we’re selling is service,” says Whitcomb. “And, we have elevated our service as high as possible.”
Whitcomb’s firm has adopted an interesting strategy with regard to increased customer service, she notes. “We are taking a larger retainer up front on projects now – as much as $4,000 to $8,000, where before it was $250 to maybe $2,000.
They’re paying up front for services that we wouldn’t have engaged in as early on before. So, we’re providing the highest level of service before they even enter their contract – we’re doing it at the retainer stage.”
Whitcomb’s firm has also expanded its offering to make it more of a one-stop shop by adding products such as appliances and tile into its collection of saleable items. “We took what we do already and offer the whole package, rather than outsourcing our customers to local companies such as tile and appliance stores,” she reports. “We were already specifying the appliances, designing around them, handling them and installing them, so it just made sense to sell them.”
Whitcomb credits joining a buying group as a benefit when choosing to sell appliances, since her firm is now able to purchase appliances directly. “It actually adds cash in our pocket,” she stresses.
“We’ve been able to maintain the amount of business that we’re used to because we’ve been able to keep our clients more satisfied by offering them a larger palette all under one roof – our roof,” she adds.
While many kitchen and bath firms recognize the importance of customer service within the showroom, David Bartlett, CKD and president of The Kitchen Center of Framingham in Framingham, MA, has taken the idea one step further. To promote his business, he has expanded his service to include special treatment on the jobsite.
Among the services that The Kitchen Center now offers is a professional packing expert to safely pack and store the entire contents of a kitchen during the remodeling process. “While the service is still in its infancy and has not actually been administered as of yet, we are presently offering it to clients in an attempt to help close the sale,” confirms Bartlett. The firm hopes that this service removes a barrier that is an issue when undertaking a home improvement project.
As an added incentive, The Kitchen Center will also donate any unwanted dishes, pots, pans, spices and other materials in good condition to the Household Goods Recycling Ministry, a nonprofit organization that provides household goods to needy families in the state.
The company also provides dust containment on the jobsite by sealing off openings into other rooms and including easy-to-use storm doors for passage, as opposed to zippered openings, which rarely get closed due to their inconvenience, reports Bartlett. An air handling machine also passes the air through a series of filters, including a Hepa filter at the end that traps the finest particles of dust, including lead dust.
A communication board is also provided on every site, according to Bartlett. The communication board includes a clipboard with paper for notes to and from the client, a surface to spread out plans and drawings, an eyewash station, a first aid kit and a fire extinguisher.
The company also arranges often overlooked conveniences that might be missed by other remodeling companies, such as the provision of a covered dumpster, porta potty and temporary kitchen.
For the future, these design firms plan to not only continue with their aggressive approaches, but expand on their ideas.
“We’ve been focused on creating a system that can be replicated, so that if we want to go to Chicago or Washington, DC with One Week Bath, we can do it,” notes Plaskoff. One Week Kitchen is also under discussion now.
And while Whitcomb stresses that she will continue hosting seminars in any economy, she is also looking into offering mini “webinars” in the future.