The last few years have been challenging for most Americans as they’ve struggled to survive and emerge from a devastating economic downturn. The kitchen and bath industry was not left unscathed by the economic challenges, but there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel. Kitchen cabinet manufacturers are cautiously optimistic about how the market will do in the next few years.
As homeowners begin to consider updating their kitchens, they are clearly leaning toward transitional designs, painted finishes and well-organized configurations that meet their specific needs. However, in addition, they are looking for the best deal for a quality product, and are arriving at showrooms already having done their homework.
Clean and Simple Dictate Style
During the last few years, manufacturers have pointed to the increased demand for transitional style throughout the kitchen. Clean, simple designs have been rewarded with a growing customer base. The combination of traditional and contemporary styles with a minimalist approach has caught the attention of designers and their clients. The result is timeless and classic.
This trend only continues to grow. Karen Wistrom, ASID, v.p. of marketing for Dura Supreme Cabinetry in Howard Lake, MN, explains, “The overall trend is toward transitional styling, and that affects finishes, door styles, moldings, hardware choices, tile, countertops, flooring, etc.”
Wistrom gets even more specific when discussing kitchen cabinetry. “We are seeing a definitive trend toward transitional styling with clean lines and sleek details. Distressed and glazed finishes have declined in popularity, as have ornate door styles and heavily carved moldings. Sleek, simple styles are catching everyone’s interest, as homeowners show their preference for looks that lean toward contemporary but with traditional roots. Door styles are trending toward flat panels or clean, simple raised panels without heavy details or ornate moldings.”
Scott Korsten, marketing director, Showplace Wood Products in Harrisburg, SD, agrees. “Areas of transitional styling followed by contemporary are growing. There seems to be a fairly consistent desire for contemporary styling among Gen Y, so it’s a good bet that it will continue to grow at an accelerated pace.”
On the other hand, Doug Chadwick, executive v.p. for Canyon Creek Cabinet Co. in Monroe, WA, still sees high demand for traditionally styled kitchen cabinets. Chadwick, however, agrees that transitional styling is on the upswing. “Traditional continues to be the most popular kitchen design style, with the transitional style gaining ground and contemporary following closely behind. Shaker and Shaker variations remain the most commonly used door style and work well in all of these design styles,” he comments.
Wistrom indicates that contemporary styles are also on the rise. “We are seeing more homeowners showing interest in high-gloss acrylics and foils,” she says.
Aaron Schoeneberger, director of marketing for Quality Custom Cabinetry Inc. (QCCI) in New Holland, PA, explains that the minimalist style is a “safer investment” for the client. “It’s easier to clean,” he says, while adding that the consumer can get a “high-end cabinet at a slightly lower price point.”
Color Reigns Supreme
While some people remain partial to stains, there is a clear trending up of painted finishes on kitchen cabinets. Some prefer a mixing and matching of paints and stains, or a bit of bold accent color. Either way, homeowners are choosing simplicity even when it comes to color.
“People are cautious when they remodel their homes,” stresses Schoeneberger. He notes that white – and variations of white – are, therefore, the most popular finishes for kitchen cabinets.
“Colors are trending to neutral shades of white, off-white, beige and gray – lots of gray,” says Wistrom. “For stained finishes, we are still seeing high interest in darker stained colors, but we are beginning to see lighter colors picking up steam again.”
Chadwick concurs, adding that “pops of color are being used to accent neutral colors.”
Korsten agrees. “Painted products continue to grow in popularity,” he says, adding that people seem to be more comfortable exploring bolder colors and custom paint colors. There is also a continued interest in mixing and matching, and paints with stains or accent colors are gaining momentum.
Jeff Ptacek, CKD, product manager for StarMark Cabinetry in Sioux Falls, SD, points out that maple is the number one wood species in demand, followed by cherry.
Wistrom also points to maple and cherry as appealing wood species for many consumers. “Maple is still a high-use wood species because of paint, although it is still being used for stains because of its overall light color and subtle grain pattern. Cherry is still a popular wood species and works well for darker, stained finishes,” she explains. Wistrom also sees a growing demand for quarter-sawn oak and Lyptus, and various veneers such as bamboo and zebrawood.
According to Canyon Creek’s Chadwick, maple has continued to be the company’s number one wood species “due to its versatility.” He adds that there has been “a shift away from cherry and an increased demand for beech and bamboo.”
Mark Cross, v.p. of sales and marketing for The Corsi Group in Indianapolis, IN, says, “Paints are over 60 percent of our overall business,” referring to kitchen cabinets. He also claims that clear alder and composite veneers are gaining popularity.
Schoeneberger brings up an interesting point, however. He believes that, as demand has moved toward painted cabinets, the wood species actually seem less important.
Storage Customizes Spaces
Regardless of cabinet finishes or styles, the majority of homeowners want to maximize the use of their kitchen space. They may want to accommodate more than one cook, and they want efficiency built into their kitchen designs. The cabinet configuration is more than a little important in that regard.
“People want to be able to use every bit of available space, and utility is very important to the overall design,” explains Chadwick. “Kitchens are multipurpose rooms and the cabinets have to be extremely versatile. We see consumers who want an overall customization of their cabinets’ storage capabilities to fit their personal needs.” This translates to the incorporation of organizational accessories that help eliminate clutter.
Carefully equipping the consumer’s kitchen is the name of the game, according to Ptacek. “Accessorize, accessorize and accessorize!” he exclaims.
Chadwick also explains, “Storage preferences are changing. Items that used to be almost exclusively stored in wall cabinets – such as plates and bowls – are now commonly stored in wide, deep drawer base cabinets equipped with specialty storage accessories.” Chadwick is also seeing “more designs with warming and appliance drawers.”
Korsten agrees that drawers are being put to greater use in the kitchen. “There is some movement toward a greater share of the kitchen being allocated to base cabinets with wider, deeper drawers,” he says. “High quality, full-extension drawer glides are necessary, with soft-close features in high demand.”
According to Rod Brewer, v.p. of marketing for Mid Continent Cabinetry in Eagan, MN, homeowners want “kitchens that are functional as well as beautiful.” With that in mind, he points out that there is a lot of “gadget” storage in the market.
“I don’t believe customers are looking for the latest gimmick,” he states. “They need help understanding how to make the most of the functional storage in their space.”
Design Crosses Generations
When asked about cabinets and the demand for Universal Design, Brewer makes an interesting point. He maintains that Universal Design is “better described as ‘aging in place’. This is more of a design than a product issue. People are starting to anticipate mobility restrictions as they age and want a space that can transition with them.”
Chadwick finds more requests for “designs that cater to multi-generational households. We have requests for greater accessibility in undercabinet storage so the entire household can use it, regardless of physical capabilities.”
The aging of the baby boomers will likely increase demand for universally designed products, manufacturers agree. Korsten notes, “We don’t seem to have hit a point of significantly increasing demand [for these products], but it seems logical that it will come.”
Green Demand Hits Slowdown
Some manufacturers have noted a decline in consumer interest in green products since the economic slump began.
“Since the downturn in the economy, we have been getting fewer request for eco-friendly products that involve a higher price,” explains Wistrom. “Customers are eco-conscious and want to know about our process and products that are environmentally friendly, but as soon as price is affected, interest seems to decline.”
Ptacek adds, “As long as the company can prove it is responsible when it comes to taking care of the environment, actual green product requests have dropped.”
Brewer believes the green factor is not a major concern to clients. “Homeowners are choosing green products if they have a choice,” he explains. “But, we don’t see them demanding them.”
While some manufacturers have said they only get requests for green products from people concerned with health issues, Chadwick sees a different trend. “As homeowners become more educated about building products, they are seeking cabinets built using sustainable and ecologically preferable materials. They also want to be assured the materials used in constructing their cabinets support maintenance of healthy indoor air quality.”
Future Shows Positive Turn
The struggling economy has been foremost in the minds of consumers and manufacturers during the last several years. It remains a primary concern, but many kitchen cabinet manufacturers expect further improvement in the market.
Along with that gradual improvement, however, there have been some shifts in customer behaviors – and manufacturers and dealers have had to adjust to stay in the game.
First of all, explains Brewer, every client is determined to land a good deal, and they are willing to do the research and leg work it takes to get a good value. Brewer also says one reason why transitional styling is so popular is that homeowners want timeless design. “They don’t want a kitchen that will be out of fashion in five years,” he stresses.
Ptacek agrees that homeowners are shopping carefully. “Customers want to feel they’re getting a deal, and will purchase something on sale versus standard product. [They will] also go to a less expensive door style to get upgrades on accessories and countertops.”
Korsten also makes some valid points about the behavior of today’s consumer. “People buying kitchens today have the money, or ready access to financing at low rates, and they want what they want. Many are scaling back the overall size of their intended budget, but they want high-end features and personalized service packed into that smaller budget.”
Korsten adds, “The Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association reported, as a whole, the cabinet industry lost money in 2011, so obviously there is still much emphasis on price reductions, promotions and increased value. As the economy improves, increased demand for cabinetry will begin to intersect with increased costs as the supply chain works to reawaken their capacities. That will create a time when prices increase, perhaps dramatically, and threaten to cool consumers’ desire to remodel. Manufacturers and retailers will have to delicately balance healing their bottom lines with offering incentives that encourage homeowners to have work done.”
“Consumers have begun to look into home projects again, although there is still much caution and price shopping,” reports Wistrom. “Smaller remodeling projects such as finished basements or bathrooms have been picking up over the past two years, and larger renovations and remodeling projects are now picking up as well. Custom cabinetry has probably experienced the most impact as consumers focused on value and price, which has drawn attention to semi-custom cabinetry.”
Chadwick suggests that many consumers have been tempted by the price of cabinet imports and stock cabinetry lines. In the end, however, he believes that consumers learned a hard lesson. They discovered that imports and stock lines “do not provide the service, selection, flexibility or level of customization that you get with semi-custom or custom cabinets.”
Schoeneberger points out that “it’s a buyer’s market, so buyers are more demanding and cautious.” Homeowners are likely to demand more attention when working with designers while searching for the best deal – as long as there is more supply than demand. He is happy to report, however, that there is a tremendous amount of activity in the market. “Dealers were quiet for a long time, but activity is definitely picking up,” he stresses.
Cross, however, is the most optimistic. He enthusiastically sums up the confidence that is beginning to sound in the market. “It’s a great time to be in this industry. Expect the next five years to overshadow the doom and gloom of the past four!”