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Today's kitchen and bath dealers are upbeat and computer savvy when it comes to simplifying their jobs, sending e-mail or obtaining product information on the 'Net, yet they still lag behind when it comes to marketing their business online, a K&BDN survey reveals.

By Janice Anne Costa

In fact, a whopping 97% of kitchen and bath dealers surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News report they currently own or lease computers, and of those, nearly half (48%) spend four or more hours a day on their computers (see Graphs 1 &2).

Additionally, 81% of the dealers questioned say they're currently hooked into the Internet, according to the K&BDN survey, which polled some 240 kitchen and bath dealers from all over the country about their computer usage, habits and attitudes (see related story, Page 24, and Editorial, Page 7).

Although the kitchen and bath dealerships surveyed were small in size (58% of those surveyed have five or fewer employees), attitudes toward new technology were clearly more fascinated than frightened, with 81% of respondents saying they view the Internet and current wave of new technology as something that is "exciting and presents enormous opportunities" a sharp contrast to many people's perceptions of small businesses as being "behind the times" or afraid of change, particularly when it comes to new technology and computer usage.

In fact, only 12% of those surveyed said they view the wave of new technology as being "too fast paced, confusing and intimidating" and a mere 7% said they felt it represented "far more of a potential competitive threat than an opportunity." 

However, while the great majority of kitchen and bath dealers seem to be comfortable using computers for accounting functions, CAD/drafting, estimating, database applications and other administrative functions and nearly three quarters are currently enjoying the benefits of e-mail a great many still lag behind when it comes to putting their businesses on the Web. 

In fact, while only 19% of survey respondents said they don't currently have access to the Internet (and 58% of these dealers said they plan to remedy that situation in the next 12 months), barely a third (36%) reported that their company currently has a Web site. Even more surprising, of these, more than half (54%) said they have no plans to establish a Web site in the next 12 months.

In addition, kitchen and bath dealers apparently tend to be less aggressive in using the Internet to its full potential, with barely a third reporting that they're using the 'Net to market themselves, preferring to utilize the Internet for getting product information or communicating with clients and manufacturers.

Internet usage
If it's true that the Internet is the "information highway," then kitchen and bath dealers are definitely picking up speed, recognizing the 'Net's unique ability to provide up-to-the-minute product information and specs at the click of a mouse. In fact, staying current is the number one reason surveyed kitchen and bath dealers said they log onto the 'Net, with a full 80% of the dealers surveyed reporting that they use the Internet to "obtain current product, specification and installation information" (see Graph 3).

The K&BDN poll also revealed that 48% of the surveyed respondents say they use the 'Net to purchase products and services.

However, while kitchen and bath dealers are apparently eager to buy products via the Internet, they appear to be far less inclined to sell them online, with only a mere 10% stating that they use the Internet to sell their products and services via "e-commerce." 

Communication, too, seems to be one of the 'Net's strongest draws, with almost half of all respondents (47%) reporting that they use the Internet to communicate with others in the industry, and to relay job-related information, both internally and externally.

On the downside, computer savvy seems to fall off when it comes to self-marketing, with only slightly more than a third (35%) of survey respondents reporting that they use the 'Net to market their companies to clients and prospects in a cutting-edge way the same number who report using the Internet for non-work-related "surfing."

Of course, not everyone is sold on the cyberworld yet. But even those who are fighting the inevitable seem to recognize that it's only a matter of time. In fact, a full half of those who aren't yet hooked up to the Internet freely admit that they're procrastinating, noting that they haven't yet joined the cyber parade simply because "we haven't gotten around to it yet." Another 41% said they felt they didn't need it, while 4% felt it was too expensive, and another 5% worried about it encouraging non-work-related "surfing."

Perhaps the friendliest of all computer applications, e-mail has captured the attention of nearly everyone in business today, in large part because it offers instant communication capabilities, combined with an ease of use that may even surpass many of today's phone systems, with their "press one, press two" voice mail mazes.

Especially in the fast-paced and detail-oriented kitchen and bath market, where dealers must interact with clients, subcontractors, manufacturers and distributors on a regular basis, e-mail provides an opportunity to reach someone instantly particularly as technology increases to the point of allowing people to check e-mail on the road from pagers, palm pilots and even cell phones.

Not surprisingly, then, almost three quarters (74%) of all the dealers surveyed by K&BDN report having at least one e-mail account. And, of the 26% who don't, more than half (56%) report they expect to have 
e-mail capabilities within the next 12 months.

E-mail is used for everything from contacting manufacturers and clients to communicating with industry peers.

Specifically, 63% of survey respondents say they use e-mail to contact manufacturers and/or distributors, while 51% use it to communicate with clients, 29% use it to contact prospects, 27% use it to interact with subcontractors, 25% use it to communicate with company employees and 23% use it to converse with industry peers (see Graph 4).

Since one of e-mail's greatest benefits is the speed quotient, checking it frequently becomes essential to getting the most out of it. To that end, 69% of survey respondents noted that they check their e-mail daily, while another 16% check it several times a day. In contrast, only 15% reported that they check it "only when they remember."

Hardware & software
Of course, the computer revolution doesn't actually start and end with the Web as much as it sometimes feels that way in this day of "dotcom" everythings. Rather, technology has many benefits and applications that have nothing to do with the Internet, with the one essential ingredient being the basic hardware.

When it comes to hardware needs, kitchen and bath dealers report a mixed bag, with 32% noting that they have one computer, 37.5% reporting that they have several computers and 30.5% saying each person in their company has a computer. Additionally, some 55% of survey respondents reported plans to purchase new hardware in the next 12 months.

But if hardware is key to business, the bells and whistles associated with it are apparently not. Only 11% of respondents noted that they use a laptop for presentations, with today's focus seeming to be more on the software programs than on fancy packaging or portable hardware units.

In the area of software, word processing and accounting and/or spreadsheet programs comprise the lion's share of the market, with 83% of survey respondents noting that they currently utilize word processing and 73% saying they use computerized accounting programs at their kitchen and bath firms (see Graph 5).

Computer-aided design (CAD) and drafting software also obviously play a major role in kitchen and bath dealerships, with 66% of respondents saying they currently use CAD software, and another 13% noting that they plan to buy it in the next 12 months.

Database applications and job estimating/scheduling also have high dealer appeal, with 45% of survey respondents noting that they currently use database applications and 44% saying they currently use job estimating/scheduling software.

Nearly a third of respondents (33%) reported they use personal scheduling/contact management software to plan their days, while 22% use inventory control software and 6% currently use "other" software, including 3-D drafting, e-mail, games, legal and contracts, Internet and desktop publishing.