Assorted Reflections on K/BIS 2000

Having attended the Kitchen/Bath Industry Show for the umpteenth time since I became involved in kitchens and bathrooms after World War II, I'm constantly amazed at the changes our industry has wrought.

Among other things, the exhibits at K/BIS 2000 confirmed a not-so-subtle shift in distribution. Where were the many cabinet exhibitors of past years? Aristokraft, for one, was not in evidence. Regional custom manufacturers were rare indeed, while some well-entrenched cabinets were present, but under the banner of major corporations.

To cite a few examples: Masco's large exhibit area could have occupied at least one-third of the vast K/BIS display floor if each of its cabinet lines had been represented with large displays, as in the recent past. In contrast, the booth spaces of Merillat and KraftMaid were tiny compared to past years. However, these two lines are well represented with distributors and dealers, so Masco executives obviously believe the firm's money is better spent in local representation and advertising.

Masco's stable of cabinet companies now includes Merillat, KraftMaid, Quality, Fieldstone, StarMark, Texwood, Mills Pride, Alma, Alvic, GMU, Grumal, Xey and Tvilum-Scanbirk A/S. Some of those names are obviously of foreign origin. I don't recall seeing them displayed in the Masco grouping at K/BIS, so my guess is that they're merchandised exclusively overseas.

I don't envy Masco's marketing manager, or whoever determines the price and feature compatibility of these many brands within a distributorship or dealership. A distributor commented to me that many cabinet manufacturers are going the direct-to-dealer route in order to avoid putting too many of their eggs in any distributor's basket.

I don't mean to imply that Masco is specializing in cabinetry alone. Its corporate brochure lists 12 brand names under the heading "Faucets, Plumbing and Bath," and the company is certainly diversified with products aimed not only at the kitchen and bath trade, but at a wide range of building needs in both new construction and remodeling.

Masco is apparently doing quite well with its strategy of numerous brand names, since other major players in the industry have become similarly acquisition-minded. Elkay's cabinet group, for example, now includes Yorktowne, Medallion and Mastercraft. Since cabinet dealers and distributors are logical outlets for Elkay's bowls and faucets, I can see a synergy in this combination. In addition, Omega/Dynasty acquired HomeCrest and Kitchen Craft within the past year, and is clearly a major factor in cabinet distribution with their impressive lineup of cabinets.

On a final note, KitchenAid, under the ownership of Whirlpool Corp., is now in laundry equipment, as well as dishwashers, disposers and refrigeration evidence, indeed, that acquisitions do influence marketing decisions!

Industry reaction
This acquisition trend has not gone unnoticed by dealers and distributors, of course.

The distributors I've spoken to say they feel less confident about their relationships with manufacturers, since a variety of manufacturers' representatives are in their marketplace representing one or more of their suppliers' products.

Moreover, as I spoke with manufacturer representatives on my visits to booths, I was, frankly, surprised to learn how many products now are sold manufacturer-direct to retailers.

Dealers, in turn, are concerned about merchandising the same brands as the home center giants. I recall when independent dealers often promoted their cabinet lines on an exclusive basis. Strong distributors are still in demand, but there just aren't enough to go around. Furthermore, some manufacturers may feel that direct sales reduces distribution costs and their retail price. However, as a past distributor myself, I have some doubts about this theory, since the costs of direct selling increases shipping expense, and inventory costs are probably higher than selling through stocking distributors.

All of the above has undoubtedly influenced many well-established wholesale-only distributors to become "whotailers" with multiple showrooms. While this format increases operating costs, it produces higher gross margins and is attractive to many manufacturers who feel their independent dealers may be vulnerable to the major home center chains. The whotailer is probably best situated to compete with home center pricing and locations.

A foreign touch
The proliferation of kitchen and bath fittings and decorative hardware at K/BIS, and throughout the industry in general, is absolutely amazing (see related K/BIS coverage, see Page 65). Perhaps the answer to this overabundance of brass goods is to drill each bowl for two sets of faucets!

Nevertheless, the products are indeed handsome, and showcase a wide range of finishes and features.
In my travels around the K/BIS show floor, I also noted the presence of a growing number of foreign-based suppliers. Some were faucet manufacturers, but also displayed faucet flow valves for OEM sale to U.S. manufacturers.
Hansa and KWC, from Germany and Switzerland, respectively, are now sister companies with an interesting synergy. Faber of Italy has gone high-tech with a range hood which, among other features, can be remotely-controlled, much like a television set.

China was represented in a number of booths in the same vicinity of the exhibit hall. England was represented, as well, among the displays. It was obvious, too, from the foreign languages being spoken by more attendees than in the past that a growing number of people from abroad must feel as if K/BIS is worth an overseas flight.

My final impression of this year's K/BIS is as vivid as any other: Remembering our industry in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, it's obvious that there's been a dramatic shift from a male dominated industry to one in which women are on the brink of becoming dominant.

For example, of about 200 people in attendance at a seminar on design influences, women were far and away in the majority. My hat's off to them. Women have certainly proven themselves to be not only competent, but indispensable to an industry that has certainly undergone profound change.