Marketing High-End Cabinets

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Cabinetmakers share ideas for attracting big-ticket clients. February 10, 2004

I just changed from face frame cabinetry to frameless cabinetry. Now I am going away from working for builders, because they are so cheap around here, all they pay is wages. What is the best way to market to the high-end cabinetry market?

Forum Responses
From contributor A:
Doing work through designers and architects is a good channel. These individuals generally have a much higher regard for aesthetics and proportion. To think you can just flip a switch may be somewhat simplistic, however. Doing this kind of work requires a level of service, a level of aesthetic design sense, and a level of craftsmanship that comes only over time and requires a level of commitment that few are willing to give. There is no easy road. Enjoy the journey.

From the original questioner:
I think all my cabinets are high-end, but I'm tired of getting beat up on price on every job by someone building cabinets out of 1/2 particleboard. I've been in this business for 20 plus years, and I think it's time to make more money at it and do less volume. That's why I started out - I wanted to make my life better. And it is, but it's time to get out of the builder market where they more or less want you to pay them to build their cabinets.

From contributor D:
I have sold a large amount of work by hooking up with the best audio visual installers in the city. I became friends with the owner and he calls me every week, often several times, with a customer that wants a bid. I pay him a healthy commission and he loves it. I probably sell 80% of my entertainment centers through my relationship with him. Just sold a $10,000 office last week.

Another idea is to introduce yourself to the customer service guys from some of the large builders in your area. Let them know you will do finish repair or base and casing repair, etc. I have a significant sideline doing this for Pulte Homes here in Vegas. It began small and now, nearly 3 years later, it is probably 30-35% of my gross last year and will probably be greater this year. And I am almost ready to hire a few retired builders to help me.

Every home you are in, give them your card and tell them you are a cabinetmaker. I sell most of my work this way. It usually is not kitchens, but entertainment centers, wall units, home offices are big.

Finally, always keep your portfolio in your truck with you. I show it often. If you don't have pictures of your work, get some right away. I'll send you some of mine to start things if you ask me.

I firmly believe that any really big changes in our lives for the better or worse begin in our mind first. Believe you can major only in high-end work and pretty soon you will.

One of my goals was to become one of the highest bidders in the cab business in my city. Guess what? I am now! I used to get 9-10 of my bids till I realized that's a sure indication you are selling your work for nothing. I started raising my prices and now I probably get 2-4 out of 10, and I make great money on every job I do.

From contributor R:
You sure have to believe it about yourself before anyone else will believe it about you. I have the reputation of being one of the best entrance door men around. Many large high-end shops and large manufacturers will use me to do their service work on high-end entrance doors, as a last resort before a lawsuit. I just can't see how I don't look guilty by association when I am being sent by a company that is having a problem satisfying the customer.

From contributor D:
Great advice. I do the same thing here in Vegas. I am the door man to go to with problems, plus I am the warranty tech for the mfg. IWP. I charge high and solve their problems - they have no complaints. My door service work led to a 10 fold increase in general service work for Pulte Homes for me last year. This kind of work is wonderful money for us.

From contributor P:
I have found that the high-end market looks for face frame cabinets with inset doors, plywood boxes finished the same as the outside and toe kicks only in the kitchen. When we use crowns and base molding, we cut it in our shop or have it cut, but we will not use the same thing that everyone is using, like dentil block crown. Our hardwood supplier cut molding and has tons of profiles so we can really get nuts with the moldings. We also use very high-grade materials. This costs a little more, but it looks so much better. Like contributor D says, entertainment centers are great to do and the audio companies are a good way to get great leads. We design entertainment centers so that they are easy for the audio guys to set up, with the venting of the components that they love. They will give your name out first if they like you.

From contributor A:
I hesitate to even throw this out, but here goes anyway. To me, "high end" does not necessarily denote a style or method of building, or even what materials you choose. It is something that is hard to define. You only notice things like proportion, elegance, and caring craftsmanship in their absence.

Photo shows some basic frameless casework with melamine interiors. My point being it doesn't matter what materials you use, it's how you use them. I've seen recycled plastic handled by an artist look better than exotic hardwood handled by a wood butcher. Hope I'm not out of line, but I just feel that it's much more than a business and that fact is too often overlooked.

From contributor M:
Well said. Throwing fancy mouldings, lumber and terms around does not a high-end woodwork shop make. Design, attention to detail and execution are what separate those whose work rates the upper 10% of the price range from the rest. This comes mostly through experience and education.

From contributor F:
Almost everybody can build a box; it's just how good it is built. Quality cabinets come from years of building and refining your system, no matter how you build them.

My goal is to go from building 50 plus jobs a year to just 12 good quality jobs. I am a one-man shop and this year I started outsourcing my cabinet doors. Here in Oklahoma, 95% of the shops are cheaper than Lowes or Home Depot. But I don't want to be in that 95%. I still build some face frame cabinets, but just for inset doors.

From contributor P:
I think that you misunderstood what I meant by high-end cabinetry. Type of material, design, etc. do matter. Using good materials will show in your final product. For example, good hardwoods such as cherry with nice color and no sapwood. Door panels that are book matched or slip matched. Stiles on two doors that meet coming from one piece of wood, drawer fronts that are side by side that come from one piece of wood. You can really put this under technique of building, but with good color matching and grain matching you get a better product in the end, which comes with fine material.

Most high-end clients ask us if we use press board material. I explain that this is not a bad substrate, but it has been misused in the past and has taken on a bad name. I have seen over the past 25 years in the business more doors coming out of a press board or MDF carcass than a plywood case. Remember that the more they pay, the closer they look at the job. They may have an interior designer working for them that will make sure that the quality is there and that it is installed right. I know that I have seen frameless cabinets with plastic covered boxes last if they are done right. But the idea of a frameless cabinet using the 32mm system is to save time and speed up production. I have seen a lot of edge banding coming loose on doors or panels, but very few face frames coming off their boxes. So whatever works for you, and if you feel comfortable with the way you build them, more power to you. This is what works for us and is time tested, and we also win more jobs over other cabinet shops because of these points. But it is good, as I said before, to be discussing these points with professional cabinetmakers that care about what they put out there.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor C:
We do only high end work and seem to have no problem in selling our products. They actually sell themselves. Once you are in with a group of well known designers or architects the road suddenly becomes easier to maneuver. The competition at this level is less than at the lower grade level. Believe in your product and others will see that and believe in it as well. In our shop we are quality oriented and everyone is their own critic. Just do what you do best and use the best of materials available. The rest will fall into place.