The Flatpack Kitchen Revolution

The Flatpack Kitchen Revolution

Flatpack furniture was pioneered by the American hardware catalogues last century, when Sears Roebuck was the mail order king of the day. Sears shipped what would normally be imposable furniture items in a self-assemble format all over the country. This was replicated in all corners of the globe. So flatpack kitchens are not new; they’ve just been rediscovered.

To most of us, IKEA have been the kings of the flatpack revolution, even though many consumers express frustration at their overly complex instructions where the main tool is a finicky Allen key. But whatever way you look at it, the people at IKEA are very, very clever because they perfected a retail formula that made them one of the most successful retailers and manufacturers in the world today. IKEA appear to follow trends and create them. For sheer volume appeal and cleaver reinvention, nothing comes close to some of the IKEA kit bookshelves and storage units. In fact, Billy bookcases are believed to be one of IKEA’s highest volume lines. According to recent media reports though, IKEA’s biggest challenge is their limited geographic coverage, as they focus on just one store in each capital city. As a shopper, the time it takes to conduct a purchase is long, i.e. to get in and get out, with stock in your hands. This is where the hardware retailers have an advantage. Provided they have the stock, their distribution network and ease of shopping are unmatched, even by a corporate giant like IKEA.

Flatpacks also offers budget customers the opportunity to do something they would otherwise not be able to afford. As flatpacks moved into the kitchen category, consumers found their options increasing. Those options used to be limited to finding a specialist kitchen retailer or flicking through the paper to find a cabinetmaker. Flatpack kitchens are modular and, depending on the quality of the offer, you can erect a kitchen that an expert would not be able to distinguish from the real thing, assuming it’s done well of course. But the beauty of flatpack kitchens is in their price – they’re much cheaper than readymade kitchens.

Whether you sell kitchens as a hardware retailer or buy kitchens as an end user, you still need to do your homework on quality. There are literally thousands of suppliers, but only a handful that comply with Australian Standards. Those standards ensure that you sell a product that has been tested to the most extreme use, i.e. that it will last. The flatpack, or modular, kitchen business is booming in Australia, and the market leader is Bunnings. The success behind their offering is simple – give people what they want, at the right price and quality, and make sure there is enough in stock so that consumers can walk out the door with one under their arm. The drawback is that modular kitchens have set dimensions and rules, unlike the made-to-measure approach. But with imagination and a bit of ingenuity, a modular kitchen can fit most applications. With the right bench top, they can look as good as anything on the market.

As a potential retailer of any modular product, you need to ask yourself the following questions:


  • Do I have enough space to dedicate to displays?
  • Am I prepared to invest in stock for people to take immediately?
  • Can I employ a dedicate salesperson to handle more complex sales?
  • Have I got a strong local competitor close by?If you can’t do any of these things, forget it. Kitchens differ from power tools or paint. They are also more complex than the thousands of single-door or two-door pantries that many hardware retailers sell successfully. Kitchens are a far more considered purchase, and prospective consumers will do their homework on a purchase three months in advance in most cases. The dollars they spend are higher too, but the work and dedication to service those customers are also much higher than traditional product ranges in a hardware store. Kitchens require a new form of retailing commitment, and unless you’re deadly serious you’re better off using the space for something else.


HIA data suggests that the kitchen industry is an $8 billion market in Australia. Compare that with the domestic paint market, which is estimated to be worth a little more than $2 billion. How much space does the average hardware store dedicate to paint? Quite a lot, I’d say. Yet the paint market is skewed heavily towards full-service trade offers. Factors limiting the trade market in kitchens are mostly confined to getting someone to do it and at a reasonable price. This is now being challenged by the big hardware retailers. Some have streamlined, well managed DIY kitchen displays and offers, while others may appear to be reasonable until you do your homework. Do they adhere to ASNZS 43861, for example? Are they easy to assemble? Is there a choice of product size variants? The trade market in kitchens has a poor reputation for reliability and availability, as well as falling trade standards and skills. All add up to a DIY kitchen market that will continue to boom and eat into trade’s market share. The same problems have spread across a host of cabinetry categories, including home storage.

The industry trends are slow… a bit like paint colours. There are lots of colours and textures on offer, but in the end everyone wants clean white doors and slick stone bench tops. If you believe the experts, trends originate from the Eurocucina design fair that’s held in Milan every two years. Unlike in America, where design materials are still predominantly timbers and laminates, the Europeans are the trendsetters. In the US, Lowes and Home Depot tend to sell a lot of pre-assembled cabinets in raw timber. This means you need to finish them yourself and throw them in a pick-up to take home. Think about how much floor space that would occupy in your store!

To capture a slice of this emerging market, you need to ask yourself whether you are prepared to move away from your core business with another distraction, especially if you cannot dedicate all the things you must do to make it successful. One thing is certain – half-hearted approaches don’t work. Kitchen flatpacks require dedication from everyone in the supply chain. Pick your supplier wisely, invest in stock and find an expert to sell the offer. Get your colours wrong and you could end up with an expensive drive to the tip. If you want some of the flatpack action but are not capable of being fully dedicated to the category, you may be better off staying in the budget storage area, where the level of service doesn’t need to be as high, less space is needed and there’s far less risk and investment.