Kitchens & Bathrooms News caught up with Matthew Pitt, managing director of Abode, to see what the ‘new normal’ looks like for the sink and tap manufacturer
It goes without saying that 2020 has been a year that has surprised us all, changing many facets of our industry and placing new demands on the senior people running it.
Certainly, for Matthew Pitt, the early part of 2020 has been the most challenging time of his career so far, having taken the helm of the company in March.
“I’ve been with Abode for 12 years and started my career with Magnet in the mid-80s, so I have seen a fair few changes and challenges during that time.”
But he adds: “Needless to say the abrupt impact of the current pandemic, and the resulting economic uncertainty have been entirely unprecedented.”
Pitt continues: “We are operating in the most unpredictable trading environment I can remember, even including the 2008 credit crunch when our sector was similarly affected.
“The current situation will probably continue to test us all for some time, but I am confident in the strength of the Abode brand and in our financial resilience as part of Norcros Group.”
Keeping in contact
Although Abode closed its offices in Barnsley during the lockdown, Pitt explained the business didn’t stop trading.
Using a remote skeleton workforce, it maintained supply to customers who continued to trade during April and May.
“Actions were taken immediately to reduce costs and preserve cash, ensuring that we had sufficient liquidity to withstand a period of reduced trading activity.
“Although most discretionary expenditure was postponed, we gave emphasis to digital marketing and social media, maintaining contact with customers by phone, email, and live-chat on our websites.”
And Pitt explains why he felt continuing customer contact was imperative: “I imagine it must be frustrating if your usual point of contact is suddenly unavailable, particularly at a time when retailers need quick answers to complete part-finished jobs and to convert every lead.
“Someone from Abode was always available, with about half of our sales team working even at the height of lockdown. We had everyone back working at the end of June, before the showrooms really got going again.”
DIY sales boost
Some sales channels fared better than others during the three-month lockdown, with consumers with time on their hands suddenly turning to DIY to occupy themselves and this was something definitely felt by Abode too.
Pitt comments: “It looked like merchants and anyone supplying essential infrastructure reopened first.
“Most seemed to get social distancing measures in place at their branches quite quickly, which allowed them to service the trade with our products.
“Those that maintained good levels of inventory seem to be reaping the rewards now the general lockdown has been lifted.
“Elsewhere the national switch to working from home certainly created strong online demand for refurbishment projects involving sinks and taps.
“I think sales of Pronteau steaming water taps greatly benefited from all the extra tea and coffee being drunk at home, with more and more families upgrading from their old kettle!
“Instant steaming water for cooking probably started to look very appealing as more meals were prepared in the family kitchen while restaurants and pubs were closed.
“Abode professional-styled taps and Pronteau therefore did particularly well online and those of our customers offering home delivery did better than expected during lockdown.”
Trading gathering pace
And now of course we’re heading into a ‘new normal’, so what does that look like for Abode? Is there a ‘v’ bounce in sales that many have seen?
“Trading is clearly gathering momentum now and we are running ahead of our Covid-19 operating plans,” confirms Pitt.
“It’s fair to say that we are currently in a re-start phase in most of our markets. It’s about working hard with our employees, customers and suppliers to ensure everyone can get back to normal while operating safely in accordance with the relevant guidelines.
“Consumers are clearly investing in their homes, possibly redirecting unused holiday money and July was a really busy month for Abode.
“We are winning new customers and market share, building on a successful KBB exhibition in early March.”
Supporting retail showrooms
Offering continued support to customers, and in particular independent showrooms is always important, and Abode’s intentions are clear here too.
“Our ‘Distinctly Abode’ offer is being developed specifically for showrooms and features products where the ability to demonstrate and explain the benefits face-to-face is particularly important,” said Pitt.
“We will continue to invest in retail displays and want to talk to all our dealers about setting up working displays of our Pronteau steaming water taps using our second-generation boilers.
“To improve the back-up service on steaming water taps we recently brought our helpline and field service engineers in-house and will now be applying a ‘no quibble’ policy on installation and after sales support.”
COVID influencing design
Abode is known as a design leader, so Pitt explained where the crisis had left the business heading from a product point-of-view.
“We think that there are a few high-level social themes which will influence product design, things like sustainability, the progressive shift towards urban living and internet connectivity.
“The new products we showcased at KBB this year were focussed on the way we will live in the future – smaller kitchen workstations for flats and apartments, stainless steel taps with a low carbon footprint and products like Aquifier taps and Pronteau which have additional functionality.
“Kitchens will probably now evolve to support home working. In many homes the sink has shared worktop space with laptops and school books.
“Taps providing steaming water and filtered drinking water are therefore likely to become a lot more popular, as are hygiene taps with touchless control.”
Change as opportunity
And what is the outlook for 2021? “It remains to be seen how rising unemployment levels might impact consumer demand. Even the introduction of a Covid-19 vaccine might not result in a return to business as we once knew it, so I see innovation as vital.
“Kitchen sales in all channels are likely to have at least some element of online involvement in the future, with investment in virtual design services and augmented reality displays.
“I’m cautiously optimistic and if the sector can adapt, it should prosper. After all, there is still an overall housing shortage in the UK and consumers place an ever-increasing value on quality brands, like Abode.”
Seeing change as an opportunity is important for a market-leading manufacturer, as Pitt comments: “As a design-focussed business Abode is developing more-and-more products which reflect current fashions – bronze and copper metallic finishes for example, plus industrial styles like our ‘Hex’ tap family.
“We also see a competitive advantage in our ability to deliver single items economically to a showroom or trade counter on very short lead times, including ceramic sinks.
“Abode also has a growing business delivering direct to consumer’s homes, servicing online sales and shortening lead times for retailers.
“Many aspects of our business have had to be adapted to meet the challenges of the pandemic, so if there is a learning point for me I suppose it is to embrace change as a fact of life.
“What retailers ask us for is reliable service, quality products and distinctive designs.
“Abode is committed to delivering this and will continue to innovate as specialists in what we do. Hopefully, we are a brand which customers can trust in these uncertain times.”