Has the Custom Cabinet Shop Become a Dinosaur?

How did those dinosaurs die out, anyway? Was there some big, earth-wide event that killed them off? Maybe so, goes the conventional wisdom.

My kids inform me that there was a large asteroid impact about 65 million years ago – when I was growing up, according to them. What followed were big climate changes, volcanic activity, tsunamis and acid rain. This was evidently an environmental upheaval – dust and debris blocked the sun, plants died out. The plant-eating animals starved, the large carnivores lost their prey and started eating each other. Eventually, the big animals died out.

Some days I wonder if our industry is like that. Will the big-box stores eventually put us small shops out of business? Are the national manufacturers destined to outsmart the local enterprise? Will it just become too expensive to run a small shop, and be impossible to find people who want to work in them? Will we see a flood of custom cabinetry come at us from China, where everything else seems to be manufactured these days?

We'd all do well to keep our heads up and see what's going on around us.

If you're a little dinosaur, you may want to take a good look at what the big animals around you are doing. They're getting pretty nimble these days.

Most large manufacturers have become more flexible, too. National cabinet companies often offer a wide variety of styles and finishes, and you'd do well to give your customers as much or more yourself.

What was once not so common is now readily available – custom sizing. Something a small custom shop has always done is now being offered by bigger manufacturers, and often at a much lower price point.

You should also check out the speed of delivery. Things are moving faster these days, and some of the big guys are offering quick-ship programs.

Can you give your clients this, too? It's where your competition is headed. After all, we're living in a point-and-click world. The larger companies have well-developed wrapping, shipping and delivery systems – all in a successful attempt to undercut the small shops' pricing and schedules.

The big boys have really changed the way they do things. There's been a shift away from skilled labor towards automated shops and computerized machinery. Go to the machinery shows and you can see the bewildering display and variety of modern equipment. It may mean lower wages, and it usually means less people in the shops to operate things.


So, where are you in all of this? What can you do?

Well, for a start, your location is good. You're right there in the customer's town – local, or at least nearby. You can get to the jobsite fast. You can sit down in your shop with your customer and talk turkey with the smell of freshly cut wood in your office. While this is a small detail, it actually counts for a lot. Many clients, upon visiting our shop, have told us they love that woodshop smell; it may bring back childhood memories for some. At any rate, the days we're cutting walnut or cedar are good for sales!

Being nearby also means you can fix things fast if they go wrong on the jobsite. Many of the big manufacturers struggle with this, so turn it to your advantage. If the opportunity comes to get on a problem after you've delivered the job, it's a good idea to jump on it.

Remember, too, that the customer will probably view you as an expert, not just a salesperson. You've probably built things yourself, and I'll bet that a lot of those things have been one of a kind. If you're talking to your client in your shop, you've got things right there that you're working on. How authentic is that?

As a custom shop, you're viewed with a different perspective than a dealership or a showroom. You're the real deal, and you know what you're talking about.

Buying cabinets and custom woodwork is often a very personalized procedure, and you can turn this to your benefit, too. Make your customers feel that they are part of a relationship-based process, rather than just buying product.


If you're going to weather the big climate changes coming at you, adapting is the name of the game. You may have to outsmart the big dinosaurs.

You'll have to keep up your quality; the national companies are good, and many are getting better. And, it's not just the quality of the work, it's the service, too. Dovetailed drawers and undermount slides are becoming common, but how you follow up the delivery and installation is as important as the grain match on the drawer banks. Sometimes a phone call or a jobsite visit while the installation work is going on can really help.

And, here's a quick people tip: We all know a good staff can make or break your shop, so have your delivery person be well-trained and polite. He or she is often a point-of-contact person whom the customer really remembers. A good drop-off of your product can really set the stage for whether the install – indeed, the whole sale – is remembered in a good light.

You also may want to look hard at getting your shop and its systems well organized. Most owners who have embraced computerization in the office have done well. There's a lot of good drawing, layout and cutlisting software out there these days, and much of it is a time-saver. If you're unsure what to buy, talk to your competitors or to other shops referred by your software salesperson.

Those of us who have purchased automated machines have not regretted it. It makes a lot of sense if your shop employs at least five people. This equipment will usually improve your quality and substantially increase your efficiency, and you'll need both to remain competitive.

That beam saw may look expensive, but if it saves you from hiring another person to cut out parts, it will pay for itself quickly, and you'll be happy with the improvement in the quality of your finished products, too.

Many custom shops are diversifying into other areas, as well. Commercial work, store fixtures, retail projects and selling direct to builders are just a few examples of areas you may be able to expande into. You may want to examine to whom you sell right now to see if you can expand on that. Do more with the same staff and equipment!

Remember that the dinosaurs that survived were the birds. You need to grow some wings and figure out how to fly!