Surf's Up

Surf's Up

By Daina Darzin

So, it's no wonder that the kitchen and bath industry has followed suit. Most manufacturers and many dealers have their own Web sites, and a flurry of related Web sites offering services, products and a variety of e-commerce options have cropped up, as well. Some are aimed toward the do-it-yourself consumer, some toward professionals, and some function to bring the two together. These days, you can look at new products, download CAD symbols, find new clients, hire a temporary draftsperson, conference with clients on current projects and read up on industry news all with the click of a mouse.

Granted, not everyone is all wired up over the Internet and e-commerce in general. With the recent market uncertainties and the resulting drop off of many dotcom businesses, some people have begun reassessing their e-commerce strategies after the first initial wave of unbridled enthusiasm. And, indeed, savvy kitchen and bath dealers are taking a more cautionary approach to what the Internet can and can't offer them. 

Nevertheless, there's little doubt that today, a host of online options, services and products are available that can help kitchen and bath dealers do business better, faster or more efficiently, find employees and clients who match their needs and target profile, or just educate consumers so that they will be better customers when they are ready to buy a kitchen or bath.

Shopping sites
With retailers such as Amazon.com leading the way, online shopping has evolved into a growing market. Not surprisingly, then, there are several Web sites that promise online ordering for the kitchen and bath industry, as well as a comprehensive collection of products for one-stop research. These sites enable a designer to view a huge variety of products without stepping into a showroom, as well as facilitating communication with clients by e-mailing information rather than scheduling multiple face-to-face meetings.

For instance, BathClick.com offers a complete selection of high-end brands online, with specs attached to most of the products, explains Eli Katz, chief executive officer for BathClick.com, based in Edison, NJ. "It's also possible to order [online]," he adds. "Aside from the extensive selection of high-end lines, we also have the ability to search by manufacturer and by product line, as well as SKU number, model number or keyword." 

Additionally, the data can be exported, so a designer can e-mail a page to a client during the planning stages of a project. Another feature enables a designer to create any number of portfolios of gathered product information off the site, grouping products by job or by room. BathClick.com also features a professional partner program that gives designers, architects and contractors a 10% rebate on anything ordered through the site and everything is shipped for free. Access to the site is also free, but designers must apply for the rebate program online.

Similarly, HomePortfolio.com offers an impressive array of more than 35,000 products, including such cutting-edge fare as a concrete countertop. The database can be searched by manufacturer, price or style. However, HomePortfolio.com is not meant for e-commerce, notes Gwen Simpkins, design director for the Newton, MA-based site. Instead, HomePortfolio.com directs interested parties to retail outlets. "You come on to our site, you research, you find the [products] you're interested in, you create your own personal portfolio, which lets you save products so you don't have to continually dip into the database," Simpkins explains. 

Whether e-commerce will emerge as the final stop in the decision making process remains to be seen and many question this, as clients and designers alike enjoy seeing and touching an object before buying it. But, as a research tool, the 'Net has evolved into an everyday necessity.

Research rites
Today's kitchen and bath remodeling customers go through an increasingly advanced information gathering stage before contacting a professional. Although many still want to see, touch and feel a product, they often make research "pit stops" before going into a showroom. For instance, they might use a basic kitchen planning software package to formulate initial ideas, or, join the ranks of "buy it yourselfers," who pick their products but hire someone to install them. 

To that end, numerous sites offer comprehensive consumer advice, as well as referrals to professionals. Sites such as DIYOnline.com, Remodel.com and Kitchens.com all provide extensive information that addresses many facets of a particular project. 

The Chicago-based Worldview Technologies (Kitchens.com), which specializes in building Web sites for the kitchen and bath industry, features a network that links potential clients to kitchen dealers.

DIYOnline.com provides free proprietary software online that a consumer can use to plan a project. But, "we can turn on more bells and whistles [in the program] for a professional if they so desire," adds Fran W. Anderson, v.p./sales and marketing for DIYOnline.com, in Tucson, AZ. The resulting 3-D image can be printed out, he notes. The site also contains an estimator; consumers can gather information that they would eventually take to a professional for execution. The information is stored in the site; the consumer can add to or modify a design, as well as pass the file onto a designer or showroom. 

DIYOnline.com also includes a selection of manufacturers' catalogs, as well as a connection with a regional retail outlet. "We give [the consumer] certain choices in stock cabinets, we have guidelines and defaults that [make one conform to NKBA's design guidelines]," explains Anderson. That information would be transmitted to a home center, and the customer would then meet with a designer there to validate the plan. "The eventual goal of the site is to be able to design and order a kitchen online," Anderson notes. 

He insists that, rather than take work away from design and building professionals, the online planning process serves to pre-qualify customers, separating truly serious remodeling clients from those who are just playing with the idea. "It's a great tool for a showroom," he believes. 

Hi-tech marketing
Perhaps the biggest change that the Internet has made in the kitchen and bath industry is displacing the role of the Yellow Pages. Instead of letting their fingers do the walking, consumers are increasingly using a mouse instead, and going through one of the numerous, and increasingly busy, referral sites. 

Advantages exist on both sides, those surveyed agree; consumers get a professional who's been through a screening process, while the pro gains a technophile, Internet-savvy client who is likely to be more upscale than the norm. "It's a much more cost-effective way of marketing [than advertising in the phone book]," notes Nora DePalma, v.p. of ImproveNet.com, in Redwood City, CA. "You don't pay if you're not using [the service], and you can track 
the results."

"We don't get the tire kickers and the people who are just 
shopping around," adds Colleen Plummer, director of public relations for ServiceMagic.Com, Denver, CO. "[The consumers who use our site] have done their research, and are ready to take action."

To join Improvenet.com, a remodeling professional must go through a screening process; the site will check credit, business and legal history, as well as licensing, DePalma explains. ImproveNet has fairly stringent requirements and turns down 40% of its applicants. Upon acceptance, "[A designer] will tell us what types of jobs they're interested in hearing about, and when we get a request from a homeowner in their area, they'll receive notification. If they choose to pursue that lead, they'll pay $10 to get the homeowner's contact information. 

If they win the job, they pay us a percentage," based on a sliding scale. The site fields 
around 13,000 jobs a month, nationwide.

Similarly, ServiceMagic.com is also an online marketplace for matching qualified local service professionals and consumers. There is a processing fee for new applicants, as well as a monthly charge, which varies depending upon which plan a professional company chooses to subscribe to. 

Some of the comprehensive remodeling sites also offer consumer referrals, as do some software developers' sites such as 20-20. 

Service offerings
While the better-known kitchen and bath sites may be consumer-targeted, the business-to-
business market is expanding rapidly as well, offering a broad spectrum of information 
and services.

Overwhelmed by work? DesignerOutsource.com may be just the thing. "We provide outsource services including ordering, CAD software programs and drafting," explains Michele Danzer, president, DesignerOutsource.com, Naples, FL. Most of the site's clients are builders, she explains, but cabinet companies, interior designers and kitchen and bath dealers also take advantage of the site's services. The bulk of the firm's work is in drafting, Danzer notes; DesignerOutsource.com prefers to execute plans with a computer graphics program, but will do hand drawings upon request. All final drawings are printed and shipped by overnight mail; preliminary sketches can be faxed or e-mailed, or viewed on the Web site's "work room," wherein clients can log in and look at their project in progress. 

Those creating their own computerized designs may download over 1,700 2-D CAD symbols from SymbolsExpress.com, notes Jim Dase, president of SymbolsExpress.com, in Arlington Heights, IL. The program is primarily focused on appliances and plumbing products, Dase explains. "They're taken right out of the specification manual, using the overall dimensions of the product," he adds. The site is a subscriber service; a company can sign up online, and receive a password to access the symbols library. Dase's plans include expanding into 3-D images in the future, as well as involving manufacturers in the process, with the aim of forming one comprehensive source of electronic catalog symbols online.

A site targeted for builders, Contractor.com is designed to be a one-stop solution for their business needs, explains Kurt Reuss, president/CEO of the Denver, CO-based company. "Whether a contractor is looking for job leads, business cards, to build his own Web site, or financial management support, we have resources available." The site is broken up into 130 contractor categories; a directory of building industry professionals is available for consumers looking for a contractor or designer. In the near future, the site will also function as a personalized home page for registrants: "It recognizes what field you're in, and pulls up news that's specific to that field," Reuss elaborates.

And for those technophobes who look at the ever-expanding field of e-commerce and feel a migraine coming on, KitchenPond.com is a consulting Web site that offers training and consulting in information technology.

"Basically, I'd assess a designer's firm, find out what the vision is, and how that person wants to relate to the Internet," explains Brian O'Rourke, president, The Kitchen Pond, in Central City, CO. 

A resulting information technology plan would address a company's training needs, software and hardware issues, including computer graphics software in short, "a solution to get to the next level." KBDN

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