Winning the Home Center War

The Home Center War the ongoing battle for market share between Big Box retailers and independent kitchen/bath dealers continues to be quietly waged in local markets across the country.

It's a closely fought war that heated up dramatically in the '90s, amid an atmosphere of uncertainty, speculation and panic on the part of some dealers. And, it's a war that no doubt will continue, as retail competitors slug it out in a battle for the hearts and wallets of kitchen/bath remodeling consumers.

So, who's winning the war?

Well, apparently both sides.

At least that's the way it seems in a kitchen and bath industry fueled by healthy demand, and seemingly enough business for everyone.

How long this situation will last remains to be seen but it's very good news for now.

It also stands in sharp contrast to the dire predictions of just a few years ago, when upscale home centers were being seen as a fatal threat to many independent kitchen and bath retailers.

It wasn't too long ago, in fact, that there was talk of an impending bloodbath for dealers, many of whom were seen headed for extinction.

That, of course, was when major home centers like The Home Depot, Lowe's and Sears' Great Indoors started chasing not only the DIY remodeling market, but the middle and the upper end of the kitchen/bath market, as well.

Everyone knows that story by now.

It's the story of how home center chains, bent on continued expansion, changed their entire approach to kitchen and bath sales, and mounted an aggressive assault on independents.
And how Big Boxes changed their product mix and the interiors of their new stores, and began producing more professional designs, and hiring more professional help.

And how these same chains upgraded their merchandising efforts, and offered turnkey services, and began to give both price-conscious and affluent consumers a viable alternative to the local kitchen/bath dealership.

The competitive pressure from the home center push into the kitchen/bath market was felt up and down the retail chain. Some independent dealers simply folded their tents and were run out of business. Others climbed up the price ladder to compete with higher-end design firms, squeezing the competition in the luxury niche. Still others lined up for job applications, and went to work for the home centers.

Somewhere along the line, though, something happened to change the outcome of the story.
What happened, of course, is that independent kitchen/bath dealers learned they could survive the Home Center War, and maybe even thrive.

Somewhere along the line, dealers have learned to live with the Big Boxes. They've gone to school on their strengths, and capitalized on their weaknesses. They've come to see home center competition not just as a threat, but as something healthy, something that forces everyone to be better.

In short, they've learned to compete.

As the Page 70 story aptly entitled "David Loves Goliath" points out, most dealers have finally come to recognize that the home center assault has, in reality, been a blessing in disguise.

For one thing, home centers have clearly put more buyers in the marketplace, and have stirred the pot by raising consumer awareness of kitchen and bath remodeling.
Maybe even more importantly, though, home centers have clearly raised the bar for dealers. Upscale Big Box efforts have forced most independents to hunker down, do their homework. They've compelled dealers to narrow their market niche, hone their sales approach, seek unique product lines, enhance customer service, sharpen their management skills, develop new marketing strategies, join together in buying groups, attempt bold new retail formats.

They've also forced dealers to recognize and focus on their traditional strengths: design expertise, product knowledge, project coordination, professionalism, showroom ambience and the ability to inspire the confidence of homeowners.

In short, their presence has made dealers tougher and better. More driven to defend their turf. More resilient. More customer oriented.

Home centers, at the same time, have seemingly found their own place in a market that continues to grow. They no doubt fill a need, and offer a valuable alternative to consumers. In the process, they've clearly captured their own customer niche, and are reaping the rewards of their efforts.

And, so the Home Center War rages on.

Winners and losers will be determined, I suppose, somewhere down the road.
The only thing that's certain for now is that it's a war that has made everyone better, and a war at least for the moment in which everyone's seemingly a winner.

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