Nothing but 'Net

In a high-tech world where it’s all about what’s happening right now, the Internet, with its promise of speed and instant gratification, remains the latest, greatest new thing. Whether it’s accessed by a desktop, laptop, Blackberry or iPhone, the Internet is more important these days, as kitchen and bath professionals embrace the Internet in ever-growing numbers.

The vast majority of kitchen and bath dealers and designers are using the Internet for a wide variety of functions, from basic e-mail and researching products and design ideas, to checking product specs, sending project photos, marketing their firms and reading e-newsletters. That’s according to a recent survey by Kitchen & Bath Design News, which looked at Internet usage practices in the kitchen and bath industry.

The survey, which polled more than 290 kitchen and bath dealers and designers from across the U.S. and Canada, found that kitchen and bath professionals are placing tremendous value on the Internet as a business tool. And it’s not just about e-mail. While it’s no surprise that 96% of those surveyed said they send and receive e-mail regularly, another 94% said they use the Internet to research product specs, 92% use it to keep up on the latest, greatest products, 67% use it to send project photos to clients and other allied professionals, and 55% use it to download photos of products, projects and design
ideas (see Graph 1).

Additionally, nearly half (48%) use the Internet to research design ideas, 45% use it to read e-newsletters and other design-related materials, 44% spend time doing general surfing, 12% do online staff training via the Internet, 8% schedule online client or staff meetings, and 5% participate in on- line discussion groups with industry peers such as the designer forums at (see Pro to Pro).

And they don’t just use the Internet sporadically, either. In fact, 38% of those surveyed say they use the Internet constantly, another 35% use it at least several times a day, 17% use it daily, and another 7 percent use it once a week. Only two percent of those surveyed use it less than once a week – a clear indicator of just how critical this tool has become to business operations.

Time wise, 35% of those surveyed say they use the Internet roughly 2-5 hours a week while at work, another 25% use it 6-10 hours a week, 7% are online 11-15 hours a week and another 7% spend more than 20 hours a week online (see Graph 2) – and that’s not even counting the time they spend online at home.

Dealers also place high value on their time on the ’Net, with 22% saying they couldn’t live without it, another 39% rating it as “very important,” 35% calling it “somewhat important” and only 4% saying they don’t view the Internet as important to their business dealings (see Graph 4).

Online Ordering

With some 70% of those surveyed owning laptops so they can work from anywhere, it’s no surprise that they use the Internet for more functions than ever. For instance, ordering products online, considered a rarity just a few years back, is now the norm for the majority of dealers, with 74% of those surveyed saying they order some products online and another 5% saying they order everything online (see Graph 3). And, of those who aren’t yet ordering products online, some 45% expect to in the near future, with another 43% considering online product ordering as a future venture.

As online ordering has increased, so, too, has the quality of the service, it seems, as 91% of those surveyed rated their satisfaction with online product ordering as “excellent” or “good.” Another 9% rated it as fair, with no respondents rating it as poor.

Web Site Growth

Web sites have increasingly become a must-have marketing tool, so it’s no surprise that the vast majority (81%) of those surveyed have one (see Graph 5). And, of those who don’t, more than half have this on their short list of things to address in the coming year.

But, as many dealers and designers realize, it’s not just about getting any old thing up there. Rather, today’s Web sites are chock full of valuable information. Of those surveyed, more than half include product photos (57%) and project portfolios (51%) on their sites, while 20% include staff bios, 16% include design tips, 15% offer a “Virtual Showroom Tour,” 14% include staff photos, 9% incorporate the ability to set appointments and 4% include a regular blog (see Graph 7).

Additionally, dealers and designers are becoming more savvy about the value of linking their sites to other industry Web sites to gain additional traffic. In fact, of those surveyed, 54% say their Web site is linked to manufacturers’ sites, 15% are linked to association Web sites, 9% are linked to affiliated professionals’ Web sites and 7% are linked to community Web sites.
One area where dealers are still struggling is in updating their sites regularly. In fact, nearly half (43%) only update their site once a year, and another 35% update their site only quarterly. As one survey respondent explained, “Web sites are an incredibly valuable tool, but keeping them up to date is very time consuming. Unfortunately, if you don’t do it, your site can actually work against you because if what you have up there is dated, it makes you look dated.”

Another designer pointed out, “The expectation for Web sites is much higher these days. Everyone’s seen enough of them that they know if a site has poor graphics, an amateur design or is just hard to navigate. Especially being in design, there’s an expectation that our site will be cutting edge and beautiful. That requires more expertise than I have, so I’ve been forced to outsource that task to be sure it’s done to the level our customers would expect.”

While some are outsourcing their Web site design and upkeep, others are hiring full-time technical help to assist them with everything from Web site maintenance to software programs. In fact, more than a quarter (26%) of all firms surveyed say they currently employ a full-time IT person (see Graph 6), and another 27% say they are planning to add an IT person to their staff in the near future. Additionally, 35% are still unsure about whether to add full-time IT help to their staff. As one designer said, “I think that’s the direction we’re going, but we want to make sure the leads we get from our site justify adding a full-time staff person for this. We’re getting there, and if we don’t do it this year, we’ll certainly do it next year.”

Indeed, Web sites drive traffic – and job leads – but it’s still a process, according to surveyed dealers and designers. Of those polled, nearly half (49%) said that less than 2% of their leads come from their Web site; 34% estimated 2-10% of their leads came from their site; 11% say they get 11-25% of their leads from their site; 5% estimated 25-50% of their leads came from their site, and only 1% said that more than 50% of their leads come from their Web site.

However, dealers and designers also agreed that this can be hard to estimate. Said one, “I seem to get a lot of showroom traffic from my site, but we don’t measure it specifically. I do know that often, when I’m talking to a customer, I realize they’ve been to the Web site and already know a lot about us. It’s one marketing tool in our arsenal, and I think they all work together – our site, our advertising, our location and our reputation.”

Technical Relations

While the kitchen and bath industry has long been viewed as one where the personal connection is critical, interestingly, a number of dealers and designers spoke about the growing importance of making a technical connection with clients, as well.

As one dealer stated, “My clients want to work with a firm that is as hooked up as they are, one that has a high-tech outlook and is tech savvy in general.” Interestingly, it’s not just the Gen Xers requesting this, dealers say. Rather, the technological connection has become an integral part of the whole relationship, and something clients want and expect as part of the package.

Unfortunately, this is still a work in progress for many dealers and designers. Currently, only 27% of those surveyed said they use the Internet as part of their interaction with customers in the showroom, either through interactive kiosk displays, virtual tours or the like. However, another 27% said they are planning to do so in the future, as the technical element becomes a key part of their relationship with clients.

Additionally, as kitchen and bath professionals use the Internet for an increasing number of functions, this is more likely to rub off in other aspects of their business, including client relations.

And, it’s likely to be happening sooner rather than later, as some two-thirds of those surveyed said they plan to increase their Internet use in the future, with a focus on product and design research (see Graph 8).

Other Findings

When asked to comment about how the Internet is changing their business practices, survey respondents had plenty to say. Indeed, it’s clear that the Internet is having a profound effect on how everyone does business, and this presents both new challenges and new opportunities.

Among the responses were the following:

  • “There’s no question that our Web site is dramatically increasing our showroom traffic and leads in general. And it’s not just our Web site – between being on the association Web site, being in different online community directories and being linked to vendors, we get a ton of traffic we didn’t even know existed before.”
  • “We’re doing more business over the Internet than in previous years, and handling more aspects of business online, from research to ordering to communicating with clients to marketing.”
  • “The Internet is speeding up the pace of ordering, getting product specs, communicating with clients who work full time, getting projects from the initial ‘looky-look’ stage to completion [because consumers come in more educated to start with], billing, tracking the job and general production. The downside, of course, is that there’s a greater expectation of speed, and consumers have less patience for delays as a result.”
  • “Manufacturers’ Web sites are a double-edged sword. While they educate consumers, and create greater traffic, and even refer customers to us at times, many list prices, which can make it harder to sell at a decent profit margin.”
  • “The Internet makes it easier to get jobs outside of my home base, since the Internet is not geographically limited. Fortunately, it also makes it easier to work long-distance on projects, since we can e-mail plans back and forth, do online conferences and the like.”
  • “With more clients familiar with various software programs, and better educated about design in general, and with the ability to e-mail plans back and forth, the whole design process is becoming more collaborative as a whole.”