• Max Isley, co-founder of The Kitchen and Bath Design Channel.
    Max Isley, co-founder of The Kitchen and Bath Design Channel.
A year-old website and smartphone application is picking up steam as industry forecasts report growth in the kitchen and bath showroom sector. The Kitchen and Bath Channel launched at the 2011 Kitchen and Bath Industry Show in Las Vegas and has since built up a database of more than 500 designers, showrooms, builders, remodelers, and woodworkers nationwide. Here’s how it works: kitchen and bath pros register at one of three subscription levels (the most basic is free), which allows consumers who purchase the smartphone app to search for them based on either location or the products and services they need.

This marriage—buyers in need and able-bodied retailers—isn’t new to the social media stratosphere. But it’s a concept that the site’s co-founders Max Isley, who owns Hampton Kitchens in Raleigh, N.C., and Phil Zaleon, whose integrated marketing firm Z promotion and design provides social marketing services to top-tier subscribers, say is primed to boost connectedness within the kitchen and bath sector by following consumers’ online social behavior. Isley spoke with residential architect about what sparked this idea, and the insight it’s giving him into his own business and that of the industry at large.

What’s the story behind the Kitchen and Bath Channel?

I never thought I was ahead of the curve within our industry’s technology field, but apparently I was a little early to the game in this whole thing. I watched my daughters, who are now grown, use their smartphones to source products in the middle of frustrated buying experiences, and I knew that my own firm benefited many times from consumers coming across us after having frustrated experiences with a competitor or with a big-box retailer. It finally occurred to me that we needed to have a smartphone app to help consumers locate kitchen and bath pros when they are in the buying mode. But developing an app for small “mom-and-pop” operations like us is expensive and most of us can’t afford to do it. I thought this would be a great opportunity for us to test out an app for the broader kitchen and bath industry—it’s since evolved into a full-fledged social media marketing outlet.

Has having access to this range of consumers and professionals honed your market insights?

Yes, we backed our way into that. It really opened our eyes to all of the different social media platforms, some of which take a lot of time and energy to work with. With things like Pinterest, for example, you get a lot of consumers pulling and “pinning” our subscribers’ photos (from their Kitchen and Bath Channel profile pages) and that gives us an idea of what the consumers like. And they are posting it on their boards and sharing it with friends and those kinds of things, and we can look and see  what kinds of things are creating interest. At this stage the evidence is mainly anecdotal, but it’s gaining momentum. If 30 images were picked up on in the past 30 days, we look to see if there’s a trend among them.
Does what you’re seeing on the platform correlate with what’s going on in your market?

My market is all over the place. North Carolina tends to be about five years behind design curves—I don’t mean that as a negative. By the time a style settles in here, it’s strong enough that people are willing to trust it and put it in their homes because they want to live with it for a while. The app will offer the kitchen and bath design community an opportunity to share more and see what others are doing beyond the confines of a trade association or of the high end of the design world. A lot of “meat-and-potatoes” designers are out there, a lot of small remodeling contractors are in it, so it gives a good cross-sectional view of the profession.

Will this impact the relationship between clients and their architects and builders?

Clients are increasingly able to find information easily through the many technology platforms available and, as a result, when they go to professionals they already know what they want and where they can get it—and sometimes it may be either impractical or unaffordable. It’s a curse that all of the builders and remodelers face. By the same token, I think that many consumers also suffer from paralysis by analysis. They’re overloaded with information and they need a professional to help them sort through it. Today’s kitchen and bath professionals are getting better at doing that and it’s every bit as much a part of their function as planning spaces and choosing styles and colors. Otherwise, clients are too scared to pull the trigger on a project.

NKBA reports say showroom visits and spending increased in the first quarter of 2012. How does that look in your market?

A number of showrooms went out of business here to the extent that we felt comfortable re-entering the market. The buzz about growth in the economy is driving an increase in our traffic, although a lot of it has to do with our re-established showroom presence. Professionals within the Kitchen and Bath Channel say they’re seeing an increase in traffic right now. But they’re also noting that the market has changed slightly—consumers are uncertain and are dragging their feet when it comes to making purchases, even on lower-priced items. The buying cycle used to be six months to 11 months, and now it is 24 months to 30 months. People are not pulling the trigger as quickly as they once did.

What direction are you looking to take the platform going forward?

Our challenge now is staying on top of the ever-changing technology platforms that are being used as marketing tools. And that’s the thing that’s fascinating for us—just how much this stuff is growing and changing. When we started this platform, Pinterest wasn’t’ even around. Now it’s one of the highest-rated areas for people to look at for home renovation projects. So businesses have to modify their marketing programs to adapt.

We’re working on implementing it in other areas of the construction industry and think it’s a platform that has a lot of flexibility to partner with professionals in other fields (auto repair, financial advisers, hairdressers, personal injury lawyers). We could easily take this and roll it over into something like the Deck Channel or the Landscape Channel; it could be used for building material dealers and full-scale remodeling contractors, too. We just happened to have more than 50 years of combined experience in the kitchen and bath industry and wanted to make sure that we first did something that we knew.