So what is driving the growth in shutter popularity? There's really two parts to the answer. The first is a fashion and trend issue, the second involves basic economics at work—and no, it's not only about price.
DRIVING THE MARKET
The vertical boom topped off in the mid 1990s, and the market shifted to horizontal products like two-inch wood blinds. In the late '90s, wood blinds started to lose a lot of prestige as less expensive faux wood and ready-made products started covering the shelves of major home centers. Quickly, the horizontal trend started to move toward shutters, and shutters were a natural: an upscale product, exclusive in design and a mark of class and stature for the homeowner.
This is only part of the story. Some interesting developments have taken place in the shutter world making them much more available, affordable and convenient to purchase. There used to be many difficulties in getting a shutter for a home. These ranged from price to lead times, to inconsistencies in quality and service. The competition from alternative shutters such as vinyl and vinyl-clad wood has changed the basic economics of the shutter industry.
Here's how: The biggest problem with wood shutters is unpredictable quality, especially that of the painted surface. Many wood manufacturers have improved their paint lines for better consistency. Innovative products like the vinyl-clad wood shutter have covered wood in vinyl and solved the paint/durability problem completely. They've also solved other issues like staples pulling out of louvers. And the poly foam and vinyl-clad wood shutters really look like classic wood shutters. The improvements in wood and the introduction of non-wood products have made shutters more reliable, durable and desirable.
Availability and convenience is also a big issue with wood shutters. Lead times used to be as long as 10 to 12 weeks and often were unpredictable. As competition has arrived, larger wood factories have cut lead times down to six weeks. Many vinyl factories deliver in two to three weeks. Others, like ShutterSmart's vinyl-clad wood factory, deliver in two weeks and even quote exact due dates. This has given homeowners more convenience and more reason to buy shutters.
Shutters have also become more accessible as the hinging and framing of shutters has moved away from the installer and onto the factory floor. This has allowed more new dealers to get into the shutter business. Some systems have really simplified installation. For example, the vinyl-clad wood shutter has created a self-squaring frame that eliminates all the installation challenges. Today, shutters can be installed by window treatment dealers and are easily available to homeowners.
Increased marketing and sales support has also played a big role in bringing shutters to the forefront. Seeing the trend, many large companies have shifted advertising budgets into the shutter category through co-op plans with dealers. This has heightened consumer awareness of shutters.
Finally, the last toppled barrier has been shutter affordability. As shutters have become more accessible and available, prices have come down. A high-quality product like the vinyl-clad wood shutter is roughly 20 percent less expensive than a traditional wood alternative.
THE ROAD TO DEALER SUCCESS
Fabricating wood shutters is always worth considering, especially with some of the improvements in the pre-sanded profiles available. But all painted shutters have one common problem and that is the painting process. With the increases in labor costs, stricter environmental regulations and the shortening of shutter lead times, painted shutters may not be the safest road to long-term success. There are alternative systems that look like wood shutters and eliminate many of the paint problems. Following is a list of the six major things dealers need to look out for when making a choice of shutter systems.
• Find a quality product. You want to make sure you select a good quality product that looks like wood and is durable. The vinyl-clad wood shutter is one example of a great combination of the look and strength of wood with the durability of vinyl.
Some of the things to watch out for are shutters with composite materials that screws can rip out of, or shutters with tilt rods that can be easily pulled out of louvers. These are some of the basics. The full list of what makes a superior shutter is long and requires careful attention, as this is key to your ability to sell dealers and homeowners.
• A proven shutter system. The longer a product has been in the marketplace the better. Choose a system that has been fully debugged, offers all the different shutter options like sliders and has several neutral colors. After all, we are in the fashion business and choices are important.
Watch out for systems that are relatively new, have not been time tested and carry a much greater risk of failure. Remember, shutters are an expensive item to fix and problems won't show up for several years.
• The actual experience of the supplier . . . that's if you want a headache-free operation. Experienced suppliers will have fewer back order and material shortage issues. They will be able to give consistent quality that matches the shutter samples you saw. Defects in surface finish, warpage and profile shape can become a nightmare in fabrication. It's always best to buy direct from the factories.
Another thing experienced suppliers offer is superior technical support and customer service. Their manufacturing systems and operations will already be perfected.
• Fabrication ease and simplicity. Watch out for hidden cost drivers like shutters that need painting or complicated shutter systems with many parts. Any involvement in paint requires expensive labor, paint booths, strict air control systems and paint quality control systems.
The fewer the parts, the lower your costs. Fewer parts keep things simple, take up less inventory space, less inventory management and fewer work stations.
• In adopting a product, you must remember that the shutter marketplace is getting competitive. All marketing support, advertising support, sales tools and dealer programs are critical to the success of your shutter launch. If your shutter system doesn't have the dealer support tools to help sell the end consumer, you're going to spend a lot of time developing these yourself.
Some companies have Web sites, videotapes, well written manuals, sample cases and more to help dealers close those in-home sales.
• Cost. Make sure you're priced competitively. But don't expect the cheapest shutter system to fulfill the previous five criteria. The lowest cost product is worthless, if you sacrifice the other key points.
As you move forward into the growing shutter boom, spend the time to study the different systems available to you. Evaluate at least three systems before you make the big decision. Stay focused on choosing a system that best matches your needs and the six guidelines listed above.
All indications show that the trend in shutters is not going away any time soon. So make sure you do your homework before jumping in. The wrong choice could really hurt your growth, profitability and long-term business prospects.
Viken Ohanesian is vice president of marketing for US Polymers, Commerce, CA, (323), (800) 737-4569, www.us-polymers.com.