Fundamental shift?

Glass Times talks to Sternfenster’s managing director Mike Parczuk who reflects on the recent challenges in national retail, and new opportunities for independent installers.

“Consumer expectations have changed,” Mike Parczuk, managing director of Sternfenster, said. “If you’re trying to push a hard sales model, you’re heading for trouble because people want time to choose. That was driving change in the supply chain pre-Covid-19. Now, for me that’s going to be accelerated.”

Glass Times spoke to Mike on the afternoon of May 19, by sheer coincidence, only hours before the Dail Mail published an article highlighting “Fears for Everest Windows”, which it describes as “teetering on the brink of collapse”.

The tabloid argued the company attributes its predicament to the impact of Covid-19, which had prevented it from working since March. The Daily Mail said that Everest is still holding “consultations with customers” but there had been a series of cancellations.

Speaking before the story broke, and not directly in reference to Everest, Mike argued that the national installation model was already running into trouble.

“People don’t want to be told what to buy,” he said. “They want to be able to choose a Painswick or an Agate Grey window, a flush casement. Retail sales on a national basis haven’t been able to bring the flexibility that homeowners want to choose and get a product that is exactly right for their home. You aren’t going to persuade them to buy white plastic if they want colour.

“Covid-19 has made those pre-existing challenges for those national brands even more difficult because you can’t sit-down in someone’s home and try and get them to close on the night.

“That’s an opportunity for independent retailers. If you’re working for one of the big consumer brands, you know that if you don’t close on the night an independent is going to be around the next day with their pitch.

“And that’s going to include product that is as good, if not better, than yours, offering more choice and a better service; Covid-19 has accelerated a process. Smaller independent retailers have been taking share from bigger nationals for some time. It’s only happening faster.”

Sternfenster has focused its business firmly on trade supply, while developing a product offer that delivers the choice demanded by the end-user and which maximises sales platforms for installers, Mike said.

“We’re running a business that looks after its staff and looks after customers. How do we look after our customers? Well, the best way to do that is to provide our customers with everything that they want.

“They don’t operate in the high volume, stack it high, sell it cheap market. We deal with a lot of family businesses.

“Fabricators used to have ‘bin lists’. If customers weren’t doing X number of frames a week, they wouldn’t supply them. That never sat comfortably with me. We don’t care if you’re doing one frame, 10 frames, 30 frames a week.

“One of our unwritten rules is that people need to be nice to deal with us. When we make a mistake, which we clearly will, it’s important that they’ll understand that we didn’t do it deliberately and we will bend over backwards to sort it out.

“And that goes, and should go, the other way too. If our customer has made a mistake, they should be able to phone us and we should still do everything we can to help them out because we’re a service industry and that’s what it’s all about.

“Have we sat here and deliberately said we’re only going to supply a high-value product? No, we haven’t. What we did say is our business model is not going to be ‘stack it high and sell it cheap’. We have tried to find suppliers who have longevity and who are, ultimately, supplying products that our customers want to install.”

This thinking has formed the foundation for Sternfenster’s relationship – alongside those it has with the Residence Collection, Spectus, and Smart Aluminium – with Deceuninck.

This is based on Deceuninck’s 2500 Heritage chamfered and 2800 sculptured systems, plus it’s Heritage Flush Casement, which are available in 30 colour pathways from stock, plus from Sternfenster, in a StyleLine Graf seamless-welded finish.

“The major growth areas for the industry have been aluminium, bifolding and inline sliding doors, and in sales of laminate foils and flush casements,” Mike said.

“We’ve always been very good at innovating. We carried R9 very early on and we worked with Deceuninck to support them in their development of a flush sash window.

“R9 is a great window but it’s not necessarily the easiest window to manufacture or to fit because it’s 100mm front-to-back, so not always great for refurb, and often glass bonded.

“We saw that the Deceuninck flush sash would be a big seller, and it is a big seller because it’s easier to fit and is a 70mm front-to-back system. It’s a top product and once you add a seamless Graf finish, it’s a brilliant window. I have it on my own home.”

He said that retail customers are discerning and that the shift in the market, evidenced by the challenges nationals are facing, demonstrate the importance of having flexibility within your product offer.

“You can’t afford not to have these products in your arsenal,” he said. “Retail customers do their research. They talk to friends and they go online. If you limit your product, unless you have a highly trained and highly motivated sales force, you’re going to struggle, and that comes at cost.”

Again, speaking before the breaking of the Everest story, he said: “And I do worry for the national companies because that hard sell has become harder to do since Covid-19.

“The other side of that is that the opportunity for smaller independent retailers, who have the flexibility within their offer and a strong reputation for service, will see new opportunity as we move through the current period of challenge.”