I’m buying a countertop – part 1

Jan 22, 2015 | Business

After more than a decade in the countertop industry, I’m finally buying a countertop.

I’ve visited dozens of countertop shops and had conversations with thousands of countertop fabricators. But, it’s funny… I’ve never seen the whole process first-hand. I think I’ve got a bit of a unique perspective, since I’m both an old hand at this, and a novice in many ways.

Just one piece of the puzzle

We’re remodeling a house, and countertops are just one part of a bigger project (although, they are the most expensive single item). Based on everything my experience in the industry has taught me, I really expected that I’d slap on a new counter and everything else would magically happen.

But no! There’s an overwhelming number of choices that all need to coordinate. Will the counter work with the cabinets, and the tile, and the appliances, and the flooring… and even the fireplace that’s on the other side of the room?

Based on so many of the (countertop-focused) marketing materials I’ve seen from our customers, I think this is a huge opportunity. I’m not buying a countertop. I’m buying a room that includes much more… including people, food, and dishes, by the way.

A luxury experience?

Buying a countertop is an expensive proposition. But, my first observation is that so far, as a homeowner, none of my experiences in the showrooms have qualified as a luxury retail experience. In fact, they don’t even compare to a middle-of-the-road retail experience.

Worse than buying jeans

I’m comparing this to the last time I bought a pair of jeans (done annually, in case you’re interested). I walked into the Levi’s store, and a salesperson greeted me, introduced himself by name, and said he’d help me with any questions and picking styles. After picking a couple pairs myself, he kept checking on me in a completely non-annoying way, and brought over other pairs of jeans. Plus a belt.

He complemented the things that looked good. Asked me what kind of fit I prefer. Found more colors… etc. I walked out of the store totally happy paying for a few extra jeans and spending about 3 times what I’d originally planned. And I’m not even going to tell you about the amazing service, drinks, and hand-written thank-you notes I got the last time I bought a suit.

The expectation of service

Over the last few days, I’ve walked into a large number of countertop, tile, flooring, and paint stores. As a consumer, I’m now trained to be dazzled by service, even in the most mundane stores. You know what, even though buying this home stuff is waaay more expensive, the first impression sucks!

Now, maybe it’s because I’m in a small town and we simple mountain folk don’t need the trappings of luxury. But is it really that hard to give me service that’s equivalent to the experience of buying jeans?

This is another huge opportunity for every countertop fabricator. Hire great salespeople – they don’t need to need know everything about countertops, but they need to make me feel good about this process. And please, think about the showroom. I know you want to show off everything. But, the result for the unsuspecting homeowner is feeling like you’re being trapped in a 1980’s Vegas pimp-lair.

Competing on cost and craft

I think there are two reasons most countertop fabrication shops have this problem. As fabricators, you believe that you’re competing on cost and the craft.

Now, it’s very possible that I’m not the average homeowner. But cost is really low on my list of concerns. If I cared about cost, I’d buy a laminate countertop. In my last house, we had laminate and it worked great. It kept plates from falling on the floor. And, for the 1950’s house that we lived in it was totally appropriate and looked good, too.

Like I mentioned above, I’m not buying a countertop… fundamentally, I’m buying a room that will make my wife happy. I’m probably also buying a fancy countertop because I want to signal to my friends that I care about style and that I’ve got a certain level of success.

This is a luxury purchase and if your prices are off by 10’s or even 100’s of dollars, it doesn’t affect my purchasing decision. I want the least amount of inconvenience, I want to trust the person building it, and I want the result to look great.

The curse of expertise

The reason being a craftsman is dangerous is because you have the curse of knowing too much. I feel this way when I’m looking at other software – “If they had just moved that dialog box down a few inches, it would have worked much better“. Most people don’t care about the details.

I’ve been in lots of shops where they love to show off their CNC’s and explain the process of fabrication. As a homeowner, I don’t care! If you told me that an army of zombie oompa-loompas was going to do the work, that’d be fine… as long as you’re also giving me confidence that I’m going to have a beautiful kitchen.

The challenge for Moraware

And to be honest, so far, the experience terrifies me when I think about the impact on our business. We can help countertop fabricators improve their businesses, with the things that I think are most important. But, after going into dingy shops with surly salespeople, I don’t know if our market values the same attributes.

How you treat your customer is really, really important. How do we help educate countertop fabricators to realize that making fast professional quotes and being able to commit to a schedule is as critical as getting a nice edge on a top?

Working with friends

I know that was a lot of negativity, and I’m sorry I had to vent. One of our guests on the StoneTalk podcast mentioned that she had her new customer service reps get a new countertop so they’d have more empathy for the homeowner’s feelings.

But, it’s not all bad. So far, I’m really happy about the fabricator we’re working with and their help with the selection process.

We ended up going to Precision Countertops, a large fabricator based in Portland, OR… but they have multiple locations, including the one in my town. I really respect their approach toward business, and I have a strong conviction that it’s consistent with what I want as a homeowner. Plus, they were one of our first customers and I’ve become friends with many of the crew there. More on that, in part 2.