PLUMBING - COPING WITH THE “SHOCK OF THE NEW”

By Jess Brunette September 09, 2016 Plumbing

A combination of strong sales, interesting trends and emerging technologies is making the plumbing, bathroom and kitchen category an exciting space to be in but can the channel handle the increased demand? Jess Brunette reports.

To view a PDF of the complete feature as it appeared in NZ Hardware Journal magazine, click the download button at the bottom of this page.

Judging by reports from players in this category, business remains healthy with some seeing steady if unremarkable lifts and others noticing major growth compared to last year’s ups and downs.

For a word from the merchant-retail side of the industry I spoke to Mico General Manager Bryn Harrison, who was in good spirits following the July 4th opening of another Mico and PlaceMakers co-location in Takanini, the first Auckland co-location site for the company.

Harrison has seen 2016 sales improving on a “patchy” 2015. So what has been doing well on the store floor and what’s behind the growth?

“Product-wise it’s been pretty consistent,” he says. “Our front of wall business particularly has performed well this year, which is consistent with housing stats in residential and multi-unit construction.

“And, probably specific to Mico, some investment in retail marketing for the first time in some years through our sponsorship of The Block NZ has helped as well,” says Harrison.

 

WHAT’S HOT IN THE BATHROOM?

Moving to suppliers now, Methven Consumer & Trade Marketing Manager Marek Koliandr reports 8% sales growth in New Zealand for the 6 months to December 2015 and feels confident that the market will remain strong in the coming years.

Tony de Ruiter, General Manager for Clearlite and Athena Bathrooms for one has been pleasantly surprised with a dramatic step up in sales since September last year off the back of a middling previous 12 months.

“It’s like a light turned on in September all of a sudden when the growth that everyone’s been expecting for some time finally turned on, which has been great,” he says.

The growth Tony de Ruiter refers to is the much anticipated, and some would say well overdue, growth of Auckland’s housing market which in many ways has taken up the slack of a softening Christchurch rebuild that has moved into more commercial projects.

But he is also happy to report that sales have been on the up in other parts of the country: “The growth in Auckland seems to have become contagious and there are a lot of positive growth regions throughout the country that had been flat for a while. It’s almost like the much talked about, ‘too-expensive Auckland housing market’ is seeing some people try other places further afield.”

In fact Tony de Ruiter suggests that there are very few areas where the company’s sales haven’t been heading in the right direction and mentions Bay of Plenty, Central Otago, Queenstown, Wanaka, Nelson and Blenheim as particular standouts, with growth tending to come from new home builds more than refurbishment.

“Our front of wall business particularly has performed well this year, which is consistent with housing stats in residential and multi-unit construction”

Tony de Ruiter’s optimism is shared by James Ewart, General Manager of GWA Bathrooms & Kitchens, who has seen “continued improvement over the last 12 months” in the company’s sales. Have some products sold better than others?

“We are noticing a lift in the sales rate of higher value tapware ranges as people use tapware to add value and style to their bathrooms and kitchens,” he explains.

“Freestanding baths continue to be a growth area and more options are now being made available to customers such as back to wall freestanding baths, coloured options, solid surface baths, and options with thin rims. Again this is related to improving the perceived value of a home by incorporating more visually appealing products in the bathroom space.”

 

BLACK OUT, ROSE GOLD IN?

To get a closer look at the styles being incorporated into these high-value renovations and get a glimpse of what’s coming next, I asked Laminex National Specifications Manager Gretchen Flynn what has been doing well in Europe’s kitchens and bathrooms as seen at shows like EuroCucina.

“In terms of colour trending there are still greys and concrete type looks with some blues coming through in all shades from softer sky blues to inky darker denim and charcoal blues. Looking forward, green colouring has also been coming in with the old fashioned machine green being used as highlights,” Flynn says.

What about the black tapware that appears to be the hot ticket here? Is that still the hot ticket in Europe?

Gretchen Flynn reports seeing plenty of black taps at exhibits both for bathroom and kitchens, often mixed with concrete-look and at times black timber looks to add extra textural elements.

However, brass and rose-gold tapware (rose gold of course being the finish of the moment in smartphones) also made their presence felt in Europe and, judging by most of the players I have talked to, this may be an inside line as to the next hot trend.

Englefield Product Marketing Manager Dee Hunter has certainly noticed the more “old-school” and industrial metal finishes gaining traction in Australia with very distressed bronzes, coppers and polished golds along with burnished finishes in tapware and tiles.

Hunter also confirms that sharp, super-clean minimalism is now on the outer, with rough textural elements and softer edges the way things are going.

“Hard-edged cube tapware and basins seems to be falling by the way to what I call a ‘squircle’ which is a nice, soft square-round shape and you are seeing that far more in tapware, basins and toilets as people don’t want the hard, edgy geometric shapes anymore.

“You are also seeing a retreat to more of a traditional style tap, such as large gooseneck spouts,” Hunter says.

 

STIMULATING NEW PRODUCTS

Aside from aesthetic trends, Dee Hunter has also noticed that new products are getting homeowners excited about sprucing up bathrooms to add value to their already well-priced homes.

She has seen good growth in all the staple products with toilets, showers, basins and taps doing well but one of the more surprising product success stories has been the “smart” toilet.

“It’s like a light turned on in September all of a sudden, when the growth that everyone’s been expecting for some time finally turned on”

Anyone who’s visited Japan will have come across one of these wonders that performs a variety of functions for the user, let’s say, well above the basic flush. Now, it seems these devices may finally be making their way into Kiwi homes.

Indeed Englefield has an electronic bidet seat which has “absolutely taken off beyond all expectations,” says Dee Hunter. “At first we thought it was simply because there is a large Asian population in New Zealand and they were all brought up on bidets.

“But it turns out that Kiwis and Australians, because we are so well travelled, have experienced those sorts of things overseas and they want them here. And now it seems they have the money to pay for it.”

An ageing population may also be contributing to the uptake of this still very high-end product: “We had a home show and noticed that it was people in their 50s and 60s, who don’t necessarily want to go to a retirement village yet, but want to have something luxurious in the bathroom while also potentially future proofing any physical needs that one of the couple may have whilst they are in their own home,” Hunter says.

Englefield’s Hunter has also noted that technology that aligns well with the smart home concept bandied about so much in the electronics channel is now making inroads into the bathroom.

“Our own research in the US has shown that 75% of people take a smartphone into the bathroom and now you are starting to see the development of convergent technologies like bathroom cabinets with USB chargers, intelligent mirrors showing the weather report and bathrooms that have your own music, lighting heating and bidet settings come on when you walk in with your smartphone,” Hunter explains.

And while this may all sound a little sci-fi, Dee Hunter stresses that technology like this isn’t just on the way but actually here right now, at least in some parts of the world, with Englefield currently developing its own “intelligent” mirror products for sale next year.

This will certainly be an area to watch and we will be keeping you posted.

 

IS SUPPLY UNDER PRESSURE?

Innovations like those mentioned by Englefield’s Dee Hunter certainly help to create demand and excitement in a category suggesting that the high demand we are seeing now may stick around for a while longer.

That’s good news for sure but, while I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, rapid increases in demand have historically created problems for players in the channel. So do the major players anticipate any issues arising as the market heats up?

While he is the first to admit it’s a good problem to have, Tony de Ruiter has seen increased demand put pressure on supply chains and has already brought more staff on board, both in the factory and on the front line (see Movers & Shakers on page 14), to handle the growth in business.

Does he feel this pressure could raise issues of product assurance as we have already seen in construction materials?

“It is a concern,” he says. “There’s a whole lot of imported competition but, generally, you get what you pay for and we are confident that we have systems in place so we have a product we can stand behind and we do.”

These sentiments will, I’m sure, be appreciated by merchants and retailers like Mico’s Bryn Harrison: “We are certainly aware of the concerns around compliance in the media recently and looking to step up our level of interaction with suppliers in that area, making sure they have the appropriate and up-to-date info that they can supply us in a timely fashion,” he says.

Does this mean that Mico has concerns around some of the products currently available? “I’m very happy with our suppliers but that’s not the point,” Harrison explains.

“The challenge is, and I had this happen today, where a third party went to an offshore tradeshow in China, imported a brand of piping system independently and proceeded to market that brand of piping system through other channels directly and online.

“We are certainly aware of the concerns around compliance in the media recently and looking to step up our level of interaction with suppliers in that area”

“That system is not manufactured to the same spec as the spec that we purchase from a local nominated importer and its creating confusion in the market and more to the point it’s raising the question of compliance. Now I couldn’t tell you if that product is compliant or not but it looks the same, it’s branded the same, but it’s not the same.”

Talking to Methven’s Marek Koliandr about product assurance he assures me that this issue is top of mind, with the company just launching a new tapware range that utilises Eco Brass, a lead and heavy metal free alloy that meets stringent world standards for tapware. Of course not all manufacturers have the same goals when producing tapware that comes onto our shores.

“The lack of robust standards in New Zealand means
that Methven’s voluntary decision to exceed our already
high requirements is not recognised,” Koliandr explains.
“This is something that we believe needs to be addressed to ensure our consumers get the quality of product they
demand.”

 

ATTACK OF THE RED TAPE

For another perspective on this issue, I spoke to Aquatica Sales & Marketing Manager Martin Jennison, who acknowledges that some less than ideal products can make it to market in times of rapid growth.

“We’ve got cheap knock offs out there and that needs to be sorted,” he says, with the proviso that “That can only be done by making sure taps meet a certain standard and if they meet a standard then we have to accept that they are fine.”

But Jennison admits to being “unhappy” about the products that don’t meet the standard, when Aquatica makes sure its products and the factories it deals with are up to standard with the right sort of materials. Plus when Aquatica’s products arrive here, they are WELs rated.

Ultimately, Martin Jennison doesn’t feel that product assurance is a major concern for this category. Instead, “The real bother for us is that people are asking for even more standards,” when in his view, there is already “more than enough weight” in the current standards.

Summing up, despite some ongoing concerns around some “opportunistic” importers in the market, most players are happy with the way things are going in this category with new homes, new products and some interesting stylistic trends creating plenty of excitement going forward.

Hopefully, we can handle our own success.

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