Volume 10, Issue 1 - January 2009

Doing Their Own Thing
Despite Economic Lows, Hardware Choices can Help Fenestration Companies Stand Out
by Ellen Rogers

With only handfuls of residential construction jobs available, door and window companies are fighting to grab what bits of business they can. And for some, one good way to make sure they outlast this period of economic uncertainty is to offer something no one else does.

“The basic definition of differentiation is to show a difference that distinguishes,” says Lance Premeau, product manager for Kolbe Windows & Doors in Wausau, Wis. “Door and window manufacturers generally strive to be different than their competitors in order to set themselves apart in the market.”

Alan Levin, president of Northeast Building Products in Philadelphia, and Dave Beeken, president of Eagle Window & Door in Dubuque, Iowa, agree.

“It’s a very competitive environment right now and everyone is going after [the same business],” says Levin. “You have to focus on being value-added.” “You want to show customers the value [that your product has] relevant to that of the competition,” says Beeken. “You have to offer more solutions and at a better value.”

While there are many differentiation paths a company might choose to follow, some say they’ve seen the benefit in focusing on having a variety of hardware options.

Why Hardware?

With performance and value-added options topping the builder’s list of importance, fenestration manufacturers and hardware suppliers alike both say that hardware selections can help when it comes to differentiation. “In this market everyone is looking to get the attention of builders, architects, homeowners, etc. And to get their attention, door and window companies have to show that they can offer a custom or specialty product,” says Steve Wood, western regional sales manager with Hoppe North America. “By doing custom work [a fenestration manufacturer is] showing that it has the ability to [take on those projects] and not walk away from them.”

Wood says about half of his company’s customers have been asking for education about upgrading their products through hardware.

“Or, they are thinking about taking on new lines because their customers are asking for it,” Wood adds.

Patrick Junker, chief operating officer/general manager with G-U Hardware, agrees.

“At this point, given the economy, it seems like everyone is trying to get a piece of the pie. Door and window manufacturers have to offer something different for the consumer,” Junker says, “and consumers are looking for something unique and different.”

Junker says just about all of his customers are going the hardware route to try and stand out.

“Of our current customer base, those companies are looking at upgrade options routinely. But now we’re seeing new customers reviewing [their offerings] and coming to us and asking what can we provide them that’s different,” Junker says, “And of those new customers it’s nearly 100 percent.”

But not every manufacturer is necessarily going to find the benefit and value of investing in hardware.

“[Fenestration] companies serving the middle or low-end customer are trying to remove dollars in order to stay competitive,” says Junker. “The high-end manufacturer, however, is willing to pay more in order to offer customers something unique.”

Beeken adds, “The high-end of the market is not as affected by the economic downturn; it’s a little more insulated than the mainstream market.”

Wood agrees that it is primarily manufacturers selling a high-end product line that are most likely to invest in hardware upgrades and options. However, as the mid-price-point manufacturers feel the economic pinch of loosing customers, Wood says these companies are also turning to hardware selection to try and be competitive. “Some companies that have not gone after the high-end of the market traditionally are now starting to reach up to those customers to try and [get new customers,” says Wood.

Form and Function

But why hardware and not another component or feature? For many it comes down to two factors: aesthetics and functionality.“

Aside from seeing through the glass, hardware is the first thing a consumer sees when looking at the window,” says Junker. “And the consumer is seeing not only what the hardware looks like on the window, but also how easy it is to operate.”

Beeken agrees and adds that it is especially so when it comes to selling to the high-end homebuyer. “They are looking for, and expect, the same level of quality and durability in their window products,” he says. “The level of quality needs to fit the same aesthetics level as that of the rest of the house.” Beeken, for example, says his company uses stainless steel for hardware mechanisms, hinges, etc., which adds to both the functionality and durability of the window.

Hardware also can play a part in adding to the window’s aesthetics.

“Hardware provides a visual contrast compared to the material used to construct the window or door,” says Premeau. “In combination with the function of the hardware, this can differentiate a company’s product from the rest of the market.”

Wood says that the desire to upgrade through hardware is driven by customer requests.

“Consumers like feature-rich products and are often willing to pay a little more to get them,” he says. Premeau agrees, and says there are a number of reasons for using hardware rather than a different component.

“Hardware is unique when compared to the other components of a door or window. It serves the practical purpose of operating the product and is one of the only parts that is physically handled by the homeowner,” he says. “Hardware also has an aesthetic appeal in contrast to the rest of the window and door components, as it can be produced in a variety of shapes, colors, sizes and textures.”

But what’s popular in one area isn’t necessarily popular in another. Cathy Leonard, who works in marketing communications for Windsor Windows and Doors in West Des Moines, Iowa, says that by offering a variety of finishes and styles companies can accommodate the needs of many different markets. She explains her company offers three lines—wood-aluminum-clad, cellular PVC and vinyl. 

“Having those different levels of products has helped us increase our market share by allowing us to offer something for every job in every region,” Leonard says. “And what we’ve tried to do is expand those options within each line to try and meet those specific needs. For example, the company has ten hardware finishes for its handles so that offers a variety styles for many different home décors. She continues, “The West is a big market for us; we’ve found consumers there really like the rustic hardware look.” In particular she describes that some people like “live” hardware. “It’s designed to look more and more worn with years of use,” Leonard adds.

Meeting a Need

Durability, safety and easy operation are a few specific functional elements of hardware that are often important to consumers.

Weather and climate concerns often come into consideration when it comes to durability, especially for those manufacturers selling within coastal areas.

“Hardware that will maintain its appearance and functionality even with the corrosive effects of the surrounding environment [is important],” says Beeken, who adds that another big concern for many homeowners is the safety level of the windows. “There are laws in place and pending that limit sill heights and openings for child fall prevention and that can be in conflict with egress issues for fire safety,” he says. “Hardware could be a solution if it can restrict the opening yet have an intuitive feature that allows it to still be fully opened in case of a fire.”

What’s in Store?

Fenestration manufacturers continually strive to stand out, and value-added options top the list as a way to do so. In order to stay viable, manufacturers also will have to evolve to meet the changing demands and needs of the customers. On the door side Junker says to expect to see more happening electronically, such as keyless remote entries and touchpad access. “As far as the high-end window side … there’s a move to tilt-turn line upgrade options. And also some companies that have been importing these systems are now starting to manufacture their own,” he says.

Woods says some homeowners are turning to hardware to try and make their homes more energy efficient, such as through tighter weatherstripping and multi-point locks. Others think security features will continue to be a big selling point.

“The ability to secure the home or building in more user-friendly ways will continue to be prominent in the industry,” says Premeau. “This can come from new versions of multi-point locking mechanisms to biometric locks utilizing emerging technologies.”

Also looking to the environment, Beeken says green building will continue to be important.

“I expect to see more activity in regards to green and sustainability for two reasons,” he says. “For one, it’s still a way to differentiate, but [it’s also a way] to be conscious of eliminating waste and creating a more efficient product.”

Investment Opportunity? “You still want to stay ahead of the competition by showing customers the value you offer and by giving them the best product at the best price,” says Levin, whose company has looked into hardware-related areas such as invisible screens and self-locking sash locks.

Beeken adds, “There is no such thing as status quo so you always have to find ways to differentiate. These times are often the best times to [invest in development]; they are the best opportunities because this is when the good companies can gain market share by re-investing back into the business.” From maintenance and ease of use to the overall aesthetics afforded by certain hardware selections, there are many possibilities to differentiate. While economic conditions continue to be drab, focusing on hardware that will offer performance and value may be the key to ensuring steady business activity. “And because the market is more competitive than ever it’s all the more reason to try and really understand what the consumers are looking for to try and meet those needs,” Leonard adds. 

Ellen Rogers is a contributing editor for DWM magazine. 

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