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. 
Listen to the interview on the And So it Flows podcast here.

Supply House Times: 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?

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 and 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 market 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.” As Jenny mentioned, within each family, we have all the different SKUs that we need to satisfy those markets. 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 round or elongated, maybe a back outlet. It might have a different tank handle, and things like that. So that was really our philosophy.

The other thing we did was focus on making everything have the best available technology in its class. 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 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.

Supply House Times: What went into the decision to make these new lines exclusive to wholesale-distribution?

CW: Well, we realized there’s really two sides of the market. There’s the retail side and the wholesale channel. And in order to really support our wholesale representative agencies and our wholesale partners, we needed to have a differentiation and a product offering that’s specifically for them. The other thing, like we’ve been talking about throughout the call, is obviously, the pro customer demands a higher specification, a higher warranty, a higher performance and a little bit deeper of a line. That’s why we felt it was important to develop what they wanted, and then give that to them on an exclusive basis where they didn’t have to worry about one of their customers going and finding the product somewhere else online, or something like that.

JP: I just want to add a little bit more to that because being in this business for as many years as I have, on the wholesale side, they feel like they never get a break. The big box is always the one that gets the favored nation. I hear so many times from wholesalers, “Give me something.” They really appreciate it when you’re loyal, and they give back. Whether it be a wholesaler or a contractor. The message I want Niagara send here is we want the trade to know we are loyal to the trade. We are going to be loyal to them. We’re going to support them unlike some of the other manufacturers who have bled into the big box stores and are putting programs in there now. A lot of manufacturers in our space are going into re-tail. We wanted to show them we’re really serious about the wholesale channel. And more importantly, the trade. We want to support the trade. Our way of doing so was to create this dedicated line of freshness, of technology, of expanded platforms, and give them that to show them we’re here. It’s tough to break in. I don’t want to just break in with a white, round-front toilet line. We want to break in as a really legitimate, long-term company that’s going to support the plumbing wholesale channel. 

Supply House Times: What is the No. 1 thing you want plumbing professionals to know about this new product launch?

JS: For us, it’s the wide variety of applications with ultimate performance that we’ve been able to put together. So, letting them know 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 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 it with multiple 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’ve got a little bit more water going, here. Oh, they’ve given me the stealth technology. Oh, they’ve got really nice designs. And they did an 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.”

Supply House Times: What new market or sales opportunities will this new product line bring to distributors?

JP: So obviously, Niagara has always been in the water conservation market, and specifically in multi-family renovation and hospitality. We still are going to remain very, very strong in that, even by widening the product lines, with our connection into architects, designers and engineers. But what this allows the wholesaler to do, is now we become an option where they can really sell an opening price point line, a mid-line Sabre, Shadow, and a light commercial. So we have, all of a sudden, gone from just a very niche, one-product specified, to an option they could really stock in their wholesale distribution centers.

And with all of the problems with supply right now, there are lots of opportunities that we’re going to have to possibly replace and establish ourselves as that second-tier line. We’re never going to be a first-tier line. We’ll never be a KOHLER or an American Standard, but certainly a good, viable, well-known, well-performing, second tier China line that delivers. We are prime for that. And we are set up nationally, with some of the finest rep agencies in the country that are supporting this within their networks. We belong to the buying groups. AD, IMARK, Commonwealth, the Service Roundtables. We have national programs in place. We have platinum distributors signed up through those buying groups.

Supply House Times: 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 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 take turns helping each other out to keep the project going. And from supply chain standpoint 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 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 we’ve made investments and commitments to make sure we can fulfill market needs. That’s something we really pride ourselves on because we think that’s the first cornerstone in providing world-class customer service.