The earlier years of my being a solid surface warranty agent closely led the years that the large home center stores were reinventing ways to work the kitchen market. They had advantages that other outlets couldnít have, and they were rightly exploring how to make those advantages work for them. The main attraction, as always, would be price and convenience ó but mostly price. Specials, discounts, tie-ins with other kitchen items to get the whole package . . . any way you look at it, it came down to price.
Interestingly, most of us thought that the stores that fabricated in-house would be the most successful ones, and our biggest threat as custom fabricators. As it turned out? Not so much. Fabricators were learning about business models, too. Cell based manufacturing, closely monitoring the processes, and technology finally discovering us fabricators, all served to help meet the price point that was requested of them from the big box stores.
The only problem was, with efficiency comes streamlining. With streamlining comes standardization. With standardization comes limited choices. You want us to make it for less? That means we need to offer what will use material the most efficiently. Drop edges, lower splashes and V-grooved fabrication are all perfectly legitimate and proper means to get better use of material per dollar, but they also tend to limit the options available without having to resort to added cost items. A la carte pricing is more or less the standard at many stores now, and the new, lower prices dropped the perceived value the market would be expecting to pay for this premium product.
Custom fabricators, especially retail custom fabricators, were faced with a dilemma. They had the option of pricing the same way, i.e., charging a base price with very few included options and charging per item for such things as rounded corners, set back splashes, scribe added to coved splashes, etc. It was either that, or we had to learn a new business model, too: the business model of ďhow to sell against cheap prices.Ē That requires knowing how to explain the difference between choices and options. We also had to know how to get the point across, in as few words as possible, that when you buy because of price, you buy knowing that every decision that gets made will have to consider the bottom line.
There are few programs offered on how to sell quality and service related to the solid surface industry. How do you ask a customer to consider the value of not having to be without a working countertop for two to four weeks? How do you sell her confidence in knowing youíll take care of the unexpected, or the added value of having a countertop that was first and foremost designed exclusively around her kitchen, with no preconditions or limitations that might start the pricing part of the sale all over again? If you donít know that you will catch three or four cool little possibilities that will make her countertop spectacular, how can you place a number on it to charge? If you happen to notice one of these cool little ideas after sheís told you about a rosette she saw in some Renaissance architecture, can you charge in Euros? Would she have brought it up if you didnít engage in the small talk you find so incredibly informative? Did you schedule enough time because you could afford it in the price?
We charge our solid surface countertops by the foot (rounded up always), with a multiplier of either 1.3 or 1.7 per foot for peninsula and island lengths, depending on the width and support necessary. Itís a bit sloppy, and is intended to be. I donít want to have to tell her that it will be more expensive because she missed a few inches, or her husband measured to the face of the splash, instead of the wall. I also charge a healthy amount for an installation ó usually enough to at least cover the cost for two guys for a full day. If they see they can take the time to taper the build-up, front to back, to avoid having to shim at the front, forcing her to add trim, then that is all part of the cost and we have a happier customer. If raising the splash ĺ in. to meet the bottom of the apron will solve some issues, how much will it be worth to her if you have to revisit the pricing? If a cabinet ends flush with an open wall, she can decide if she wants to extend and soften the overhang that will jut out into the hallway; or if sheíd rather, we could jog the top back along the wall for an inch, bringing the corner right into the design. Itís her choice; no hassle. Itís all in the price already. Iíll never get rich, but Iíll make a living and some great tops for some deserving folks.
The reason I mentioned the connection to my early years as a warranty agent, is that many of the calls I got back then were courtesy resands. It never occurred to me how ironic it was that most of these resands were jobs sold through places that wanted to put me out of business. After about my fifth or sixth resand, I recognized a customer that I had quoted the countertop to. I lost the bid because I was too high. If you compared the cost of the resand to what she saved, it about balanced out. I never did a courtesy resand again.
It is important to note that Iím not criticizing the big box fabricator. Those guys are far better businesspeople than I am. I know many, envy a few and marvel at how much quality and efficiency has improved as time has gone on. Rather, Iím unsettled with the philosophy that solid surface should be sold cut to the bone and ďa la cartedĒ into blandness. Itís like selling a Rolls Royce and optioning the A.C. This is a premium material. We lose a bit when we stop treating it like one.
About the author: Tom Mather has been involved with solid surface fabrication for more than 30 years and is the President of Mather Countertop Systems, now celebrating 50 years of business in Connecticut, www.mathertops.com, firstname.lastname@example.org.