In the early days of his business, Gary Passavanti was like a lot of other small cabinet shop owners, selling one kitchen at a time and saying goodbye to his customers. And, like others, his shop, Ideas in Wood, has had to contend with competition from big-box stores. But instead of trying to compete with their lower prices, he learned a lesson.

"I saw a lot of my counterparts go down the tube trying to compete head-on with Home Depot, which you can't do," says Gary. "We're not trying to pattern ourselves after Home Depot. We just learned a lot from them."

Using the big-box stores as inspiration, Gary and his wife Lynn created a design center, located in Ramona, Calif. Customers can come to the retail store to design and buy their kitchen cabinets and choose countertops. While in the store, the same customer may also buy a dining room set, occasional tables, hutch, entertainment center, any type of home office furniture and maybe even an art piece.

"We've really developed the key to success with all this stuff. We've only had a 10-month year, because we moved the cabinet shop and lost two months worth of work. Our sales have gone up in 2006 in a year where everyone else in Southern California is having declining sales," says Gary. "We're working smarter."

Offering everything

The bigger stores are selling people all sorts of other stuff, says Gary. The shop already had a small retail outlet in Julian, Calif. That store is only 900 square feet, too small to show the company's kitchens. "When we decided that we were going to bite the bullet and open up this second store, we were going to make it really big and bring in a lot of other things besides kitchen cabinets," says Gary.

Having a visible presence has done a lot to build business. "Selling cabinets is a retail business. Until we stepped up to the plate with the investment here, our company was at the same place," says Gary. "Once we did this, we got a lot more recognition and business has been very good, even through this big slowdown. And [our gain] is strictly due to the fact that we're here."

Although the shop is not competing with bigger stores with its own custom cabinets, the design center does carry Canyon Creek manufactured cabinets that can compete in price with the less expensive offerings. "If the customer is looking for better, higher-end cabinets than that, then we're going to manufacture them," says Gary.

Ideas in Wood also sells countertops. Although Gary didn't want to enter the countertop business, he wanted to sell countertops, so Ideas became a dealer for one of the larger countertop companies in Southern California.

"These big box companies take more and more business away from us small guys. Until the rest of the small guys pick up on the fact that they have to work like the big box company, they're not going to be making it. It's about value-added sales," says Gary.

All of the furniture pieces are made by the shop, except for the dining room sets, which are made by an outside manufacturer. Anything that isn't in the realm of Ideas' abilities, the company outsources.

"So we can sell the guy the kitchen, his dining room set, his built-in hutches and make him a customer," says Gary. It's about creating return customers, people who come back to the shop to buy other pieces due to their satisfaction with work already done.

"We have tremendous referrals from our existing customer base that go back to 1979," says Lynn. "There are also our existing customers. We're to the point that some customers are on their second homes."

Design tools

Potential customers and clients feel comfortable in the showroom, says Gary. When customers first sit down, they don't often know exactly what they want. But displayed all around them are options of what's available. And then there's the computer screen.

In other design centers Gary noticed that there was one screen and customers would be jockeying for position to see what was happening. Gary set up his desk in the center of the showroom with two computer screens, one facing him and one facing the customer.

"I have these positioned in such a way that when someone points to something on their screen over there, I can see what they're talking about." This position also allows Gary to display slide shows of finished jobs and know which ones are appealing to the customer, since he can see their responses.

Gary has been using Cabinet Vision Solid software since 1989 to draw up all his designs and is very proficient and quick at it. Lynn says it's become a very effective sales tool. "We have contractors who bring their clients here, especially when they're trying to nail down a job," says Lynn. "Contractors see this center and Gary as a fabulous tool so customers can see their project on the computer screen."

Cabinet Vision also provides cutlists and assembly sheets for all the cabinets. Employees sign off on printed sheets, initialing the job they've done. "Everyone is accountable," says Gary.

Building cabinets

When it comes to building cabinets, Gary has not yet made the jump to CNC machines. "I'm not against CNC," says Gary. "When you're at my size, you can turn out a lot more cabinets with employees than with CNC."

Once drawings are finalized, Zach Mitchell, the shop manager, looks at the drawings, checking for accuracy. When he's satisfied with everything he starts printing cutlists that are given to the appropriate department.

Doors and drawers are built first, followed by face frames and cabinets, then assembly. A Unique door machine and dedicated shapers are used for doors. A three-sided Grizzly shaper, with a Panel Crafter holddown, is dedicated to coping. A Stema SC 400 3.2 sliding table saw, as well as a Powermatic table saw, are used to cut panels.

Cabinets are built of melamine particleboard using dado construction, glue and nails. Face frames are glued and nailed. The shop makes its own doors and drawers, unless a door requested is a specialty item. When the shop doesn't make a door, it's purchased from Decore-ative Specialties.

Ideas also learned from the big-box stores that it shouldn't install, but instead use licensed contractors for installations. "We stopped installing," says Gary. "We learned from experience that we're going to make better money staying in the shop."

Customer service

What keeps customers coming back is customer service with a smile, says Lynn. "We tell customers that we build things for life. We tell them that they have future antiques here and if they ever have problems, just call us and we'll fix it."

One customer, for example, returned a door from a job done 13 years earlier. A parrot ate half the door. "We built them a new door and we didn't charge them, although we could have," says Lynn. "Again, the customer for life is what we work toward."

Lynn says customer service is something she is constantly working to improve. "People do not have to wait for responses," she adds. If there are problems with installation, they're fixed immediately.

"It's our willingness to go outside the box that has helped us survive," says Lynn.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.