‘Critical Issues’ Focus on Economy, 'New' Consumer

What keeps you up at night? If you’re lucky, nothing more challenging than the occasional barking dog, late-returning teenager or loud car radio is disturbing your sleep these days.

But if you’re like most of us in the kitchen and bath industry, the economy has likely given you more than a few sleepless nights over the past few years.

And while things are certainly improving, a number of kitchen and bath professionals are still burning the midnight oil chewing over issues that many never gave a thought to just a few years back.

That’s according to a new Kitchen & Bath Design News survey that looked at dealers’ and designers’ most critical business issues and challenges, now and into the future (see related story, Page 36).

Not surprisingly, the continued economic difficulties and the uncertainty of an election year are key concerns right now, along with declining profit margins and fewer customers.

But it isn’t just about the economy, according to those polled.

Indeed, one of the biggest concerns facing today’s kitchen and bath professionals has to do with a dramatic shift in today’s consumers – their values, their buying patterns, their preferences and how they shop.

A younger generation of consumers is also playing into the equation; as one dealer explained it, “These are people who can’t decide on a lunch choice without checking their iPhone and polling their entire Facebook network, forget shopping for a new kitchen or bath.”

It’s now a given that Gen X and Y will be educating themselves on the Web before ever setting foot in a showroom. These consumers are using apps like the Kitchen & Bath Channel to find nearby showrooms and soliciting friends’ opinions on social media sites before making product decisions.

That means having a great showroom isn’t enough; you also have to have great word of mouth, a great Web site, a strong understanding of industry apps and the ability to please not just the clients, but their entire social network!

At the same time, aging Baby Boomers are looking for products that will help them enjoy their golden years in their homes – without making them feel “old.” They, too, want technology, but for many of them, technology is not as intuitive as it is for their children, so they need techno features that are easy to read, use and understand.

But while consumers’ reactions to technology seem to be having a significant impact on kitchen and bath dealers and designers, those polled seem less concerned with keeping up with new technology than they are with understanding a rapidly changing client base. As one explained, “This is a people business; our clients’ needs, desires and lifestyles drive design and product choices. The tools are important, but the clients are where it ultimately starts and ends.”

Paradoxically, while many dealers and designers cite worries about declining profit margins, far fewer are concerned about the need for continuing training in areas such as financial and business management – which might help them to address these issues.

Interestingly, competition from Internet-based businesses and home centers were low on the list of worries; as one dealer noted, “Customer service has become a requirement, not a luxury. So that’s one silver lining; companies that can’t provide intensely personalized service with lots of hand holding, well, they just can’t compete.”

So what does all of this mean? Quite simply, while the economy continues its slow recovery, there are other challenges on the horizon – and at the core of these challenges remains the need to understand, connect with and serve an ever-evolving kitchen and bath consumer. Do this well, and the profits will follow.