Living Kitchen CEO: “Brexit is a big, big threat for all of us”

Gerald Böse, president and CEO of imm Cologne and Living Kitchen, talks to Tim Wallace in the run-up to January’s international furniture exhibition

Q: How much impact is Brexit having on the European kitchen industry?

A: It’s a big, big threat for all of us. For us as organisers but also for independent retailers. They need to discuss with their suppliers what they can do and how they can maintain their business relations. It’s very important just now to keep a European context and to discuss possible solutions together. So this year’s exhibition will be a mix of entertainment, ‘edu-tainment’ and, of course, tough business talks.

The level of uncertainty isn’t helping. You’re seeing the first signs of the impact of Brexit on the British economy. They’re small signs, but the biggest threat is uncertainty. For investment planning and long-term business relationships, you need a solid framework. At the moment, it’s a bit like gambling, it’s like poker. The first to move will lose.

Q: What’s the view from German kitchen suppliers? Do you think they are planning for it in the right way?

A: The UK is a big market for them. There are so many questions open and until there’s a political solution I don’t see that companies can really plan properly. They can prepare themselves for certain scenarios, but you can’t plan for every scenario. It’s very costly.

It’s too late for a soft deal. It’s not appropriate. I still hope there’s a solution that will at least continue the trade relations between the UK and Europe. But the UK has decided to opt out and the politicians have a lot to lose. If they allow the UK to cherry-pick in terms of their relations with the EU, where does it end? The next country is already standing in front of the exit door. That’s a big dilemma for the EU politicians. Resigning from this deal is very popular with some other countries in the EU. They’ll say, ‘oh, why not? Let’s do it like the British – with less obligations but full access to the market’.

Q: So there’s a risk of the EU making an example of the UK?

A: Yes, that’s the political situation. The EU is in a terrible position – to allow something that could really break off the whole European Union. That’s the most challenging part of it.

Q: Most of the retailers and suppliers we’ve talked to say business isn’t being significantly affected up to now…

A: Yes, at the moment nothing. In the next year, we’ll run business as usual. They can order, they can import, but then it will be challenging. I hope there’ll be an extension to the negotiations. This could be a possible scenario and they’ll continue anyway. But nobody knows.

Q: Are we likely to see more Chinese investment in the German kitchen market in future?

A: Yes, look at Siematic and also Haier and Samsung with appliances. China is the biggest global trend. They haven’t even started yet! But they will, you can be sure. There will be some significant takeovers [by the Chinese] in the next few years. They don’t wait to build up their own brands. They’ll do what they did with Siematic. [CEO] Ulrich Siekmann is very happy with this takeover. He says it’s a challenge, but the Chinese guys are really professional and they’re developing it for the Chinese market. That’s the most important thing. They’ll open up I don’t know how many stores in China in the next five years.

Q: Tell us more about this year’s Living Kitchen…

A: We have a lot of exciting formats, not just for the present, but the future and how to position the kitchen within the whole living room.

It’s wonderful to see the kitchen in the context of the living room and vice versa. So you see how these things grow together.

Q: Two big global themes seem to be the rise of the ‘compact kitchen’ and, of course, the ongoing development of the smart kitchen…

A: Yes, the trend in the cities is for space to become more limited, so you build upwards and then accommodate more apartments in this limited space. It follows that this space has to be utilised more efficiently. The kitchen is one thing, but also the type of furniture used in these micro-apartments, or micro-houses, has to be different from those in the past – more flexible and multifunctional. We’ll see this at imm and Living Kitchen next year.

Q: So will designers and suppliers have to rethink their approach?

A: Yes, and if you look at [components show] Interzum, they’re the ones that need to make it work. They have the innovations in terms of components. It’s a whole rethinking of the value chain.

But look at yacht construction – they already do it. I’m always fascinated in sailing boats for four people or six people. What can be integrated and how thought through every detail is. We have to come a little bit from this side to learn, because it’s the same. It has to be light, multifunctional and flexible in limited space. So it’s not completely new to many of the component suppliers, but now it has to get a bridge to the industry and to design.

Q: How easy will that be?

A: It’s a process. It can’t just happen, it takes years. And then it has to go to the consumer, which is the most difficult part.

Q: So we need to ask yacht designers how to design kitchens?

A: Yes, why not? When you see how they deal with limited space with a maximum of efficiency and service and still high-quality materials and so on. It can be a really good example. Or even look at glamping!

Q: What else is exciting you in the run-up to Living Kitchen?

A: We have the food market where consumers can buy. We have three themes at the show – future technology, future food styles and future design and we’ll have special features dedicated to this. There’s a variety of new activities.

Q: If you were setting up a kitchen retail business tomorrow, how would you go about it?

A: I definitely wouldn’t take 2,000sq m and show 50 different variations. With digital technology, you can visualise so many solutions. The car industry is already doing it and the kitchen industry is following. It’s not about having too much in your showroom. It’s about excitement. Sometimes less is more.

Showrooming is a concern, but you can’t stop it. You have to be so customer-oriented that they think twice before ordering over the internet. Service is very important.

Q: Do you agree that showrooms need to become more ‘experiential’?

A: Yes, it’s not just about product presentation, it’s about delivering solutions. Also the exhibitions have to be designed to bring to the retailer a real experience of the visit. So they go home and say, ‘that was great and I learned something’. It shouldn’t just be about who’s making this or that product. It has to be more entertaining and a bit more fascinating.

Q: What’s your view on the smart kitchen?

A: The industry wants to produce new products, but the consumer isn’t prepared to use all these fancy things. Maybe the younger generation, but they can’t afford it. Retailers know their customers and of course there are some tech freaks that want everything state-of-the-art and related to the house, but these are the really upmarket product lines.

Some features are really useful, though. A display that tells me I have two litres of milk but one is already off and to get a new one – that’s relevant for me. Or sometimes you buy a piece of meat, put it in the fridge, somehow forget it about it and can’t remember when you bought it. But maybe it’s still OK? I think this kind of information is very useful.

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