Sanitaryware Markets Rely on Innovation, Diversification

August 1, 2001
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Product innovations such as the Camber™ lavatory have helped Kohler remain competitive. Photo courtesy of Kohler Co., Kohler, Wis.
U.S. sales of sanitaryware have increased steadily over the past several years, rising from around 32 million pieces shipped in 1995 to nearly 34 million in 1999.* The value of shipments has also increased, rising 5% from 1998 to reach $3.6 billion in 1999. Overall, sales have increased 18% since 1995.

While ceramic sanitaryware claims only a portion of this market, it remains the second largest type of sanitaryware next to fiberglass. However, the market share of these two materials has shifted significantly over the past several years. Between 1995-1999, sales of fiberglass plumbing fixtures gained 4% in the overall plumbing fixtures market, while sales of vitreous china lost 4%. This trend is likely to continue as fiberglass remains the material of choice for most bathtubs, whirlpool baths and shower surrounds and receptors.

Like ceramic tile, the sanitaryware market depends to a great extent on the construction and remodeling markets. While sales of new homes have remained fairly robust since the beginning of this year, demand is expected to slow by fall. However, construction in the office, hospital and health sectors is expected to continue to remain strong in the near term. Additionally, bath remodeling jobs in the residential market also continue to rise, which may offset the lower anticipated construction spending in this sector.

Manufacturing Challenges

Despite strong sales, challenges facing ceramic sanitaryware manufacturers have made manufacturing in the U.S. difficult for many companies. The cost of manufacturing has continued to escalate, due in large part to skyrocketing labor and energy costs. In an effort to remain profitable, some manufacturers have launched campaigns to consolidate and streamline their operations. American Standard, for instance, announced in January 2001 that it will close its plumbing products plant in Trenton, N.J., by the end the year as part of an overall strategy to “eliminate the duplication of work, enhance productivity and improve profitability.” The plant manufactures toilets, bidets, lavatories and basins.

“We regret that closing the Trenton facility is necessary,” said Laurie Breininger, vice president of plumbing products - Americas. “We’re consolidating our production to improve the efficient use of our facilities. We selected Trenton primarily because it is one of our oldest and smallest plants, operating at only half capacity. It is less costly to move the Trenton production to other plants.”

In a similar move, Briggs Industries closed its last U.S. ceramic sanitaryware manufacturing plant, located in Abingdon, Ill., in December 2000.

Not all U.S. companies are struggling, however. Kohler Co., a privately held company based in Kohler, Wis., reported that its sales are up in 2001 and that it has no intentions to consolidate any of its U.S. manufacturing operations. “We are, of course, concerned about the economy and are watching all the indicators that everyone else is, but we feel pretty optimistic about our opportunities going forward. We are expecting continued growth in both the short- and long-term,” said Mike Chandler, marketing manager – Sanitaryware Products.

Kohler believes that the key to continued success is product innovation. “If you’re truly providing unique products, and you’re doing things that are innovative with leading edge designs, you’re probably going to do better than your average competitor whether the market is up or down,” Chandler said. Within the past year, Kohler has introduced products such as its Comfort Height™ toilets, which are the height of an average chair and therefore more comfortable; 1.6-gallon-per-flush (gpf) toilets (mandated by the U.S. government for water conservation) that provide comparable performance to the old 3.5 gpf models; lavatories with interesting shapes and designs, such as the Camber™ lavatory that is built into a Camber table; console tables, which have become increasingly popular in the U.S. building/remodeling market; and a variety of new colors and shades.

“People really want to express themselves—particularly with the washing basin—in the design of their bathrooms. By providing a lot of different materials, designs and colors, we enable them to do that,” said Chandler.

A Global Outreach

In addition to developing new products, many U.S. manufacturers are looking overseas for potential growth markets. American Standard, for instance, has had a great deal of success in Europe and is optimistic about the future of the European markets. “The European markets are a cornerstone of American Standard’s global strategy—both in terms of selling and manufacturing opportunities,” said Fred Poses, chairman and CEO of American Standard Companies. “We are market leaders within the European community with our well-known Ideal Standard, Armitage Shanks and Dolomite branded plumbing products…and we believe there are significant opportunities to grow our presence in existing markets and leverage our strong brand positions to enter the markets of Eastern Europe.” Sales in Europe in 2000 for the company’s Plumbing Products division had already surpassed U.S. sales, with $890 million of the division’s total $1.8 billion coming from Europe. Sales in the Americas accounted for $790 million, while sales in Asia accounted for $120 million. Overall, the company is projecting a 5+% growth rate in this division over the next three years.

Sanitec Corp., a bathroom products manufacturer headquartered in Helsinki, Finland, has also had a great deal of success in the European markets, with 2000 sales increasing almost 40% over 1999 levels. However, the company is not as optimistic about 2001 growth. Signs of a slowdown emerged toward the end of 2000, especially in Poland and Germany, and the stagnant market situation in those regions has continued through the first part of this year. With the acquisition of Twyford Bathrooms in January 2001 and goals to improve efficiency, the company is forecasting a 5% growth rate for this year. It’s overall objective is to become “a global leader in bathroom solutions.”

A new report from Materials Markets Consulting (MMC) indicates that the Asian markets are faring well, with an expected average annual growth rate of 8% in the overall Asian ceramic sanitaryware market. The current market is worth US$1.1 billion and is dominated by China (58%), Taiwan (11%) and India (10%).

Annual demand in Southern and Southeast Asia currently stands at about 80 million pieces. Demand is mostly met by local production, with only certain high-grade products being imported. As consumers in Asia become more sophisticated and attach more importance to quality and design, there is a potential for more imports of branded high quality European and U.S. products. China accounts for half of the demand for sanitaryware and is followed by India with 20% of the demand. By 2005, MMC forecasts that China will still account for 50% of the demand and India will represent 25%.

In India, less than 30% of the population has access to sanitation systems, and the housing shortage currently stands at over 40 million units. MMC predicts that fast growth will be experienced in all sectors of the sanitaryware market, and the market for high-grade products will double from 5 million to 10 million pieces.

Editor's Note

The foregoing information was compiled from company interviews, annual reports and, where noted, from “Southern and South-East Asian Sanitaryware Markets,” a report from Materials Markets Consulting. For more information on the content, price and availability of this report, e-mail mmc@metalbulletin.com.

*1999 is the latest data available from the U.S. Deptartment of Commerce and was released in October 2000. Data includes kitchen sinks.

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