In April, Niagara held a virtual launch event, announcing its new Niagara Wholesale Program and more than 100 new products designed to help wholesalers serve the needs of their plumbing professional clients by offering advanced technology and high performance for those looking for a wide variety of water-efficient products. The new toilet lineup includes flush rates of 0.8, 1.0, 1.1 and 1.28 gpf. PM Chief Editor Nicole Krawcke had a chance to chat with Carl Wehmeyer, executive vice president, Jenni Steele, vice president of marketing and Jeff Pratt, vice president of sales for Niagara.
PM: More than 100 new products launching — that’s quite a lot. How much research and development went into these new products and why are they launching now?
JS: When we designed our four new product lines, we wanted to make sure there were several variations — such as left and right handles on the tanks, and then available with round or elongated blowls, standard heights and ADA height. So all of that, within those four lines, comprises more than 100 SKUs.
CW: We’ve been building on our platform. The company’s been developing products for almost 50 years now. So the technology is something that we’re constantly innovating and tweaking, but really, we spent the last two years developing this line because we realized we had a very big market share with the stealth technology, especially with the maintenance repair and operations companies, like the big box stores, such as Lowes and Home Depot, or HD Supply, But we weren’t really penetrating the traditional wholesale channel.
So we went out and did some research to try to figure out what we needed to do in order to really come up with the product solution that not only fit their needs, but exceeded the needs of the traditional wholesale channel.
Once we got all that data back together, we sat down and we said, “OK, we need to develop at least four different product families.” So like Jenny mentioned, within each family, we have all the different SKUs that we need, to satisfy those markets. So some of those toilet lines, like the Barron, for example, there’s maybe five or six different Barron SKUs. And then each one of those, has a variation where it’s a round and elongated, maybe a back outlet. It might have a different tank handle, and things like that. So that was really our philosophy.
And the other thing we did was focus on making everything have the best available technology in its class. So even our opening price point toilet, if you compare that to any other toilet in the entire market, we far surpass any of the specifications that anyone else is doing. We did that because we wanted to have the industry-leading 15-year warranty, but we also wanted to have the performance the customers were looking for as well, because we understand that, in the end, it’s about high performance — no callbacks — and style, right? Those are the things that the customers were looking for.
It took some time — about two years — but we’ve developed all these products, and we’re excited it’s all culminated today, being able to launch this and have product available for people in early May.
PM: Are these new products best suited for new construction or retrofits?
CW: It’s really everything. Depending on the products, we have products that have extra-large footprints, which most of them do. So you could easily retrofit with that, but then it also fits in new construction. The price points are very competitive. So we feel like depending on where that builder, or even someone retrofitting, is, and their bind selection, they have a choice all the way up to the very high-end, such as a showroom. So it’s pretty versatile and flexible.
JS: We also took design into factor whenever we looked at that for new construction, too. So we wanted to make sure we looked at what somebody would want in their house. What would be eye-pleasing? How would we make these products work with other fixtures? So, we did color-match handles. We made sure that they were of quality components, such as with the zinc handle, so it’ll last longer, and other things like that — things we knew they would want with that new construction.
JP: If I could just add something to this — we had the ability, and COVID-19 mixed into this a little bit, but the way that we looked at it, nobody needs a white round-front toilet anymore. Why would somebody want to launch a white round-front toilet into the marketplace? But from our perspective, we were really launching our technology. And what we did, this time around, which is very different than I think most manufacturers would do, is we actually engaged the purchasing base. The plumbing contractor, the builder, the designer. We asked them their opinions. And as Jenny used to say during the process, what are their pain points? What would they like? Because we had an opportunity, here to introduce technology into a new, fresh line of products that meets the modern-day challenges.
One of the most exciting things for me is that we are infusing technology — we are infusing water-saving platforms into fresh designs from the contractor’s perspective and the designer’s perspective. An example is how contractors wanted speed of installation, right? Who thinks of that? Today, they have to put things together in the tank. We thought through that, and said, “Let’s do it for them.” They wanted larger footprints, like Carl said, on certain SKUs to do the replacement side, but the builder didn’t necessarily want that for new construction, so we created product for that. I think the one thing that Niagara did was take its technology — that nobody has— and infused it into these lines to create a fresh, modern design that meets today’s world.
We’re flooded with HGTV TV, and everybody’s a design expert, now. There are terms the consumer knows, today, that we want to translate into our products. There are pain points that the contractor has, that we want to eliminate. And those are the things that I think that Niagara did with this product line, and why it’s just not a white round-front toilet line. It’s just not four new lines, 100 new products. It’s really different. It’s really fresh.
PM: You mentioned COVID-19, and it seems one of the biggest restroom trends is hygiene. How do these products help meet that market need?
JP: Great question! And I can’t tell you with honesty that there is any sensor development in there. There’s really nothing other than the glazing of the product line that we did, and the cleanliness of the lines that we develop. We know there should be developments, especially in the light commercial segment. I’m not sure how the residential segment is going to take hands-free, yet. Because you walk in the bathroom and all of a sudden, your body hits the ultra violet ray, and it flushes, I’m not sure how the consumer is going to accept that in the residential space, yet — even with COVID.
PM: How has Niagara combated and adapted to the mass supply chain disruption while preparing for this launch?
CW: First off, it’s been all about having the quality people. That’s one of our big mantras here at Niagara. We’ve been a family-owned company, like I said, for almost 50 years, now. But it’s about the people. We have a solid team in China. Our own team and our own factories. And we have a solid team here. So between the two divisions on either side of the world, everybody’s kind of dug in and gone the extra mile to continue the project, and continue the supply chain. While everybody was dealing with their mess, China was the first to shut down — they opened up and then we shut down. So we all had to kind of take turns, helping each other out, to keep the project going. And from a standpoint of just supply chain, in general, Niagara has always been very aggressive with our inventory positions, because we know the biggest single issue for our customer, especially the wholesale customer, is to be out of stock. And you see right now, a lot of our competitors are out of stock with significant back orders, and Niagara continues to ship. That’s because, as a leadership and an ownership team, we’re committed to investing in our inventory and our customers. We have three distribution centers in the United States, and we keep them heavily stocked.
The last piece I would add is we’ve upgraded our supply base in China, ahead of this product launch, so we’ve added a lot of partners. We’ve spread out our supply chain a little bit more. And like I said, we’ve made investments and commitments to make sure that we can fulfill market needs. That’s something that we really pride ourselves on because we think that’s the first cornerstone in providing world-class customer service, being able to have 100% fulfillment.
PM: How has the company been adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic, in general?
JS: Well, I feel like we’ve done a pretty good job adapting. It threw everyone for a loop, right. But we were able to go from working in the office with the same dedicated team that Carl just mentioned, to working remotely while we shut down, and figured out where to go next. And then, back in the office with that same dedicated team. It really was because of the employees and the team within Niagara, that we were able to maintain, and really go without interruption. This product launch gave us a little bit of time to be able to go back and talk to those contractors more, and get more feedback on the products as we moved forward, and be able to dive into this project, and really focus on it.
PM: How do these new products benefit plumbing contractors?
JS: The whole ideation of this line was to benefit the plumbing contractors. We wanted to listen to their pain points and develop something around that, so that we could solve a lot of their problems. As Jeff said a little bit earlier, time is one of those, so we put together pre-assembled tanks for easier installation. We upgraded the tank-to-bowl connection bolts to be brass instead of the silicone or the plastic, so they would last longer, or they could get tightened a little bit easier. And we also made sure we had the larger footprints for those retrofits, so they weren’t having to spend a lot of time or money on tile work.
JP: And one big thing we also did was extend our warranty to 15 years to protect that contractor. The contractor’s mindset, as you know, is to set it and forget it. They don’t want call-backs. Two things: no call-backs and speed of installation. And it has to work. Those are the three elements that they really care about. Everything about this was designed with upgraded parts, speed of installation and a warranty covering 15 years with no call-backs.
CW: A lot of these products feature our Stealth technology, and we even have a new and improved Stealth vessel that’s in there, which gives us a little bit more flushing power, or using the Pro Fluidmaster fill valves. That’s why we’re able to offer such a robust warranty — because we’re confident that once you set this toilet, and you put it in someone’s home or in a commercial application, there’s not going to be any call-backs or complaints because A) the products are super durable, and B) they flush better than anything that’s out there on the market. We can all look at the MaP scores, but it’s really all about real-life performance. We feel like we’ve mastered that with the Stealth technology.
PM: What is the No. 1 thing you want plumbing professionals to know about this new product launch?
JS: I think for us, it’s the wide variety of applications with ultimate performance that we’ve been able to put together. So, letting them know that we’ve really thought of them, in this design process. And we made sure all of our products have the best components, the best technology and the best performance convenient to them. That would be mine.
JP: Mine, strictly from a sales point of view, is the message. Those are the quality and design elements of it. I want them to understand that Niagara is no longer just a 0.8 product. That we’ve expanded the product line wide, deepened with offerings, and also given them different water flushing options, 0.8, 1.0, 1.1 and 1.28. We’ve never had that before. We’ve always had just 0.8. So we’ve really taken the Stealth technology and infused it into the water platforms of 0.8, 1.0, 1.1 and 1.28. So for me, I want them to say, “Oh! They broadened their line. They have a little bit more water going, here. Oh, they’ve given me the Stealth technology. Oh, they have really nice designs. And did they really upgrade like this? They’re giving me a Fluidmaster, and the brass bolts and the wider print. They really listened to what I had to say.” That’s the message I want.