Against a backdrop of the ISH fair, Ferit Erin, regional director for Europe at VitrA, explains how the UK is a top strategic market for the brand and speaks openly about the impact of Turkey’s two devastating earthquakes…
Like all manufacturers and suppliers, VitrA is still feeling the effects of Covid, a spike in energy costs and a global cost-of-living crisis. But these already testing times were exacerbated for VitrA – and other Turkish brands – in February when two devastating earthquakes struck the country.
While neither the brand nor its parent company – Eczacibaşi Group – were directly affected by the events, as a national crisis they have been impacted by it from an ethical and social responsibility perspective, and through personnel losing family or friends in the region. It has spent the past few months showing its allegiance to the people of Turkey by supporting victims in the region.
It takes a significant amount of investment to commit to a trade fair, particularly one as big and prestigious as ISH, so the fact VitrA made the show despite what’s going on in its homeland, is a real positive for the industry, the brand and its retailers.
kbbreview spoke to Ferit Erin, regional director for Europe at the show….
Q: While VitrA wasn’t directly affected by the earthquakes that struck Turkey in February, as a significant employer and contributor to the Turkish economy, can you describe the impact an event like this has on the business and its people?
A: This was a huge tragedy. The tragedy of a century for Turkey. Of course, when something like this happens everybody in the country is impacted emotionally. A lot of our colleagues lost friends and family who were living in the region so, as a business, we have been doing everything we can – financially and emotionally – to support those affected, such as providing transport and accommodation for those who travelled to the region to see relatives or help with the search.
From a business perspective, thankfully we don’t have any production facilities in that region, so we were not impacted in that sense. However, the territory that was affected – which is around 10 cities and around 13 million people – accounts for around 15% of Turkey’s economy. Our dealers there have been heavily impacted – so of course we will lose some business as a result, but that is not the biggest concern for us. For us, first and foremost, our concern is for the health of the survivors in that region and for the people we lost.
Q: How are you involved in supporting the rebuild of the affected region?
A: We ‘ve been doing our best to support the region with donations and support from the beginning. Construction will be very important moving forward but we won’t be profit seeking in the sense of supporting the rebuild. We will continue to do what we can to help the region rebuild itself.
Initially, we committed to a donation of €15 million (£13.2m)to support the region. Then we utilised businesses from within the Eczacibaşi Group, donating relevant products and services including essential medicines. We also donated portable toilets to bring vital facilities to the thousands made homeless by the earthquakes. We’re also looking at where we can create job opportunities for those who are moving out of the region to find work and accommodation. So, we are trying to support in every way we can on many different levels. What’s key is that this is not a one-time thing – our support for the region will be ongoing.
We are considering a number of long-term ways in which we can support the people of the region – that’s the vision.
Q: With everything going on, it’s great to see the brand at ISH – with its biggest stand to date. Is this a clear indication of how business is at the moment?
A: We wanted to use ISH to highlight that, although we are extremely proud to be among the top three sanitaryware producers in Europe, we are a complete bathroom solutions provider with, furniture, brassware and concealed cisterns all significant categories also in our portfolio.
We’ve been performing well for the past few years. We’re seeing a lot of growth and have been investing a lot into our production facilities. We’re set to open a new ceramic and sanitaryware plant imminently with a production capacity of two million pieces – that just shows the scale of growth we are experiencing.
We’re also in the process of building a concealed cistern factory and are also investing heavily into our brassware production.
Q: How key is the UK market – in particular independent bricks-and-mortar retailers – to VitrA?
A: The UK is one of our top strategic markets and it’s one where we will never stop investing, even if there are uncertainty or slowdowns. It’s very important that our retailers understand that we are in these partnerships for the long-term and will support them through any difficult times as well.
We have a long-term vision for the brand in the UK, and I’d like to think our investment in the London showroom really backs up that support we have for the retail and developer sectors.
Q: Despite events like the earthquakes in Turkey, which only highlight the extreme fragility of the planet, there appears to be a huge disconnect between the amount of investment KBB brands are putting into sustainable processes and product development and the level of consumer demand for such products in the UK. Why do you think this is the case?
A: Regardless of the perception of the consumer, we – as an industry – have a duty to work on sustainability. That’s why we’re investing in changes to processes in existing factories as well and are looking at new packaging materials. We are changing lots of processes in our factories and looking at product innovations in that area too.
The new ceramics factory I mentioned earlier, for example, has been fitted with solar panels for renewable energy. Aside from that, we have a responsibility to educate people. I think the display of gallon bottles on our ISH stand, which shows very visually what 200 litres – the amount of water consumer by the average person in the bathroom per day – is a really powerful message.
We know that this is becoming an important topic to a lot of customers in Europe because they are pushing our retail partners for more information on sustainability, and I feel it’s only a matter of time for it to happen in other markets. It will come, I have no doubt about it, and we have to be prepared.
Q: What would you say to retailers that are struggling to get their clients to buy into the sustainability message?
A: We all have a responsibility to explain exactly what we mean by ‘sustainability’ in the context of the products we’re selling. If you explain the monetary savings they will make using greener products, against the premium price, then I really think that’s a strong influence. We need to work better at highlighting the impact of their purchases on the amount of money they will spend in other areas. Honestly, I think we’re going to see a really sharp change in interest in sustainable products within the next couple of years.
Q: Which sector of the market is your priority in terms of product development?
A: Every innovation or design has to start with the consumer in mind, so you have to understand consumer behaviour and we are all different. If you can understand your target market then you can be successful. This is why showroom retailers are so important to VitrA. This is a very key channel for us because they really understand their consumers.
Q: There has been a notable change in consumer behaviour since Covid but what does that mean for the future of the industry and how can we move to meet their demands?
A: Recognising that the digital channel is a key part of most consumer buying journeys now is very important. For most consumers, the journey is a combination of digital and physical – or ‘phygital’ as it has been labelled by some – so retailers and brands have to be active in all of those channels to feed the customer in the right way. We are doing everything we can to support our retailers and consumers on that journey.
The importance of hygiene, for instance, has increased so much since Covid and we’re seeing people asking for shower toilets globally – seeing a big change in that category in Europe. This technology is not new obviously, but I think the change in demand we’ve seen in this area because of Covid has highlighted how important it is to track any changes in consumer demand and behaviour.