Assorted Reflections on K/BIS 2000

by WOHe

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.

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