Cheap Imported Cabinets

The last 10 years have seen a tsunami of products from China washing up on the US market shore. One product that is having a noticeable impact on the western states is cabinetry. This article is intended to give some insight into the impact this has had on the cabinetry market as well as alert consumers regarding this products value and deficiencies.

First let me mention why I feel qualified to address the subject. I have been in the remodeling and construction industry for nearly 40 years. Currently my wife and I own and operate a kitchen and bath remodeling firm in southern California. We were involved indirectly with the importation and directly with the installation of hundreds of sets of Chinese cabinets in the past. We purchased, with others, from several manufacturing sources and have experience with over a dozen types of product. I also have numerous friends and contacts in the remodeling and construction industry across the country, who have shared their experiences with me. Also my wife is Chinese.

First let’s talk about the channels of distribution and then get into the features of the product itself.

Most of the people importing Chinese cabinets to the states are Asian or Middleastern. This is only natural since they are from that part of the world and are accustomed to bringing eastern wares to the western market. Typically a sizeable company or consortium will contract with a manufacturing facility in China either directly or thru a proxy. They obtain pricing based upon a agreed number of units/container loads over a specified period of time. They receive the containers from the Long Beach or LA harbors and warehouse the product locally or ship it overland to be warehoused in some inexpensive logistically advantageous location.

The product is then disbursed thru a loose network consisting of builders, remodelers and retail outlets. These retail outlets are generally small showrooms in strip centers or flooring and carpet centers.

The product is hawked as quality for cheap. It is not uncommon to see ads in the newspaper offering complete 10×10 kitchens of solid oak including granite countertops for under $3,000.00.

This massive onslaught of inexpensive cabinets has taken considerable market share away from US manufacturers who catered to the new construction and low end remodeling markets. This has had only a marginal effect on manufacturers who cater to more upscale clients. However, as occurred in other areas, most notably the automobile industry, the competition from the east began with inexpensive low quality offerings but later adapted higher quality standards such as those employed by Lexus. You know the rest of the story. The same scenario is likely to play out in this market as well and astute manufacturers need to avoid the complacency that sent the US automobile industry into bankruptcy.

Let’s take a look at the product. In the interest of time we will only deal with the general characteristics of the product. This will suffice to make consumers aware of the products limitations.

First let it be said that the Chinese have done their homework to the extent that they know which buzzwords to use for American audiences. They have learned how to position their product so as to appear nearly the same as the competition yet for less than half the cost.

Let’s start with the wood itself. The most common types used for the doors, drawer fronts and face frames are oak, beech and birch. They are plentiful in that part of the world. The oak is sold as oak whereas what passes for maple or cherry is beech and birch stained to look the part.

Secondly, the wood is not kiln dried but dried using other quicker, cheaper methods. This is important because kiln drying stabilizes the wood which in turn prevents warping, cracking and checking.

The balance of the cabinet box is made of plywood but not of the quality typical of western manufacturers. If you were to saw cut the plywood sides you would see that the plywood panels have large voids inside, out of view that compromise the stability of the construction. One only can wonder about the adhesives used since the Chinese are notorious for using toxic materials, when cost effective, with little if any regard for consumer safety. Think candy and sheetrock.

The finish is not the oil based pre-catalyzed varnish that distinguishes the best quality for durability and appearance. It is also not dried with lights like a car finish but with other quicker cheaper methods. Also, because the methods and materials are changing rapidly, finishes that were  available at one time may be impossible to find or duplicate the following year.

Finally the hardware, while it is made to look like the good stuff, is made of cheap metal that allows for fatigue and breaking after a short period of time.

In conclusion, the market for these cabinets is currently the very low end for good reason but over time these products will continue to improve and perhaps in 10 years will be highly regarded. 

Good luck with your remodeling project, David Allen (Preferred Kitchen & Bath)