Catering to Online Customers

It was little more than three years ago when Paul McAlary opened the doors to Main Line Kitchen Design in Philadelphia, PA. The president of the company admits to some hesitation, given the economic environment of the kitchen and bath industry at the time. But thanks to some encouragement from his wife, who is a marketing executive, and a friend who works in Internet advertising and e-commerce Website management, he pushed forward.

Concentrating on a business model that emphasizes the Internet rather than a physical showroom, McAlary has grown the design firm at a rate of about 35 percent each year since.

The decision to eliminate a showroom was based on what he saw happening in the industry in his nearly 20 years as a designer. “Going back about 10 years ago, when we measured a kitchen, we sold a kitchen more than two-thirds of the time,” says the designer, who graduated with a degree in computer engineering and also has a background in general contracting. “As the economy slowed, and as more people turned to the Internet, that percentage declined. When I left the company and looking to start my own business, it was down to less than 30 percent of the time.

“Most firms around here didn’t charge a deposit,” he continues. “People looking to renovate their kitchens would shop until they dropped. They’d go to every different showroom and price out their kitchen a hundred different ways. But kitchens are complicated, and most people didn’t understand they weren’t comparing apples to apples. Wherever they ended up when they ran out of gas was where they bought their kitchen.”

Saturdays at the showroom were less than fruitful. “We’d wait on someone for half a day who wasn’t going to buy a kitchen for 10 years,” he says. “They were just looking for something to do on a Saturday. And even if they intended to remodel, they didn’t want to invest enough time to understand the process. They’d take any advice they could, then run to IKEA to buy cabinets.

“When I created this company, we got rid of the showroom because I saw it as a way for people to not get good advice. I decided to put our money into Internet sales to get the customers we want.”

While he admits that the lack of a showroom can make some clients a bit uncomfortable, McAlary says people are getting used to the idea, as evidenced by the increased number of referrals. “It was a hard sell in the beginning,” he says. “But it’s actually more convenient for our customers. We go to their homes, designing spaces on laptops right in front of them…in the very rooms they’re renovating. They don’t have to go anywhere. We come to them…at night, on weekends, whenever they are free.”


Going Viral

McAlary works with two designers, which gives him the ability to split his time between designing kitchens and maintaining the company’s Website and social media sites. He immerses himself in nearly all mainstream social media sites, including Houzz, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn and YouTube. By far, he believes Houzz brings him the most business, but he sees all of them playing an important role. “People are very shopper oriented,” he says. “Houzz is the first place they look when they want to do a kitchen. We have to be there. [It’s perceived that] if you’re not on Houzz, you’re not in the kitchen business.”

Twitter is a great way to keep an eye on what people are saying about the business, he relates, while LinkedIn is a way to market to other kitchen designers. McAlary sees his time spent on Facebook as an investment. “We’ll give away iPads, etc.,” he says, indicating that this participation is a way to get people to spend time on the page and ‘like’ the business. “We think at some point, Facebook ‘likes’ will be important.”

McAlary also sees value in video, with one YouTube video he created going viral, getting nearly 50,000 views in a two-week time period. “It’s been great for us!” he says of the clip that compresses a two-month renovation into a 211-second, stop-action video. “If someone clicks on it, they typically won’t leave until they’ve watched it.”

That’s significant because the amount of time visitors spend on a site is critically important, ultimately playing a role in how much McAlary pays for advertising. “Google sees people staying on the site, and we pay less per click,” he says.


Staying Relevant

While McAlary is the only one at the firm who spends time on the Internet, he surrounds himself with a team of advisors, meeting with them about once a month. “One time we had two-and-a-half months between meetings,” he recalls. “It was catastrophic. Google frequently modifies their algorithm and everything changes.”

His team includes his Internet advertising friend, experts dedicated to search engine optimization, Website professionals and a guru who specializes in mobile applications. “Everyone is smart and has their own area of expertise,” he says, though he admits that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to Internet advertising. “Someone will come up with a brilliant idea, we’ll go with it, then Google will make changes. We’re constantly changing the Web site…constantly tweaking it to stay relevant. It’s ongoing and never ending.”

Some tweaks he routinely makes focus on how Internet users find the business online. He intentionally eliminates the use of some words such as cheap or inexpensive when tagging his business, photos, videos, etc. In fact, he negatively keywords those terms to deter clients who are looking for low-cost cabinets/design and who typically have low closing values.

Even the company’s name, Main Line Kitchen Design, was chosen so people would find him online before they find his competitors. “Most people look at cabinetry in showrooms for years before they ever intend to redo their kitchen,” he says. “The day they decide to spend the money, the first thing they do is type a search into the Internet for cabinet companies near their home. We focus our business on being the first kitchen designer people find when they do an online search.”

The inclusion of ‘kitchen design’ in the firm’s name is understandable. ‘Main Line’ was chosen to correlate with the Main Line area of Philadelphia, which is a collection of affluent towns built – with high-end businesses – along the old Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad. “In our area, there are a lot of businesses with ‘Main Line’ in their name,” he says. “It’s a way for them to identify with this area. Our name was very purposeful as to how we wanted to present the business. If someone types into a search ‘kitchen cabinets Main Line’ or ‘kitchen design Main Line,’ they’ll get results that are two to three pages deep, with almost everything being related to us. We essentially own that term on the Internet.”

This line of thinking supports his business philosophy. “It is now more valuable to be found on the first page in a relevant Google search than to have a showroom location on Main Street in the city or town that you service,” he says.


Paying the Bills

While Internet management takes up a good portion of his time, McAlary doesn’t neglect what really pays the bills…designing kitchens. Main Line Kitchen Design specializes in cabinetry, offering several options, including those from Oracle, 6 Square, Jim Bishop, Dura Supreme, Village Custom Kitchens, Collier and Bremtown. While he and his designers will offer advice on additional elements such as countertops, lighting, tile, etc., McAlary directs his clients to specialists in these areas as a first reference.

This singular focus correlates with his design philosophy, which emphasizes the importance of design over expensive elements. “The design is the most valuable aspect of a kitchen,” he says. “Great designs look better and increase the value of a home more than a lesser design, even if that design uses much more expensive materials.”

If clients are trying to stick within a particular budget, McAlary will encourage them to spend money to make the design work, as opposed to throwing money at products.

“It’s design first, stuff second,” he says. “I encourage my clients to resist spending $6,000 on a refrigerator that is in the wrong place. People can be reluctant to spend a couple hundred dollars to move a sink. But if they’re willing to eliminate a glaze or get a less expensive line of cabinetry, that will enable them to pay for changes that will make a better design.”


At a Glance – Main Line Kitchen Design, LLC

Location: Philadelphia, PA

Principal: Paul McAlary (president)

Advertised hours of operation: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday - Thursday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. "In reality, most days our calls and emails get forwarded to my iPhone and tablet. I am curious by  nature, so I will often respond after hours."

Number of employees: Three

Cabinetry lines: Oracle, 6 Square, Jim Bishop, Dura Supreme, Village Custom Kitchens, Coller and Bremtown

Design Software: 20-20 Technologies and ProKitchens

Business Philosophy: "It is now more valuable to be found on the first page in a relevant Google search than to have a showroom location on Main Street in the city or town that you service."

Design Philosophy: "Great designs look better and increase the value of a home more than a lesser design, even if that design uses much more expensive materials."