Nancy Hugo, a kitchen designer in Phoenix, encourages everyone to use social media. Her newsletter gets her name out while helping design industry professionals network.
Jason Millstein/Aurora Nancy Hugo, a kitchen designer in Phoenix, encourages everyone to use social media. Her newsletter gets her name out while helping design industry professionals network.

How has kitchen remodeling changed during the past two years? Let us count the ways: Clients are more budget-conscious. Sales tactics are more nuanced. Marketing has shifted to a virtual world. Project scopes have decreased and product choices expanded.

Yet even though the sand beneath everyone’s feet is shifting, “The situation isn’t that complicated,” says Michael Klein, chairman of Airoom, in Chicago, which does several hundred kitchen remodels each year. “The consumer wants more for less; people are not doing as well as [they were] before. But it’s not like they’re a new breed of humans … We just have to be sensitive to the changes — it’s listening and reacting quicker instead of believing [the boom times] will come back.”

REACH OUT …

In the past two years, clients have been challenging the purchasing process by asking more questions, garnering an increased number of competitive bids, asking to do work on their own, researching products and pricing on the Internet, trying “to get the world at a reduced cost,” as Ed Cholfin, owner of AK Complete Home Renovations, in Marietta, Ga., says — then hesitating to buy. While not giving up on current customers, some remodelers are seeing more leads and higher conversions to jobs because they have sought out new and different clients.

When Bob Gockeler, owner of KraftMaster Renovations, in Florham Park, N.J., tried to market an open showroom in Union, N.J., in a non-retail zoned area, his mostly midlevel clients were stopping to look but not to buy. “I went for six months without a single sale,” Gockeler says. He changed everything about his business — product line, sales cycle, design process — but nothing worked until he moved his showroom to Chatham, home to a higher-end consumer and no other kitchen dealer. (So as not to alienate his base, Gockeler asked past customers which towns they would travel to and took their responses into consideration.) “The economy started to loosen up last summer,” he says, “and we started to close business — but with new customers,” he adds.

Steven St. Onge, owner of Rhode Island Kitchen & Bath, in Warwick, R.I., also took his chances on a new showroom last year at a time when, he says, “if our company name weren’t kitchen and bath, we probably wouldn’t be in business. The kitchen business [then] was atrocious.”

The showroom, larger and in a different neighborhood from his last one, has brought in new “higher-end clients that didn’t want to drive to the other location,” St. Onge says. RIKB is also seeing more walk-in traffic, those “shopping for product [who] may not have already committed to installation contracts … and [those] who are just starting … and have no idea what to do. We also end up selling products to people who already have contractors.”

Many of these new clients have lived through multiple economic cycles. Cholfin characterizes them as savvy investors who have taken their lumps and have emotionally come to grips with the economy. “They’re creeping back into the market because they still want to invest in their homes,” he says. “[They have] a budget range and reduced expectations [about project size] but they still want quality service and a kitchen they’ll be happy with.”