(THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED by SURFACE & PANEL magazine Q2, 2008; www.surfaceandpanel.com)
Whether you refer to it as thermofoil, foil, PVC Veneer, 3D Laminate or Vinyl, one thing can be certain: there is an identity crisis regarding our product here in North America. As with marketing any product, it is not only important that people know what your product does, but that they also have a positive impression about it and the product segment that it resides in; as a result, the quality and reputation of your product segment as a whole is ever bit as important as your company and brand.
Since there are numerous names for our product segment, it is very difficult to explain to outsiders what our product is. I’ve even met cabinet makers and specifiers, much less people in typical social settings, who didn’t know what product I meant when I said “thermofoil”. I’d have to explain that it’s the same material used for “white vinyl wrapped doors”; even at that, though, they didn’t know that those same 3D laminates were available in wood grains! If I said that I sell granite, they would all clearly identify and usually have a positive reaction about that product segment; however if you take a look at our product segment, we lack all of that. When you think about it, though, how could a product segment that lacks a single, clearly identifiable name build awareness as an industry?
I have long thought that there should be one clear name to identify our product segment. In 1998, I started using the phrase “3D Laminate”. I can’t be certain that I was the first to use it, but I certainly had never seen it used previously. The year prior I had noticed at the NeoCon office furniture show that people would ask how our product was used. In response, knowing that most people clearly understood what an HPL chip looked like, I created a professional board that was backlit and spread chips out in front that were cut to represent the size and look of HPL chips. I used the term “3D Laminates” on top of the board. At that show I received many comments that, “Wow, they have 3D laminates now?” I realized then that the more descriptive name of “3D Laminate” helped to identify our product segment while also adding value over a traditional laminate.
Aside from a more descriptive name, our product segment lacks a positive image. Cabinetmakers and consumers alike do not recognize the quality and high end application potential that 3D laminates can offer. In Europe, 3D laminates are viewed as a durable, hygienic and a fashionable surface. It is not only more economical than wood, but it is also more consistent and offers a great deal more color and design options. If a project called for an exotic West African wood, the cabinet door could cost as much as $50 per square foot; however, a 3D laminate door in that same design and application would cost only a fraction of the price. In addition, a quality 3D laminate would be more consistent in design, and no “Old Growth” forest would need to be touched. Although 3D laminate doors are typically produced using PVC as an overlay, the bulk of the finished product is made by MDF. MDF is composed of blended raw wood material utilizing low priority wood composites of branches, small diameter trees, mill waste and forestry chips. It could be argued that our product segment even deserves recognition in the revitalized green movement.
In Europe, why are 3D laminates perceived as fashionable and modern surfaces to be used in mainstream and high end applications, but not here in North America? In North America, we typically see 3D Laminates as a lower end product used only in the bathroom, for apartments or in the closet. One problem is that, unlike their larger European counterparts, the extremely large kitchen producers here do not promote 3D laminates as a consumer friendly product and product of desire. At the opposite end of the scale, the small custom shop, which got its start as a custom wood craftsman, is pro natural wood, especially since “real wood” has a tendency to be viewed as a product that a cabinet shop without an automated CNC can roll up their sleeves and work with by hand.
So without the large kitchen producers and small cabinet shops pushing 3D laminates, what remains is only a small niche of kitchen and component producers who specify and utilize the product segment. The exact numbers are hard to pinpoint, but it has been reported that over 55% of kitchens in Europe use 3D laminates, whereas in North America that number is less than 10%. Typically, when you do see 3D laminates in North America, they are marketed as a type of counterfeit wood door. Mostly, though, they are promoted as multi-pass raised panel doors which require more CNC time than a slab door, thus warranting a higher price than a single pass routered door.
It’s also interesting to note that the perceived value of a kitchen in Europe is created by the color or design, whereas in North America the perceived value is more closely associated with how long it takes to produce. We have all heard the adage, “You sell what you show.” Well, in North America, the marketing efforts of 3D laminate door producers have collectively leaned towards selling their product as counterfeit, raised panel wood doors, which by their very nature is lower end on the pricing scale; as a result, thermofoil has become synonymous with low end.
As an Industry, shouldn’t we be promoting our 3D Laminate components to the High End design market? I feel that we should. The reason that 3D Laminates are not being offered to the high end clientele currently is a direct result of a category identity problem, which derives from a lack of information and education about our product segment as a whole.
As I mentioned, 3D Laminates are more popular in Europe, but let’s further examine why. First of all, the European market has a greater concentration of large manufacturers whom value consistency in their production line. These larger manufacturers create brochures that rival the automotive industy’s in style and quality and they proudly promote Kitchens that utilize 3D Laminates. Wood is also more scarce in supply and comes at a higher cost, and the average labor rate is high in most European countries. As a result of all of this, the large manufacturers are compelled to better utilize their machinery and material, such as 3D laminates, to add the most value possible to their finished product. Consequently, the 3D laminate product segment is perceived as a high end, high quality product in the European kitchen market. (On a side note, the consumers in Europe also live in tighter spaces; therefore “Euro Style” or “Full Access” cabinetry lends itself to being more desirable since more of the cabinet is usable.)
Now let’s compare the European situation to that in North America. In North America, “real wood” cabinet doors are viewed to be higher quality than 3D laminates. It is interesting that some of these “real wood” kitchens use the low-end wood doors, cheap hardware, untreated paper on the cabinet sides, and low-grade particle board. Then these kitchens are sold as being a high quality kitchen simply because they utilize “real wood” doors. Compare that kitchen to a Euro Style kitchen produced here in the US using a CNC with an all melamine board construction and Blum hardware; I would contend that the US made Euro Style kitchen offers more quality and value than the former. That is not to say that 3D laminates are superior to wood, but at the same time they are not necessarily lower in quality either. Allow me to give some examples of where man made products can outperform or have a higher perceived value over the “real” surface:
“Real” but LOW END PRODUCTUses Natural Wood, Leather, Steel
“Man Made” but HIGH END Uses Graphite, Plastic or Fiber
Wooden Golf Clubs VS. Callaway Graphite Clubs
Leather Shoes at Wal mart VS. Nike Running Shoes
Leather Handbag from Mall VS. Gucci Designer Handbag
Butcher Block Island VS. Corian Solid Surface by Dupont
Steel Ford Pinto VS. Fiberglass Corvette
Steel Bike from Target VS. Carbon fiber Racing Bike
Low end Maple Cabinets VS. High End 3D Laminate Kitchen
The above examples show that a man made product with artificial surfacing can be of a higher quality or of a higher perceived quality when properly produced, designed and marketed. If you sell your product based upon the wood species or how many passes it takes on the router, then you are not branding your product to its full potential.
Let me give an example:
Two years ago I visited the showroom of an Italian kitchen producer here in Florida, and was very impressed by the size and appearance, as well as the beautiful kitchens on display in large, wide-open spaces... It was obviously a very upscale showroom. I was admiring one of the Kitchens when an attractive saleswoman walked over and asked how I liked the kitchen. I remarked that it was indeed beautiful, and asked whether it was thermofoil. She began to explain to me that it was a special lacquer dipped process they do in Italy, but after hearing this, the showroom manager quickly walked over and corrected the sales person. They did have a special lacquer line, but it was for special order only. As it turns out, the kitchen I was looking at was indeed thermofoil. When I asked how much it retailed for, I was surprised at the high price level. In general, the average retail for their kitchens was considerably higher than the average “real wood” kitchen, but it did have a lot more hardware, function, high quality melamine construction and most importantly style.The Sales Manager and I ended up speaking for hours about the Kitchen Industry, the US market and the perception of foils in the market. I then realized that some of these kitchens coming in from Europe were sold widely into condos, as well as high end homes. When I have mentioned to designers the names of some high end kitchen producers from Germany and Italy, they drool over the thought of specifying them into their next project. They are viewed as an ultra luxury product, yet they don’t know or don’t want to see that they are using products that can be sourced in North America as well. After leaving that showroom, and after multiple trips to Germany and Italy, I have realized my calling. Although I didn’t hear a trumpet sound, I knew that it was my job to bring design and profitability to producers of 3D laminate components and kitchens to North America. I hope that this article reaches those who are in a position in their daily activities to join me in spreading the awareness of 3D laminates for use in high end kitchens.
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