By Linda Longo
At a time when getting together for the customary twice-yearly markets has been severely challenged, Kichler has invested in a virtual solution that executives hope simplifies the buying process even when in-person product tours are hampered.
When Kichler announced that its departure from the Dallas Market Center (DMC) after multiple decades of meeting with lighting showroom buyers in person at its expansive showroom there, the news caused shock and speculation. Did this mean Kichler was abandoning the showroom channel?
“It is anything but that,” Irene Tasi, President of Kichler told me during the launch of its Virtual Event in November, adding, “The lighting showroom channel is extremely important to us.”
With Kichler approaching the end of its DMC lease by the end of 2020, the decision to try a new avenue to interact with customers was on the Kichler team’s radar even before the pandemic hit. The resulting disruption to the trade show industry – which essentially wiped out typical plans for introducing products in the second half of the year – spurred Kichler executives to rethink the process. What they came up with – dubbed The Kichler Virtual Event – is an innovative and interactive solution that maximizes digital tools from a cutting-edge source: the video gaming industry.
“There is a considerable investment [in having a showroom] and we wanted to have a way to get together with our customers in person, but in light of the pandemic, we have taken a conservative approach to travel. The health and safety of our employees and customers come first,” Tasi stated, adding, “So we thought, ‘What can we do to bring the industry together, and how can we continue to do it above and beyond this event?’”
With a historic pandemic taking every industry in the world by surprise and putting all business models and profitability at risk, Kichler executives brainstormed ways to weather the storm and any others like it that could happen in the future. “We wanted to control our destiny really well,” Tasi explained.
The global disruption led to a re-evaluation of the trade show model, where most products are introduced at two specific times of year. What if there were a more gradual rolling out of introductions that didn’t have to rely on the calendar?
“Seeing so much product at one time is overwhelming for buyers,” Tasi said of the huge January launches that have been the hallmarks of most industries. “We thought, ‘What if we had a different cadence to introducing product?’ We could have thematic launches [throughout the year] and support those [initiatives] with visual tools. That way, it wouldn’t be so overwhelming to showroom buyers,” she commented. Furthermore, the products shown during each launch would also be immediately available or close to it instead of months away from shipping.
“We realize that display space is precious for showrooms,” Tasi observed of the pressures that retailers face to select merchandise that is almost guaranteed to sell through quickly. To better help showrooms succeed, part of Kichler’s new plan is to shorten the product development cycle. “I spent my first year at Kichler just listening,” she notes. The result was a decision to “shorten the process so we can react to trends quicker and get product to market faster,” Tasi explained. “We’ve put science behind the design by using VOC (Voice of the Customer) testing. We did this in the conceptual phase of product design, where we went out to different consumer demographics with a set of [parameters] we were testing for. This was the first launch that I was able to work with the product development team on, and it was a rewarding experience.”
Another part of this new era for Kichler is to draw upon the strengths of its enormous parent company, which includes other home-related brands such as Delta and Brizo faucets, Liberty Hardware and Franklin Brass, plus Behr paint among other recognizable brands. “We’ve tried to bring best practices of MASCO to Kichler,” Tasi remarked.
“We’re pushing the envelope,” she noted of the new developments unveiled to Kichler customers at the November virtual event, including refreshing its social media and website presence to be more design-focused. “We want to inspire the consumer,” Tasi affirmed. “We’ve spent a lot of time on product development and have also been investing in our commercial program.” When asked where the next investment focus will be, Tasi answered, “The next investment will be our systems, making it easier than ever to do business with us.”
The Kichler Virtual Event was open to select customers and operated much like a mini-conference, with educational sessions that included the emerging key design trends as explained by the company’s design team; advice on which digital tools showrooms need to have to survive in a COVID world from lighting retail strategist Mark Okun; a Texas interior designer’s perspective of sourcing lighting by Nikki Taghehchian of Vive Workshop; a special presentation by Tamara Day, designer host of HGTV’s Bargain Mansions, who details her process for pulling together the lighting in a home using Kichler’s new releases; and a roundtable discussion with experts from MASCO’s prominent home improvement brands.
What especially made the Virtual Event more robust than a video presentation or mass Zoom call was the use of Virtual Reality tools to showcase the new products in an interactive way. Showroom buyers created avatars of themselves to stroll through the virtual reality venue and could meet with their reps and have private conversations with them, just like they would at market in the showroom. There was also the addition of room settings (i.e. dining room, bedroom, kitchen, bath, exterior) with lighting fixtures that could be turned “on” and “off” by the user.
Virtual Event attendees were both receptive and happy with Kichler’s novel approach to unveiling its lighting introductions. Rachel Fleischer, Senior Purchasing Agent & Buyer at Hermitage in Nashville remarked, “I think it was really cool that we could walk around (virtually) and have real-time conversations with people we know. I found it to be a convenient solution considering what is going on with the pandemic and with Kichler not being at Dallas Market.” Fleischer noted that she particularly enjoyed the virtual reality feature of turning the lights on/off to see how the fixtures would look lit or not as well as the educational sessions.
“We wanted this to be a holistic event,” Tasi said. “There’s always going to be a place for this type of event. We know we can’t have an in-person event at KBIS this year [or Dallas] and we wanted to reach those showroom customers as well as give our reps a forum. We will evaluate what went well and what we will we do differently next time. We’re going to be purposeful when creating these upcoming events.”
The Kichler Virtual Event is only available online to attendees for a limited period of time, which further adds an enticement for seeing the products and hearing the educational sessions as soon as possible.