VitrA committed to helping independent bathroom showrooms thrive

VitrA UK’s MD, Steve Breen, tells Rebecca Nottingham how a back-to-basics strategy of putting their independent retailers first and listening to their needs will help the brand double its size by 2027.

The UK bathroom market has come a long way in terms of style, innovation and choice. It would be fair to say that has, in part, been driven by the sector’s penchant for collaborating with high profile designers to bring a premium, cutting-edge design feel to products. 

One such brand with an enviable portfolio of designer collections – including Liquid, created with iconic British designer Tom Dixon – is of course VitrA

“The Group’s background sits strongly in architecture and the arts – and we haven’t talked about that or our manufacturing heritage enough in the past,” explains VitrA UK MD, Steve Breen. “You only have to look at some of the designer names we’ve collaborated with to see the influences in design we have.”

Part of the family-owned Eczacibaşi Group, Turkish brand VitrA was launched 66 years ago. And, although proud of its Turkish heritage, with 32 years trading under its belt here, it’s fair to say it’s made its mark on the UK too. 

“The UK is our biggest branded market outside Turkey,” says Breen. “Hence why we opened our showroom in Clerkenwell, it’s a real statement of intent around the brand. But, in Turkey, VitrA has the same kind of brand recall as Coca-Cola, so although we have achieved a lot here there is work to be done.” 

VitrA’S Clerkenwell showroom
VitrA’S Clerkenwell showroom

Having held high-profile roles at Ideal Standard and AEG Breen – who took over as MD in July 2022 following the retirement of Levent Giray, the man that introduced VitrA to the UK back in 1992 – is no stranger to bathrooms or the KBB sector as a whole. Although he is full of admiration for Giray’s work in establishing VitrA UK, it is perhaps unsurprising that, as the brand’s new UK MD, Breen has set in motion an ambitious strategy to build on Giray’s success.

“I’ve always admired the VitrA brand from afar,” he explains. “When I was at Ideal Standard it was a brand I had my eye on. I loved the product and it looked so high-end, but even back then I couldn’t believe they weren’t doing more in the market. We do around £30 million in the UK, in a market that’s worth £1.6 billion. There are companies that are younger than us in this market, that are now doing over £100m a piece – that shows that we’re under-indexing.

“When I took on the role of MD, my mandate from the Group was to grow the UK business. I’ve put in place a five-year strategy to double the size of the UK business and I’m confident that will become the springboard for us to grow even further.” 

Breen’s intentions are clear but in a market that’s currently plagued by challenges, such as the cost-of-living crisis and inflation causing consumer confidence to plummet, what’s the plan to achieve such a bold target? 

“First and foremost, it was about identifying where the growth could come from,” he says. “Since I came into the business it’s been about lifting drain covers up to understand what’s going on in the business in order to drive that growth. We have a super brand and a huge, powerful manufacturing capability – but it has been about channel reach.

“It became very clear that the growth would come through taking share in certain categories as we strengthen our offering, as well as through channel development.” 

One of the most significant elements of his channel development focus is the launch of a new partner programme exclusively for independent bathroom showrooms. But what does that all mean if you’re a retailer already working with the brand or one that could be eyeing the brand up as a potential for their showroom? 

“From day one, I’ve been looking into the business to find out what really drives us and that is a big part of how we’ve ended up with the new Vitality Partner Programme,” he explains. “One of the things I really admire about the independent retail sector is that you get a real honesty from them. Whether you like what you hear or not. If you really want to know how your business is doing, go and ask them. So, that’s what we did.

One of the things I really admire about independent retailers is that you get a real honesty from them.

“We’ve taken time to speak to our distribution partners, retailers we work with, and even retailers we don’t work with, to understand exactly where VitrA belongs in the market and, ultimately, what independents need from us to ensure they’re successful. We’re committed to helping independent bathroom showrooms thrive.”

He adds: “From those discussions we’ve learnt that we have a fantastic brand, quality products and a great sales team. But we also learnt that we have been difficult at times to deal with in terms of supply. Some of our lead times and availability haven’t been good enough. 


“There’s so much more for us to go at in retail. And it’s all about getting the basics right. What do retailers actually need from their suppliers? They need great service, and great product, and the Vitality Partner Programme is designed to do all of that. And we’re putting a stock promise in place because we know that has been a real pain point in the past.”

As well as this commitment to better supporting its independent retailers, Breen’s strategy for growth also involves developing the brand in other channels. This, he explains includes increasing its presence in the contract market and the DIY sector. 

A big part of the channel development also includes branching out into e-commerce. Considering the word ‘e-commerce’ is enough to make any independent retailer wince I’m keen to understand how Breen and the VitrA UK team are planning to manage the two channels simultaneously? 

“We’ve been available online before but not by intention,” Breen says. “So, this time, we’re engaging with pure players or online through DIY brands where we already exist in their stores. We’re offering a limited range and some specific online-only products and that’s the key – we’re protecting the retail channel. 

The brand’s showroom in Clerkenwell is also used
as an event space.

“We have to learn how all of these channels can coexist and not be in conflict and we have made a lot of progress there. We won’t sell the same products online that we sell through our retail programme. 

“E-commerce has always been that kind of ‘gasp’ moment for the industry – it has caused problems. It absolutely was the catalyst for the race to the bottom, but it’s done that cycle because, being successful in the e-commerce space takes investment. Just look at what happened to Victoria Plum. 

“It’s a different space now and it’s a space we [VitrA] can develop in – but not at the expense of retailers. Because what the showroom retailers offer is still that irreplaceable expertise and trusted opinion, the experience that allows consumers to visualise and touch the products.” 


Considering e-commerce is a channel of opportunity that VitrA is pursuing, is an omni-channel approach something Breen feels strongly that independents should take?

“I’m not convinced that retailers need to be transactional online, but they absolutely all need a strong online presence,” he says. “That’s where suppliers come in – we have a responsibility to provide digital content that allows them to create a strong online window. By that I don’t just mean lifestyle images, I mean interactive media that really shows the consumer the products inside and out. We’re on that journey and we have an e-commerce team in place to support retailers.” 

There’s no denying that the market is tough at the moment, but it’s comforting to hear about brands like VitrA UK that are investing in retailers despite the uncertainty.

Does Breen have any words of wisdom for independents finding the challenging climate particularly tough? “Independent retailers have a unique proposition and their success in what they do can be such an interesting lesson for all companies,” Breen concludes. “Their ability to identify unique selling propositions and maintain a resilient foundation are traits that larger companies should integrate into their strategies. The emphasis on focus, simplicity, and customer-centricity are guiding principles for all of us.

“So, as the market remains challenging in 2024, these are the areas where retailers should concentrate. Keep doing what you’re doing and see if there’s way to do it even better.”

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