In 2002 showrooms carried at least three different cabinet lines which were commonly known as “Good” (cheap), “Better” (quality at a value), and “Best” (upgrades). The most popular cabinets were maple with a medium tone stain, paired with granite countertops, full height tile backsplashes with mixed materials (glass, stone, steel, etc.), and wood flooring. American cabinet manufacturers ran out of domestic maple lumber and relied on Canadian imports. The real estate market appreciated by fifteen or twenty percent annually in some cities and homeowners paid for major renovations by getting second mortgages and credit cards. Most of the expert kitchen designers were either men who had previously been craftsman at custom cabinet shops and had suffered a back injury, or married women with kids who reentered the workforce and turned the cabinets department into a niche of the interior design industry. In 2002 hourly designers were paid about $22 to $23 per hour, with benefits, and those on straight commission were paid ten percent of their gross revenue.
The housing market crash in California began in speculative markets such as Roseville during the summer of 2004. By the fourth quarter of 2005 the cabinet industry in those regions had crashed. Our elected officials in Sacramento and Washington D.C. didn’t realize it and it was never acknowledged. Their focus was on the stock market which was strong in those days. However, the media began to realize what was happening during the spring of 2006 because large corporate developers such as Pulte cancelled major projects.
Only after the stock market crashed in August 2008 did our elected officials announce what was happening. By then the salespeople in the cabinet industry had been watching it for about four years. Around that time about half of the established showrooms in San Francisco closed their doors forever, and the other half were sold for pennies on the dollar, and the independent franchises were repossessed by their corporate headquarters.
Despite weak sales, several new cabinet trends swept across the nation during that period. An exotic wood species called Wenge remained popular through the entire recession. However, no one bought the real thing; everyone had oak with a dark brown stain on it which they called Espresso or Chocolate.
Chinese cabinet manufacturers swept across the U.S. determined to crush domestic products through price competition. Everyone knows that their cabinets contain too much formaldehyde and that they release too much vapor to be legal in the U.S., but American real estate developers buy them anyway and the government agencies that are supposed to stop it aren’t doing it. The independent cabinet dealerships that sell the Toxic Vapor cabinets are grossing millions of dollars every year. In April 2015 I stumbled across one who barely speaks English and he has no previous experience working with cabinets. He’s neither a craftsman from a custom cabinet shop nor a CAD designer; he’s just an importer who smuggles toxic cabinets into the US. He tells everyone that they’re safe.
During the recession, large corporations such as The Home Depot and Lowe’s Home Improvement closed their training facilities and adopted Computer Based Training (“CBT”). Supervisors told new hires to complete CBT programs and then they couldn’t find them on their networks. To compound the situation, having a full time Human Resources Manager in the stores became optional, and so they would go without HR for months even at flagship stores.
At both The Home Depot and Lowe’s, computers did the scheduling and employees worked random hours without a pattern to organize their personal lives around, and they rarely got two days off in a row. Corporate headquarters created a uniform hourly wage so that kitchen designers in Atlanta, Georgia would be paid the same amount as those who were located in Alabama in the middle of nowhere. They’re paying $18 per hour which is $5 below the national median (the 50th percentile) for experienced kitchen designers.
And then they began to remove kitchen designers from their stores. The Home Depot installed kiosks where customers can video chat with a designer who is located in a different state. Lowe’s turned their Cabinet Specialists into qualifiers who schedule appointments for customers to meet Project Specialist Interiors (“PSI”), who are actually in-home salespeople who are paid minimum wage plus commission. After the PSI finalizes all of the design specifications, then the Cabinet Specialist drafts the job on 20/20 Version 8, and the PSI collects the check from the customer.
The branding concept “Good, Better, and Best” is gone forever, because large corporate cabinet manufacturers expanded their product lines in order to cover the entire price spectrum, from “Cheap” to “Expensive.” In other words, customers can now choose “Good, Better, or Best” from just one cabinet line.
A domestic brand called Wolf created a value line that has all plywood construction with solid wood drawer boxes that retails for about $200 per box. It’s a stock product in a warehouse that ships to dealers in three days. However, critics argue about the quality of the plywood and the hardware on the roll out trays. Still, Wolf’s value line definitely beats the imports from China, and it also beats RTA flat pack cabinets.
Popular door styles have changed since the Great Recession. People were tired of the Wenge look (oak stained dark brown) and everyone wanted cream painted cabinets. The wood is slightly less expensive because it’s “paint grade”, meaning that it’s maple lumber that has dark mineral streaks and can’t be used to make cabinets that will be stained. And so cream painted cabinets dominated the market for a long time, and eventually it was replaced by medium gray. 2015 was the “Year of Gray Painted Shaker Doors That Have 3 1/4″ Wide Stiles and Rails.”
Where is all of this leading to? In order to compete in the pre-fabricated Value Line market, one must beat Wolf which has quickly become the new gold standard in that arena, and the winners are Chinese manufacturers who ignore American regulations and sell us junk that out-gases toxic formaldehyde.
Because of Wolf, in order to justify charging over $250 per cabinet, it’s critical to offer quality plywood boxes with an unbreakable hanging rail that is pocket screwed into plywood side partitions, with Blumotion or Richelieu hardware, full overlay or inset door styles that are made from high grade wood that has a baked on conversion varnish or paint. In other words, pre-fabricated cabinet dealers’ profit margins are shrinking.
It is more important than ever to offer a unique product. High end custom cabinet shops are in the best position because they’re nimble and can change direction when they need to. Eventually the Chinese will saturate the market with gray painted cabinets and when they do, the high end custom cabinet shops will be the first to change direction and invent something new for American home decor magazine publishers and homeowners to get excited about.
The jobs outlook has changed, too. In California, experts in cabinetry have been slowly losing their habitat since 2004. We’re going the way of the spotted owl. Now that neighborhood showrooms are stocking toxic Chinese imports that retail for half of the price of pre-fab cabinets at the big box stores, many homeowners are happily settling for toxic junk that came from a dishonest importer who has no design experience and could not care less about important components such as fillers, scribe, and shims. Homeowners who shop at Lowe’s will end up dealing with a PSI who is on commission. The lucky ones will wander into The Home Depot, find their kiosk and have a video conference with a Certified Kitchen Designer whose located in a different state. Wealthy customers can go to high end custom cabinet shops to be treated the way that all customers should be treated. What will middle class homeowners do? Where will they go? Will they be driven to search for independent craftsmen who build plywood boxes at home? If that happens then where will kitchen designers work?