At the recent Kitchen & Bath Industry Show (KBIS) in Las Vegas, Karen Strauss, president of the Masco Cabinetry Group (which includes KraftMaid, Merillat, and Quality) in Ann Arbor, Mich., addressed a group of professionals about the state of the industry.

Strauss offered suggestions on how designers and remodelers can survive in today’s tough market.

First, she urged professionals to face reality. Kitchen and bath sales are down 30% since 2006, she said, but even with a few small rises in consumer confidence, the market is still “bouncing along the bottom.” Though the unemployment outlook has improved, professionals need to pay attention to the quality not just the quantity of new jobs on the market. With a 75% decline in sales of new homes, that market continues to be a “roller-coaster ride,” Strauss said, and tight credit will continue to affect these sales. All of these factors mean the rest of 2011 will be volatile and consumers will be reluctant to spend money on their homes.

However, there are reasons for optimism. With the low availability of new homes, as foreclosed houses are processed through the market, the need for homes will increase. Foreclosures also offer an opportunity for repair and remodeling — especially in kitchens and baths. Three positive factors that will influence the market are an increase in household growth, immigration, and the second-home market.

Strauss pointed out that K&B designers and remodelers are competing against other big-ticket consumer items such as vacations, so they need to “create a compelling reason to buy in our category.”

Reaching Today’s Consumers

In her presentation, Strauss stressed that the industry also needs to find out what today’s consumers want, citing some statistics that could help to define today’s top buyers. She said that homeowners see their kitchen as an experience and a “lifestyle support tool for what matters” to them.

And today’s consumers are the ones who control the message — they don’t wait for retailers to “push the message out to them.” They are connected in ways that most retailers never imagined. Strauss said that consumers:

• Want to participate in the conversation and be an equal partner in the process
• Are more likely to include their friends’ opinions in their decisions
• Want designers to bring them solutions worth splurging on

And, she added, there are 200 million blogs online, and consumers are using resources like this to make purchase decisions online — before they even set foot in a store. With all these changes, it’s important that the industry finds a better way to reach consumers from a distance, including phone applications and mobile sites. Strauss pointed out that the better you know your customer, the better you’re equipped to reach them, which means not just knowing their demographics but also their psychographics. She cites the example of a researcher who defines the ideal customer of Trader Joe’s grocery stores as a “Volvo-driving professor who could be CEO of a Fortune 100 company if he could get over his capitalist angst."
Designers need to ask their clients about the key triggers that prompted them to renovate a kitchen or bath. In addition, designers need to be innovative and inspire their clients. “No one cares about your products, they only care how your products will improve their lives,” Strauss said. —Nina Patel, senior editor, REMODELING.