Web Watch

Web Watch

Kitchen and bath dealers are increasingly using the Internet for product research, communication, self-promotion and product ordering though many are struggling with the best way to harness its lead-generating possibilities.

By Janice Anne Costa

In fact, a whopping 98.5% of dealers recently surveyed said they currently either own or lease a computer (see Graph 1), and a full two thirds have their own Web site (see Graph 2) and of those who don't, more than half (56.1%) of the remaining third say they're planning to establish a Web site sometime in the next year.

Such were the findings of a recent Kitchen & Bath Design News survey, which polled more than 230 kitchen and bath dealers and designers nationwide about their Internet usage habits.
The results showed an increasingly Internet-savvy kitchen and bath dealer who is comfortable using the Internet for research, communication, and product ordering but still struggling with how to best harness its effectiveness as a marketing tool. Likewise, kitchen and bath dealers may be up to speed with the Internet basics, yet many are still hesitant to explore virtual possibilities in the showroom, concerned that this will conflict with the personal feeling they've built their businesses on.

Likewise, dealers surveyed agree that the Internet is playing an increasingly large role in their day-to-day business doings, with more than half (55.4%) rating it as something they "couldn't live without" or as "very important," and another 32.8% rating it as "somewhat important" to their jobs (see Graph 3). Only a mere 11.8% said they viewed the Internet is "not that important" to their jobs.

Kitchen and bath dealers are also beginning to do more product ordering online, according to survey results, with more than a third (35.9%) of dealer respondents saying they currently order products online (see Graph 5), and some 59.2% of dealers surveyed noting that they expect to increase their online ordering in the future (see Graph 6).

While many of those who use traditional channels rather than ordering products online expressed reservations about doing business this way "Why would I trust my clients' hopes and dreams to a machine?" is how one dealer put it  the vast majority of survey respondents who said they do place orders via the Internet seemed happy with the effectiveness of online ordering. In fact, some 26.7% of those surveyed rated the effectiveness of online ordering as "excellent," and another 54.7% rated it as "good." Only 18.6% rated it "fair," and none of those surveyed found it to be "poor."

Surfing the 'Net
One of the benefits of the Internet is the vast number of potential destinations, where kitchen and bath dealers and designers can find everything from product specs to project photos, design tips to networking forums, new products to e-commerce opportunities. Is it any wonder, then, that industry pros are spending more and more time surfing the 'Net?

"New products are so important in this industry," said one dealer, who noted that "the Internet is just a great source for this. With a little bit of research, you can find all the nifty new products that no one else has, the ones that haven't appeared at the trade shows yet."

Another dealer said he likes to surf the Web because "There's access to more information than ever before, you can use manufacturers' imaging libraries and tools and third party services, even integration of multiple lines into a design it's just such a valuable resource.

"Anything we don't have in the showroom we can easily retrieve from the Internet. It's a great bonus to the design world," he added.

In fact, more than half of those surveyed (58%) said they get fewer than 2% of their leads from Web site traffic, and another 27.4% said they get 2-10% of their leads from their Web site. Another 8.9% said they get 11-25% of their leads from their Web site, while 3.7% said they get 26-50% of their leads from the Web site, and 1.5% get more than half their leads from Web site traffic.

Despite this, kitchen and bath dealers and designers are increasingly investing big bucks in elaborate Web sites with stunning graphics and lots of visual wizardry. So, why are so few seeing the payoff in terms of leads generated? Some believe it's just a waiting game: As one dealer says, "Once the computer generation grows up and acquires more disposable income, you'll see an increase in leads from the Web sites. In 10 years, I bet we're going to quadruple the percent of leads we get from the Internet, just because that's how [today's 20-somethings] are used to doing business."

Others believe the problem is with the way the Web sites workor don't work. "Many older sites are agonizingly slow and inefficient. They don't get leads because people don't have a week to sit and wait for photos to load."

Even the sites that are high-tech can cause problems: "If they're too high tech, half your clients won't be able to access anything because they have older computers and older software. You can't assume because you invested all this money for the latest software that your clients have, too."

Likewise, only a third of survey respondents who have Web sites include customer testimonials on them long regarded as a strong marketing tool.

Keeping their sites current was also a problem for many dealers, who say they want to increase the traffic from their sites, yet remain less than diligent about updating them. In fact, nearly a quarter (22.4%) said they update their Web sites less than once a year, and another 17.2% update their sites only annually.

Said one dealer, "I got the Web site because everyone said I had to have itbut once it was done, I checked it off my list and forgot about it. I should probably update the project photos and product lines [I carry more lines than I did when I put it up], but who has the time?"

However, an out-of--date or incomplete Web site may not get people in the door in the first place and may be less likely to generate leads because of this. In fact, of the 24.6% of survey respondents who said they update their Web sites quarterly, 20.9% update their Web sites monthly, and 3% of update their Web sites weekly, the lead generation numbers were nearly double those of dealers who failed to update their Web sites more than once a year, according to the survey.

Of course not everyone has a Web site just to generate leads. According to one survey respondent, the best thing about his Web site is "the way I can use it to gain clients' trust. We show jobs in progress [on our site] and update them regularly, so customers can follow them and see them progress. It's like Reality TV it builds their trust in us and their confidence when they can see the jobs being completed right in front of them and looking good. We also include customer testimonials [from the people whose projects are posted], to show that the job is going well and we can be trusted."

In the Showroom
While kitchen and bath dealers expressed enthusiasm about using the Internet for product research and communication with clients and manufacturers, the majority of those surveyed seemed less than comfortable using the Internet in their interactions with customers. In fact, a mere 9% said they use the Internet in their showrooms in their interactions with clients, whether that be with interactive kiosk displays, virtual tours, etc.

Several expressed the sentiment that an overly "techy" feel to the showroom would undermine the comforting, homey feel they specifically designed their showrooms to achieve. As one dealer explained it, "We're not averse to technology, but we feel like design has to emphasize the human element, and our showroom is about creating a warm, at-home kind of feeling. I just think that would be at odds with a lot of the super-high-tech stuff like kiosks and computers. The whole point of a showroom is to touch and feel, not to get gadgets to simulate that live experience."

More than a few dealers noted that, while they found the Internet fine for sending e-mail or doing product research, they preferred to avoid using it in their interactions with customers. "It just doesn't create the right vibe, particularly with the high end. People are craving more personal contact, not less, so we emphasize the personal connection as much as possible during their showroom experience. Machines have their place, but it still has to be about the personal touch."

Still, the majority of those surveyed expect the Internet's influence to grow dramatically in the next decade, allowing for greater efficiencies, better communication and enhanced marketing opportunities.

As one dealer explained, "Consumers use the computer so extensively these days, I already have most of my leads coming from Internet sites, and that's only going to grow. That makes educating consumers about the remodeling process easier they come in knowing more so it ends up being a faster sale."

Other dealers were less positive. Warned one, "The Internet allows customers to shop by price only this removes the product knowledge and service a showroom offers from the equation. The Internet is a double-edged sword it can promote your business, but it can also reduce your sales, unless you're ready to discount."

"You have to be sure you control [the technology] rather than letting it control you," suggested another designer

Still, most kitchen and bath dealers seemed willing to embrace the benefits of the Internet, accepting that "You can't stand in the way of progress." And if "progress" sometimes means learning new ways of doing business, most dealers seem ready and willing to accept the challenge. As one dealer concluded, "Really, it's no different from the fax machine or the cell phone. Initially, everyone complains about them, but now we can't imagine doing business without them."