The biggest issue facing the bathroom sector, says The Bathroom Company managing director Lawrence Haddow, is people buying online cheaper than a retailer can buy from their supplier. Manufacturers, he says, must support retailers who can show customers the real benefits of their products
With over 30 years in the bathroom industry, starting as a plumber, I quickly learned the basics of retail. Looking ahead to the issues facing the bathroom retail sector, I believe we are facing a significant challenge.
The world has changed and the internet has revolutionised the way we live. Along with advances that have made our daily life simpler and faster, there has been disruption that has had profound effects on many industries. The impact has often resulted in real benefits for customers, yet it has fundamentally changed the structure of industries supporting it.
Disruption is a global trend, which has challenged a wide variety of markets. Amazon now distributes across all sectors of retail and on-demand music streaming has displaced traditional distributed audio formats. My real fear is that unless exclusive bathroom manufacturers move to protect their brands, they will face increasing price competition from non-branded products.
Consumers are increasingly able to access product and design information online. More information is good, as it supports customers, but many are time-poor and value the benefit of good design, product and building-related knowledge, expert installation and aftercare. This may be one reason that quality retailers with integrated installation teams can successfully differentiate themselves in this online-driven market.
The most significant issue facing our sector today is that customers can buy online at a better price than established retailers are buying for. While this may drive short-term sales for manufacturers, I believe that long-term sales are very likely to be affected.
If bathroom manufacturers do not support retailers, fewer customers will be able to see, touch and feel the quality of their products. And far fewer customers will be likely to make bold design and product decisions. This could lead to a race to the bottom on price.
While customers can see products online, it is expert sales support that will convince them that the benefits of a particular brand are worth the additional investment.
The elephant in the room here is European websites, which are priced differently from those in the UK. While there are real benefits to being in the EU, this is an example where the fluidity of trade can work against us.
A number of manufacturers want to have their cake and to eat it. Retailers will not flourish, or even survive, if customers can purchase at, or significantly below, trade price.
I get a real buzz from providing bathrooms that I know will stand the test of time and deliver real joy to our customers for many years. It is a foundation of quality and real value that has allowed our business to thrive over the past three decades. I believe this is the basis on which the industry should be focused, to avoid being forced to a purely cost-driven environment.
Opportunities are still good for stores that add real value and comprehensive customer service. We provide a full service, with a clear focus on design, project management, and installation quality. You cannot, yet, buy this online.
We would all be the poorer without the incredible advances in design and quality provided by manufacturers. But manufacturers need to act now to protect our trade’s ability to provide adequate support for their products, which will protect their long-term ability to offer durable designs and innovative products at a profit.
The internet has undoubtedly helped our clients to visualise product and design information easily. We now need to ensure that the well-proven and design-led industry model we have can thrive for the next five years and beyond.