Navigating a Sea of Changes

authors Janice Costa | November 9, 2018

It seems like only yesterday we were gearing up for summer, and suddenly we’re hurtling at warp speed toward year’s end. When I talk to designer friends, most can’t figure out what happened to the year! They largely say business is booming, but admit it’s been a tough year that at times has left them feeling more weary than wired. Indeed, as we draw closer to the end of a crazy, busy and often turbulent 2018, the mood in the kitchen and bath industry seems to swing between excitement and exhaustion.

That’s no surprise, as our industry has been buffeted by a sea of changes this year.

Plenty of those changes fall into the good news category, including a strong economy, rising incomes, near-
record-low unemployment and a slew of new products and technology. And still more good news comes in the form of new projections released last month by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, which forecasts increased homeowner spending on remodeling across 50 of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.

Yet at the same time, rising mortgage rates, shortages in housing inventory and a sluggish housing market are creating challenges for our industry. Even “positives” like the low unemployment rate present some issues, as this has made it increasingly difficult for many kitchen and bath firms to find and keep quality employees and subs.

And then there are issues such as the tariff situation, the long-term effects of which the industry is still trying to ascertain (see related story).

When KBDN recently interviewed manufacturers about their thoughts on the recent rounds of tariffs imposed on Chinese imports – particularly on countertop materials, cabinets and appliances – their responses were all over the map. Some see this as a boon to American-made products and a chance to address concerns about perceived intellectual property theft; others see this resulting in rising costs that will make remodeling less affordable for everyone.

Likewise, dealers and designers espouse mixed views on the tariff situation. Some fear (or say they are already struggling with) spikes in product prices that will cut into profit margins and ultimately discourage consumers from committing to new kitchen and bath projects. Others believe the tariffs will stem the tide of poor-quality “knock offs” that damage the reputation and professionalism of the kitchen and bath industry, elevating the industry as a whole. And still others are convinced that the current turbulence will add up to much ado about nothing, with the situation likely to be resolved quickly rather than escalating into a protracted battle.

But whether supporting, opposing or taking a “wait and see” approach, one thing industry pros seem to agree on is that change is in the air. And savvy kitchen and bath dealers and designers need to be poised to address those changes. That may mean more carefully examining product choices and sources, rethinking pricing strategies or even including escalation clauses in contracts to protect the bottom line.

Nor are these changes exclusive to the tariff situation. In his Future Forward column, John Morgan looks at how online competitors are changing consumers’ buying habits, and how dealers and designers may need to rethink not just what they sell, but what their core business is, and should be, as the online marketplace evolves (see story).

Traditionally, during a good economy, kitchen and bath dealers and designers tend to focus on the wealth of jobs pouring in the doors, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. When the market is booming, it’s easy to neglect the ‘business’ aspects of the business. But all of that is changing, too, as dealers and designers are being forced to look more carefully at everything from where products (and product components) are sourced to whether the services they offer are what their clients really need, to what expertise they may be lacking that’s becoming more critical in today’s market (lighting design? home technology?), to whether the traditional fixed-price contract still makes sense.

The bottom line is that, if our industry is to continue to survive, and thrive, we all need to be able to pivot quickly to anticipate and react to the many changes that seem to be coming down the pike almost daily. ▪

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