If interior doors could be changed as easily as the color of the walls, would consumers jump at that opportunity? The Home Depot and some other companies think the answer is yes. But should LBM dealers climb on that bandwagon too? Perhaps.

Several enterprising groups are harnessing digital imaging technology to eliminate virtually all the laborious field work from installing interior doors. By doing so, they believe they can take a product that usually gets replaced only by necessity and make it as much a fashion choice as applying a different shade of paint, buying a sofa or rolling out a new rug. They also see big opportunities in serving apartment buildings, hotels, and other commercial areas where the doors get dinged regularly.

What's Involved

Here's how it works: A technician uses a digital imaging device to scan a door frame, taking measurements accurate to 1/64th of an inch. A file with those measurements then is sent to a door shop, which uses a computer-controlled router to cut a slab to those precise measurements. No matter how wonky the original frame, the custom cut door will fit. The customer's old door is simply taken off its hinges and the new one is screwed in.

As a result, a complex installation process that used to require a carpenter skilled in shimming and shaving now can be done in minutes by a less-trained, lower-paid worker. Companies currently using the technology offer consumers multiple door styles to choose from, an extensive selection of hardware, and a painting option, with the possibility of upselling when the measurements are taken.

A number of companies are in the game:

  • Novella Installed Doors of Copiague, N.Y., launched its Custom Fit system at The Home Depot in October 2008 (for Home Depot, Novella operates under the name Whole House Interior Door Installations). It now can be found at more than 600 Home Depot locations in a dozen markets, including New York City, Long Island, Connecticut, Philadelphia, Delaware, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Austin, Texas, Oklahoma and all of California.
  • Jeld-Wen entered the market in November 2009, when it launched its Perfect Fit interior door replacement system. The system is available at 400 Home Depots in 20 markets, and there are plans to have another 300 Home Depots put the system in place by the end of 2010.
  • Interior Door &Closet Co., Torrance, Calif., uses digital imaging and computer-operated tools to measure and cut replacement doors at its locations in Southern California.
  • One Source Building Products, a Tulsa, Okla.-based LBM dealer, bought the imaging technology as an add-on for its millwork and door business. In Los Angeles and San Diego, Ken McBride is doing pretty much the same thing for his Renewal by Andersen business.

With the exception of Jeld-Wen, which uses a propriety digital imaging technique it co-developed, all of the companies mentioned above use the Jambscan imaging technology developed by HighMark Digital, Mountain View, Calif., and introduced in late 2007.

Roll-Out to Dealers Soon

The most enthusiastic of the early adopters is Novella president Joe Wathey. This former vice president for sales and marketing at Masonite is so excited by the technology that he and Vince Valentino, CEO of Novella, have put millions into it and are about to present the opportunity to LBM dealers.

One part of Novella's growth plan is to invite dealers to commit to whatever level of involvement they are comfortable with. It could be as little as allowing Novella to put literature or a kiosk in the store, with the lumberyard getting a percentage of any door sale it generates.

"Floor space is [dealers'] most valuable commodity, and we get them out of that," says Valentino. "I would expect them to get the same kind of margin as we do. We've got a little bit more homework to do, but we think that the viability of this program to the LBM [market] is tremendous."

Others already in or familiar with the concept don't share that enthusiasm, particularly if a dealer goes beyond being a drop-off point for Novella's brochures and actually takes on the responsibility of marketing, measuring, cutting, or installing the doors.

Conditions for Success

In Tulsa, One Source president Bryan Rinder views HighMark's digital technology as a good fit with its existing door line. "You'd have to have a strong remodeling market to make this work," he says. "You have to bring in that direct market too.

"This could be a target for lumberyards in the installed sales market," Rinder speculates. "There are lumberyards now that are putting in these nice fancy showrooms to draw in that traffic. In those cases, it would be great tie-in for them. The point is, it's a great system but it's specialized so it has to be the right lumberyard and the right fit."

Both critics and cheerleaders agree advertising is crucial. People understand the idea of replacing building materials when a tornado rips off shingles, a baseball shatters a window or little Johnny puts his foot through his bedroom door. But changing interior doors for fashion reasons is pretty much an unknown concept, one that companies like Novella know they have to introduce to consumers.

"We are turning [interior doors] into a 'want' project to decorate your home," Wathey says. He and his partners are working with an ad agency to do just that across various media platforms.

Is 20% Enough?

Profitability is another factor. At the Home Depot, both Jeld-Wen's Perfect Fit and Novella's Whole House programs charge a flat $199 installation fee for up to 15 doors. Wathey says his typical sale in the Home Depot program is about $2,500 for eight doors with a profit margin of about 20%.

That 20% doesn't excite Mike Butts, director of installed sales for Stock Building Supply in Lansing, Mich., and author of the New Dimensions column for ProSales). "I can see its applicability in older homes, but I don't see a lot of money in it for a lumber dealer," he says. "If you're not making 25% on an installed sales project, you might as well grow tomatoes."

Wathey and Valentino figure they can afford less because the measuring and computer-cutting technology greatly reduces the complexity of the project.

"With the typical market, we are able to hire lower-level contractors, and can operate at a much lower cost," says Valentino. "Our installers on a good day can do 40 doors." Through The Home Depot, Wathey says he is selling about 2,000 doors a month.

Says One Source's Rinder: "We are still early in the process and doing the marketing that it requires, but we are confident that this will be profitable."

Big Investment, Minimal Return

Renewal by Andersen owner McBride invested in HighMark's digital imaging technology about a year ago. After spending $250,000 on the measuring equipment, software, CNC routers and paint spray booths, he has been less than impressed with the amount of business his investment has generated.

Interior door replacement is "a greater perceived market than an actual one," says McBride. "It's not a stand-alone market and the most inherent drawback is the marketing cost.

"For an incremental business it's okay for me," McBride concludes. "Would I do again? Ah, I don't know."

In California, Dairl Johnson and his son Glenn have done well in interior door replacement using HighMark's technology, but scoff at the notion that their success can be replicated on a nationwide basis, particularly if, as Jeld-Wen now is doing, all the millwork occurs in one place.

"The biggest absurdity of all is distributing from a central location," says the elder Johnson. "It's like McDonald's deciding to make all their hamburgers in California." Novella also saw this problem from the start, and as a result has contracted for millwork and painting facilities in each of its 12 markets.

Some interviewed for this story saw this as a better fit for the replacement contractor market or companies that cater to apartment houses, where landlords are likely to seek a cheaper option for replacing damaged doors. In addition, they see a potential market in providing doors for hotels and commercial buildings, where landlords lose revenue every time an interior door fails.

"We believe that customers want these projects done and want the work done off their property," says Wathey. "That's why we are anxious to get it going on the commercial side, looking to retrofit older buildings."

The Environmental Protection Agency also might spur business. Its new Lead Renovation, Repair, Painting Rule, which took effect in April, requires contractors to follow extensive--and some say expensive--procedures when they work on homes where there's a possibility of disturbing lead paint. But that rule goes into affect when the amount of painted surface disturbed by the installation covers more than six square feet. Wathey already has a letter from the EPA that says in effect Novella's business wouldn't be subject to the rule because the switching out doors within existing jambs disturbs so little of the existing door frame.