Web sales: Now it’s serious, and something’s got to give

Nathan Helms, joint managing director of brassware specialist Arte Form, believes recent claims that the UK bathroom market is a ‘compliance free zone’ have failed to take into account the impact of the internet on showroom retailers


I write partly in response to the recent article by the BBA chief executive [kbbreview, December pg 23].

While I can see where Claire Curtis-Thomas is coming from, one can hardly say that the UK is a ‘compliance-free zone’ left ripe for cheap imports.

There are plenty of standards on cistern fittings, LED cabinets and so on. The increasing requests for Wras approval for spec work is polarising the supply chain into a ‘it’s either Wras or not.’ That said, many question the point of Wras when, in the case of a tap for example, the cartridge, flow strainer and flexi-tails already carry Wras approval. Many manufacturers baulk at the huge cost, (around £1,200 for a basic test on a basin mono) when all the components have Wras in the first place.

Ironically, even their own website says this is a ‘voluntary scheme’ and just ‘an easy way to demonstrate compliance to water regs’, not the ONLY way.

As far as ‘standards’ go, certain brands and ranges meet their local country production standards that are recognised at least. My own company, Arte Form, works exclusively with European firms who are always looking at ways to enhance the quality of their brassware products, from lead-free brass to energy-saving ideas. But there is no one standard for all things bathroom, of course.

Race to the bottom
For me, though, the issue is something entirely different from striving for whatever standard or approval rating on various bathroom products. I really feel for the retailer these days. While it’s fair to say that if some retailers didn’t buy rubbish it wouldn’t be produced, it’s unfair to blame retailers solely for the race to the bottom on price and quality. However, the wider issue is, once again, the internet. It’s getting serious now.

In my view, something is going to give very soon. I honestly believe we are on the precipice of some fundamental change. I see three specific issues.

First. There seems to be a total indifference on the part of many international brands to help the UK retailer. They simply shrug their shoulders and explain that they really can’t comment on what German websites are doing. I watched one retailer flip open his laptop and order just one well-known German tap (that he’s not a dealer for here) from a German website at a huge discount to fulfil an order because it was a deal-breaker.

Second. It seems to me that some manufacturers are beginning to blur the lines between retail and contract. Many have their own premises designed for the specifier, designer or architect to see their offering. I can foresee a time where large manufacturers supply retailers with what they deem retail orders, but take contract work direct. That certainly isn’t going to help the retailer who caters for such work.

Last and most pertinent. We have all heard about the massive problems retailers are facing across all sectors of the high street and bathroom retailers cannot escape this trend. The mentality of the buyer has changed dramatically across all age groups and there is a price conditioning that’s taken place over the past five years or so.

Had I asked customers five, six or seven years ago how much a 900mm quad with tray should cost, they would reply, ‘what’s a 900 quad!’ Asking them now and some referred to one of a million websites and said, ‘oh, about £400?’

So, once they’re inside a nice, independent showroom and see a quality door and tray for say £1,200, they freak out, walk out and go back to the blind safety of www. cheaprubbishbathrooms.com only to regret it while they listen to the plumber bellyache about what tosh they’ve bought and then watch it fall apart a few months later.
Furthermore, the fear of buying an expensive bathroom online is fizzling out. No longer is the web solely the realm of cheap stuff, but even some of the big brands are getting nailed. Can it be right that high-end product can be bought via Amazon or eBay for a fraction of the published retail price?

“It’s unfair to blame retailers solely for the race to the bottom. The wider issue is the internet. I believe we are on the precipice of some fundamental change”

Nathan Helms, joint managing director, Arte Form

Meanwhile, the poor retailer is often used as a kind of library, getting pumped for information on every aspect of the bathroom, while the shameless punter sits in front of him/her with their iPhone scanning the web to find it cheaper.

See here, buy online
One retailer told me he may as well stand outside his showroom with a sign reading ‘see here, buy online.’ Also, the consumer seems to think that the stunning Arte Form Steam Bath mixer costs the retailer £50 and he’s trying to get £2,000 for it. We all know what the average margin that manufactures offer retailers, and it ain’t that for sure.

Is the consumer now at the point where they know ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing?’ Answer – almost certainly.

So, is there a solution? Well, in my view, yes there is. Deep down, we know that, as a retailer, we must be a little more canny, own-branding as best we can, mixing it up a bit more, not handing the consumer the quote with every code and price listed for them to hawk around.

We must be confident in our ability, our design, our service and sell ourselves. In some cases, the art of selling has given way to a kind of ‘sale by fear’. The second a consumer asks for a product, the retailer is all too quick to bark out ‘yep, we can get that’ and then wonders which friendly retailer he can call to get the item for no margin.

A report last year showed most consumers couldn’t remember what brands they’d bought six months after a refurb, but what they ALL remembered was WHERE they bought it.

So, keep going and take heart all you retailers – manufacturers still need you.

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