Last summer my wife and I went to see “Pearl Harbor.” I'm not going to comment on the film, but rather on an event an hour before the end. Those of you who saw it may recall that Ben Affleck makes a surprise reappearance just before the Japanese attack. In an emotional scene he meets his ex-girlfriend and while they talk, Ben stands in a doorway. “Look at the switch!” I whispered loudly to my poor wife (she married a wiring device lunatic). There, in full view, was a toggle switch. It looked just like the ones still being made in 2002. Granted this was a studio and the switch was probably made last year, but the point was made for me: How creative are we in our business? What are people doing elsewhere? What will become of our industry?
I've been fortunate to have lived in London for 11 years and in France for 18. I also worked for nine years developing and selling wiring devices all over Europe before moving to the U.S. So I've seen most of this first hand — the good, the “OK” and the really bad. Grass always looks much greener on the other side, so I'm going to be cautious when talking about the electrical industry abroad: some are better than us, others are far worse. We should learn a few lessons from both extremes.
Some European manufacturers are doing just great. Italy champions wiring-device innovation with four major wiring device companies, each with four to six series of devices, which come in a dazzling array of functions, colors and materials.
The French market is more moderate, with only three competitors that each make three to five wiring-device series. French products, however, cover a tremendous scale of prices, ranging from $1.50 to $40 per device. Just one device family has 28 different device and plate finishes and colors and 117 different functions.
Variety does have its downside. Distributors and contractors halt jobs to suit choosey customers, though manufacturers do a great job sending products overnight to help contractors. A distributor will usually carry at least two series from two brands with a total of four different wiring device lines. But they stock only white plates and the 10 or 20 most basic devices. Stock managers have a big job.
A smart contractor will get the job based on cheaper white devices and then sell upgrades to more exotic functions or finishes. Distributors can sell differentiation, inventory and service, not only price. European retailers love to display aisles full of variety and color. Just like Home Depot, they offer many choices to pull in the consumer traffic. Homeowners like to match paint, wallpaper and devices. The more options the better.
Not all European countries are doing a good job with wiring devices. I put Austria, Holland and England at the back of the class. All three countries have done little product innovation. Devices are basically flat, square and white, with metal plates. With business based on price, manufacturers have had a hard time. For instance, in the 1990s England was flooded with low-quality Chinese devices, which have since improved in quality.
What can we learn from these countries? First, product standardization means lower margins, more callbacks, and less safety. Second, customer love choice — and will pay for it. Just look how Kohler and Moen are doing with faucets. Wiring device makers need to tread the fine line between efficiency and innovation. We need to offer choice while protecting contractors from insanity.
Yann Kulp is product manager, Plates & Residential Wiring Devices at Pass & Seymour/Legrand. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.