The bathroom market is awash with poor-quality imported products according to certification body, the British Board of Agrément. Tim Wallace hears more from chief executive Claire Curtis-Thomas who challenges the industry to up its game and stop competing purely on price
Q: What are your concerns over the standard of bathroom products entering the UK market…
A: You have a range of products coming to market and the individual doesn’t know how good that product. Is it as good as the manufacturer or installer says? Is what they’re getting what they thought they were paying for?
You’re assuming that it complies with some sort of standard. But when I look at the websites of companies in the retail space, where’s the technical specification to make sure they match standards? On so many websites, there’s nothing at all. So if you wanted to satisfy yourself that the product you purchased is what you actually got, it would be extremely difficult. An awful lot is taken on trust.
Q: So the industry is prone to substitution?
A: Yes, it allows the unscrupulous supplier of the product to do an awful lot of substitution without advising the client. Let’s take a top-end bath supplier. I asked people at the BMA conference if the baths they’re purchasing are the baths they thought you were buying. They told me they go to bath manufacturers and ask if they’re covered by a quality regime. If they say yes, they think that’s OK. Well, forgive me, that’s being pretty naïve. Many are imported from China and there are significant problems with quality control.
Q: Where’s your biggest concern?
A: People purchasing products in rather than manufacturing themselves. They lay off the QC element to the people supplying the product. They should be taking their responsibilities more seriously. People manufacturing their own products need to talk about how they ensure they’re the same products they’ve told the customer they’ll supply. They also need to describe the standards against which those products are assessed.
Q: Are the top brands implicated?
A: Go to their websites and ask questions. What they’ve got is a high-value brand and not necessarily a high-value product. We all like to think the brand reputation will give you a better product, but I never take those facts to provide me with reassurance. Therein lies a fool’s route.
“CE marking doesn’t mean a product is fit for purpose. It just describes a product. Just because you have CE numbers on a product doesn’t mean the numbers provide the user with any reassurance about its performance. It’s really a compliance-free zone.”
Claire Curtis-Thomas, chief executive, BBA
Q: What’s your advice to a high-street showroom?
A: That’s a really important point to make. If the purchaser of the product is asking for that information, it will drive the supplier to provide it. So it’s the important first step. Suppliers aren’t going to jump into this arena without some kind of impetus usually. The retailer can raise standards just by asking questions.
Q: How have your comments gone down with BMA members?
A: It was a mixed reaction. They’ll say, ‘do we need this extra layer of interference? No I don’t think we do, let’s carry on as we are.’ But each one is concerned about Mickey Mouse products coming into the market and taking their business away. They’ve got to up their game. They’re not helping themselves by not addressing this issue.
A couple of companies asked me to show them how to improve the quality profile. We can help in that regard.
Q: The BBA isn’t a government organisation though, is it?
A: No, but we’re advisers to the Government on all sorts of policy matters. This is a construction product and this market isn’t sufficiently robust when it comes to demonstrating compliance as standard.
Q: How do you change that?
A: What the Government would say is, if this industry isn’t prepared to do anything, then we’re not going to do anything to intervene. But it’s in a company’s best interests to differentiate itself in the market and referring to quality products is persuasive.
Q: So nothing can be done?
A: Not until one of these companies differentiates on quality and says we’re going to go after those big contracts where people are procuring thousands of units rather than tens or hundreds. So there’s a demand for certification and the industry needs to decide if it’s a quality player or it isn’t.
Q: One retailer’s response was that we all played football as children and it was only when we had a referee that we had problems…
A: There are games for children and games for adults. It’s all very well and good until there’s a bloody scandal. The scandal is that the market is left demoralised. Either they want to protect their market or they’re happy with the flood of imports and competing on price and marketing capability.
Q: Will Brexit make things worse?
A: It’s going to be problematic for products that had CE marking or new products that need to be CE marked. The Government has talked to us about developing a UK CE equivalent. We’ll have to wait and see the outcome.
It sounds like there’s a complacency. The UK is so eager to strike trade agreements that there won’t be any tariff agreements at all. It will be tariff-free to export in that country.
So I don’t think that the situation is going to improve.
Q: What’s your view on the CE mark?
A: CE marking doesn’t mean a product is fit for purpose. It just describes a product. Just because you have CE numbers on a product doesn’t mean the numbers provide the user with any reassurance about its performance. It’s really a compliance-free zone.