Custom Cabinetry Is Prospering

by WOHe

Thinking back to my post-World War II days as sales manager for
a dealer-oriented distributor of cabinets and appliances, I recall
that stock cabinets were the mainstay of our dealers’ remodeling
business. However, in three recent interviews with prominent
dealers in the Washington, DC metropolitan area who had been among
our most valued customers during the 1960s and ’70s, I was
impressed by how these dealers’ cabinet and client mix has changed
in more recent days.

In many ways, in fact, these dealers serve as a reflection of
how the cabinet and client mix of many of the kitchen/bath’s
industry’s most successful dealerships have evolved over the
years.

Their operations certainly contain several important common
threads. The dealers I spoke with, for example, are all
long-established companies with a strong referral base. They now
number many repeat customers among their current clients. In fact,
to a great extent, the homeowners seen by the dealers today are
replacing stock cabinets purchased 10 to 20 years ago with
higher-priced custom cabinets and high-end appliances. Other
clients have sold their homes and are now building or buying other
homes while showing their appreciation for past performance by
awarding new kitchen and bath remodeling jobs to their earlier
suppliers.

It’s also interesting to note that each of the dealerships
featured in this month’s column are now managed by the son of the
original owner a fact that suggests that genes apparently play a
significant role in career choices within the kitchen and bath
industry.

Many changes
Remembering back to the years when a typical layout with countertop
and bowl sold at retail for $3,000 to $4,000, I was interested to
learn that the same layout in stock cabinetry is now averaging
close to $10,000! Today’s more exotic door styles and finishes,
plus solid surface and other types of high-end countertops,
contribute to this increased cost.

With an average high-end custom cabinet layout (without
appliances) retailing today in the $30,000 to $40,000 range, one
wonders where this homeowner affluence was generated. The answer,
it seems, is that as the price of homes has increased, homeowners
are inclined to invest the same percentage cost of their most
expensive homes in the kitchen and bath as they did in their
less-affluent years. In addition, a combination of higher incomes
plus stock market appreciation has produced wealth among executives
and high-tech employees which would, in years past, have marked
them as “rich.”

Over the years, stock cabinet manufacturers have reacted to the
increased popularity of custom cabinets by increasing their
selection of specialty cabinets, construction features and
accessories in order to better compete.

At the same time, as custom cabinets have increased in
popularity, stock cabinet distributors have found themselves
increasingly out of the loop. The reason for this is that custom
cabinet manufacturers tend to establish dealers with some degree of
territorial protection. Distributors, on the other hand, are not
inclined to stock the full range of sizes and finishes prevalent in
custom lines. Consequently, custom cabinet manufacturers have
become comfortable selling direct to displaying dealers.’

As a reaction, many cabinet distributors are now “whotailers”
selling both wholesale and retail to maintain volume and
profitability.’

This approach has been quite successful, although it does make
the whotailer a competitor of cabinet retailers in their market.
However, since custom cabinet prices for distributors are similar
to prices for dealers, active dealerships like the trio I’m about
to cite can generally compete successfully.

High-end success
Since this column is concentrating on custom cabinetry, the
independent dealers and home centers who feature stock cabinetry
based largely on their location and clientele have been reserved
for a future column. Let me introduce you to the three high-end
kitchen and bath specialists I interviewed:

  • Creative Kitchens, of Rockville, MD, operates
    out of an established shopping center on a major traffic artery.
    Its lines include Wood-Mode and Brookhaven, which are each
    manufactured in nearby Pennsylvania. Its Premier cabinetry, also
    produced in Pennsylvania, is its most customized line.

    If you’re familiar with these cabinet lines, you know that they can
    all be defined as custom cabinets.’

    Larry Dobbs acquired the Creative Kitchens business from his
    father, Jay Dobbs, whose history in kitchen sales and design
    extends back to the 1950s. Larry estimates that 65% of Creative
    Kitchens’ jobs are referrals or’
    past clients.
  • The Kitchen Guild is located in prestigious
    Chevy Chase on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, DC. The company
    was founded in 1954 and was subsequently purchased by Robert D.
    Schafer, CKD, in 1970. His son, Mike, is currently the manager of
    the operation, although Robert Schafer is still active on an
    everyday basis.

    The Kitchen Guild’s cabinet lines include Wood-Mode/Brookhaven,
    plus Stylecraft and Plain & Fancy Custom Cabinets.’

    Although Kitchen Guild and Creative Kitchens both represent
    Wood-Mode/Brookhaven and are geographically in the same
    metropolitan market, their clientele tends to favor the dealership
    that is located most conveniently or the one that’s most familiar
    to clients.
  • Custom Crafters is located in a free-standing,
    two level building on a lightly traveled street in Kensington, MD.
    Custom Crafters’ second floor showroom is 5,000 sq. ft. and is
    readily visible from the street. Its lower floor contains
    management offices plus warehouse space.

    Despite its side-street location, Custom Crafters’ consistent
    advertising over the years has made it a dominant force in this
    area. Its cabinet lines include Kountry Kraft, Dura Supreme, plus
    LesCare frameless. Schrock cabinetry is its only stock
    line.’

    I remember that, in the 1950s, stock cabinets were Custom Crafters’
    best-selling cabinet but its customers today are apparently more
    prosperous and less price conscious than those of the past.

    Several years ago, Custom Crafters purchased Kitchen Classics, an
    established business in nearby northern Virginia. Both locations
    cater to a similar clientele. Gary Spates directs sales, while
    Charles Chwastyk, a certified public accountant, directs operations
    out of the company’s Kensington headquarters.

    Chwastyk and Spates (whose father was a key Custom Crafters
    salesman for many years) are now partners in the business, which
    was founded by Richard D. Rutter, who is now retired.

    As I said, it’s interesting to note some important similarities
    between each of the three high-end dealerships that I’ve cited.
    It’s also interesting to note that despite increased competition
    including that of prominent home center chains these three
    organizations continue to be an important factor in kitchen and
    bath sales within the Washington, DC metropolitan market.

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