Kitchen Designers Buyers Guide
The purpose of this report is help kitchen designers/dealers look at value. I want you to establish an understanding of value and not use price as your primary filter when selecting cabinet manufacturer for your dealership/kitchen design business.
This will help you understand how to evaluate manufacturers. And select the best supplier for your cabinetry needs.
For the sake of this article I’m going to use the descriptions below for Stock, Semi-custom, and Custom Kitchen Cabinets. In the real world the categories aren’t always this clean (the other day somebody used the term “custom stock cabinetry”), but for our purposes these are the category descriptions.
- Least expensive option. Available in a couple days to 3 weeks
- Standard height: 30”, 36”, 42” wall cabinets
- Available in 3" increments 9" or 12" to 48"
- Above range and refrigerator height of 12”-27”
- Can be produced in trailer load quantities or kitchen at a time
- Allow some modifications that don’t effect door or drawer front sizes-usually increase and decrease depth, finish interiors, and maybe door/ drawer hardware upgrades
I have found the painted finishes of imported cabinetry from China to be superior to the painted cabinets of domestic stock cabinet manufacturers. This isn't because of inferior materials. US Cabinet Depot https://www.uscabinetdepot.com/ is CARB2 compliant for standard US restrictions for formaldehyde emissions. There are several other key factors at play that contribute to cost of imports, but the finishing material is not one of them. What has also driven the business model of imported cabinetry is the simple fact that paint is so popular. And the paint color palette can be reduced to 3-4 colors of dark grey, light grey, pure white, and a white that has grey or cream hints. A shaker style doors dominate the market. Throw in a grey stain and you have a business model that is far easier to execute than a domestic model that is based on many more options.
Imports don't have the range of colors, door styles, wood species, or cabinet sizes, but in the transitional style that dominates in the Northeast that doesn't matter. With creativity and maybe some building of cabinets in a shop sellers of imports can offer beautiful kitchens-on par with any domestic stock cabinet line.
There may come a day when this changes, but for now having the right import line opens up great business opportunities for your typical kitchen dealer/designer.
- More wood species and finish options than stock cabinets
- Mid-price range and available in 3-5 weeks
- More door styles than stock cabinets
- Partial overlay, full overlay, and in some cases inset construction methods
- Better/wider selection of colors-stains and paints
- Better/wider selection of factory installed convenience items/storage options-lazy susans, trash pull-outs, roll-outs in base cabinets
- At least same sizes as stock cabinetry-along with flexibility to modify height, width, and depth
- Handmade-cabinets are custom fit to kitchen
- Most expensive options. 6 weeks plus for delivery
- Ability to make “one of a kind” pieces like hood or island
- Sizes can be modified to 1/16” or smaller
- Custom finish techniques and colors beyond the manufacturer’s standard color palette
- Combine cabinets to at least 96” long
- Inset construction as typical as full overlay is for stock or semi-custom
- “You draw it we build it mentality”
Remember this is to stretch your thinking beyond, price, door style options, finish options, product options, and lead times-I know these are important. But there is another level that needs just as much consideration.
I have been intentionally negative in my phrasing. I want you think hard before you dismiss what you see. And I want you to resist “yes, but” statements. For instance, “yes, but they are cheap; or yes, but they are quick; or yes, but they offer 72 door styles”.
The Top Things to Consider When Choosing a Stock, Semi-Custom, and Custom Cabinet Line for Your Business is the result of my 23 years in the kitchen cabinet industry. Especially from 18 years of selling to dealer/designer market. If you are the owner of multi-showroom/ multi designer business or chain of lumber/builder supply yards/locations you are probably well enough versed in sourcing products to not need this report.
But if you are an owner- operator, single store owner, smaller multi-employee showroom (5 or less employees), or sourcing a new price point of cabinets that is new you will gain new confidence and insight in making best decision.
Top Things to Consider When Choosing a Stock Cabinet Line for Your Business
- Painted cabinets-painting is the greatest weakness of stock cabinet manufacturers. Poorly sanded joinery, orange peel effect, and a lack of depth to finish are typical characteristics with painted fronts. Painting exaggerates these quality issues with stock cabinets, because speed and production are critical to profits at stock price point.
- Characteristically miter corner fronts have inconsistent gaps-some gaps are small and others aren’t-even on same front. The door/component suppliers are under the same pressure and efficiency demands as the cabinet manufacturer.
- Stains that lack depth/coverage-stain looks thin. Most visible for medium and darker stains.
- Top coat has an almost chalky feel/texture instead of smooth.
- Limited molding choices-challenge is often limited heights in different styles.
- Because stock manufacturers have “loss leaders” full overlay doors lack value of partial overlay doors-or even a typical door, like a solid wood shaker, can seem expensive compared to overall cabinet value delivered.
- A premium wood like Cherry wood lacks value of Maple wood. As a percentage of sales it is much lower in a stock cabinet environment. Less of it runs through the factory/shop. And unfamiliar costs. Cherry requires a selection process/preparation process that Maple wood doesn’t. For instance, if they sort for sap or fill pin holes they need the charge for cherry to bring labor cost in line. You and your customer pay for this lack of familiarity.
- Painted cabinets lack value of stained maple cabinets. The manufacturer’s charge for painted maple cabinetry is high by comparison to a stained maple cabinet. For the same principle as #7.
- Soft close door and drawer hardware, while providing soft close functionality is rarely the highest quality. May not function smoothly due to lack of adjustability and cheaper hardware within drawer guide.
Ask yourself, “Am I the type of designer that can create a nice kitchen from parts and pieces in a spec book if a particular SKU is missing?” Over the years I have found higher end designers have a hard time doing this. Conversely, designers who start of selling cheaper cabinets develop a special talent in creating nice designs from limited SKU list.
If you are squeamish about describing and/ or showing these items to your customer you may be better off not selling Stock Cabinets. Don’t leave yourself open to complaints, loss of profit, or potential bad online reviews.
If you can create the right expectations it will create sales for less expensive/lower budget jobs.
Top Things to Consider When Choosing a Semi-Custom Cabinet Line for Your Business
- Yesterday’s stock cabinet manufacturer is today’s semi-custom manufacturer. They may have better selection of finishes, door styles, convenience features, and customization. However, they still sand, finish, and produce like a stock cabinet manufacturer
- Did you gain significantly in finish options door styles, convenience features, and customization from a stock cabinetry? Unless you gain these things, and better quality, you are still competing with stock cabinet supplier-just with semi-custom expectation and price.
- Are they offering entire Sherwin Williams fan deck at a premium price, but without changing production process to produce a high quality finish? No designers wants the scenario where their customer’s expectations increased due to cost, but product quality didn’t coincide with additional cost
- Has the company moved beyond standard wood species like oak, hickory, maple, and cherry? Do they offer rustic maple, Red Birch, walnut, alder and etc.…
- Do they offer enough factory installed accessories? For instance will the manufacturer source any Rev-A-Shelf or Hafele accessory you specify? Or are they limited to what they offer in their spec book?
- Most “flush finished” ends are near flush in semi-custom. Also important to clarify if factory installed or field applied. A flush end is almost a standard in the kitchen remodel market today
- Sanding of drawer dovetail joint should be smooth in semi-custom-how is their sanding? If dovetail joint is rough it is fair to ask about sanding quality for door/ drawer fronts and face frames. Hand sanding may not be part of their process. Sanding is often an entry level job that has critical importance to final finish quality.
- Can you source architectural accents from Art for Everyday, Enkeboll, White River etc.…? Or only the accents in the manufacturer’s spec book? If manufacturer hasn’t stayed on top of design trends you may not have options you need for today’s style.
- Do they custom build hoods or at least source from someone like Stanisci?
- Is their finishing clean? Do you see more “grit” in corners or solid stock of fronts than you like?
For the increased price I want to see better quality, easier designing because the spec book is broader, and enough value that I can compete with premium custom designers-for less.
Semi-custom needs to have a clear value distinction compared to imports and custom. An ideal semi-custom line is 35-40% less than custom cabinetry and no more than 50% more than imports. You are getting a superior finish, more color and door choices, and maybe greater pride of ownership in that it was made in the United States. See example below using a sample kitchen:
US Cabinet Depot-4433.00
Top Things to Consider When Choosing a Custom Cabinet Line for Your Business
- Has the junk in finish been eliminated? I expect clean finishes free of “grit” at this price
- Options in top coat sheen. They don’t necessarily need to offer a 100 sheen lacquer, but anything from a sheen of 5-60 should be available
- The complete Sherwin Williams fan deck at no additional finish upcharge. And at significantly better quality than stock or semi-custom manufacturers.
- Custom tall cabinet height to at least 108” and 54” for wall cabinets-if not higher
- Ability to source woods like red birch, walnut, rustic maple, alder, chestnut. Along with more obscure species like Sapele, Narra, Crotch Mahogany, Curly Maple, Lyptus, and Brazilian cherry. Less experienced custom shops will struggle to source both solid stock and veneers to pull it off.
- Flush finished ends should be sanded flush-no seam behind style. If not a standard it should be at least offered as an upgrade. Mitering the frame and side is a great way to accomplish this.
- You draw we build it. Or we source it.
- Knowledge of how high end appliance panels should look.
- Ability to do decorative ends as either applied as door, non-working front or wainscot end.
- Don’t take advantage of dealer with high prices for one of a kind items.
- Customer and engineering/technical department that work side by side to get you what you want.
- Make sure their lead times are consistent and that they ship on time. They should be able to commit to a delivery week when your order is signed off. If there stated lead time is 7 weeks, but during busy times can be 8-9 weeks, and they communicate these little shifts before order-this is okay. What you don’t want to see is lead time go from 6 weeks to 12 weeks. This is an indication of chaos and a lack of resources to meet demand.
- Pricing that stays consistent-at very least require published pricing/spec book.
Aside from quality and consistent lead times I can’t emphasize enough the importance of engineering support and customer service/order support. While it may serve your ego to know the owner is overseeing your order this isn’t the way a well-run custom shop operates.
A custom shop has enough challenges for the owner-engineering, customer service/order processing should be run by a high quality team. The owner should be managing the business.
Why this matters to you?
I really want dealers to consider value. It is easy to compare prices, but price doesn’t give you all that you need to discern value.
If your conversation starts out with or is dominated by “how do your cabinets price against …, or they are too expensive compared to …” without using the standards I explain above you will make a decision based on price. And when you do this you end up selling on price alone-and there is no worse cycle to be stuck in than selling by price.
I have intentionally not mentioned display discounts, co-op advertising accounts, brochures, the manufacturer’s web site, nationally branded companies, what manufacturer does on social media, 2020/pricing programs etc.… and how they affect value. These items have too varied an impact on dealers for me to comment in this report. For every dealer claiming the right display deal is imperative I can find a dealer that doesn’t care. For every dealer that insists on manufacturer co-op advertising I can find an offsetting dealer that sells lots of cabinets and doesn’t care if the manufacturer shares in marketing expenses.
Your cabinet supplier should complement how you sell and design. If Manufacturer ABC is 15% less than Manufacturer XYZ, but consistently puts out incomplete kitchens, with mediocre finishes, cumbersome replacement policies, and poor customer service why wouldn’t you consider a change to Company XYZ? Hopefully you aren’t the designer that goes looking for a slightly better version of company ABC hoping for the same price. Only to find their quality is mediocre as well. Or suffering while the cheaper company flails aimlessly in an attempt to get better. Did you ever consider that cheaper maybe never get better? Or is so rare you shouldn’t waste your life looking for it?
It seems I have always been the “15% more guy”. I have marveled at how often dealers complain about the “15% less company”. And how often they think there is no way they sell a better product that costs 15% more.
In my most recent conversation I had on this topic the dealer was clearly exhausted by the headaches he was experiencing. He had a long list of grievances with his supplier. So many that I eventually said, “how about we talk about what I came here to discuss?”
Throughout the conversation he (the designer) insisted “as long as I fix the problems my relationship with the customer never suffers”. He also insisted he would struggle to sell kitchens to his “typical customer” with my cabinets costing 15% more. He even knew by looking at samples and talking about company policies, customer service etc.… that he was getting something for the 15%.
Have you ever asked yourself, “If I don’t sell the cheapest product available will I get customers that can pay more?”
I know the companies that are clearly cheaper in a category are for a good reason-they cut corners somewhere. And while they try to not cut corners in visible areas sometimes that is where their lack of value is most exposed. And while they truly are a good value on their best days-those best days sometimes come infrequently. And at great expense to you and your customer relationships.
- Bob Aungst