Best in Show

Every time a potential client walks through your doors, your showroom is on a job interview. And, as with any potential employer, your prospect is going to have a lot of questions and spend a lot of time just looking and getting a feel for its potential employee, your firm.

Who wouldn’t want to have the best on display when it could mean making a pivotal and profitable kitchen or bath sale? Often, the only view of your firm that potential clients will ever get to see is the one that greets them when they walk in the door of the showroom. That’s why first impressions aren’t just important, they’re critical to your success.

Designs may vary, and tastes and technology may change and evolve, but one thing remains constant: The showroom is a firm’s best sales and marketing tool. Whether the firm is a design business, design-build or a straight materials supplier/fabricator, three things are key: the need to keep current on interactive technology to bring homeowners into their project while they’re in the showroom; space to show a variety of products in side-by-side comparisons, and unique elements that can sell a client on the firm’s style.

This month, KBDN highlights some innovative showrooms and looks at the design strategies they employ to keep clients coming back for more.

There’s No Place Like Home

Selection centers or design hubs have long been a showroom standard, allowing potential clients to make back-to-back product comparisons. Some designers have shunned this approach, citing its relative coldness and seeking to incorporate different products into fully designed rooms.

IMAGINE Your Home by Orren Pickell seeks to do just that, say Tom Hackett and Cathy Schager, IMAGINE’s managers.

The rooms in the Northfield, IL showroom “are designed to assist our clients in visualizing themselves already living in their new space,” says Hackett.

However, many dealers believe that at some point, you can’t get around having to display a lot of product in a showroom, even if it means sacrificing atmosphere for selection. Whether it’s a result of lack of space or other factors, back-to-back product displays just make sense for some firms. However, designers say there are better and worse ways to do this.

Cheryl Hamilton-Gray, CKD, who has designed 20 showrooms both nationally and internationally for kitchen, bath and surfaces-related industries, says the best approach differs depending upon what the firm chooses to focus on.

“Appliance showrooms are more apt to feature straight product displays, but a cabinetry showroom will show the product in the context of a vignette or fully designed room. A tile or stone showroom would show product in both contexts,” she says.

Wilkinson Supply, which operates three showrooms in Raleigh, Durham and Carrboro, NC, opened the doors of its newest showroom, Salon Blue Ridge, in Flat Rock, in January. According to Audrey Wilkinson, outside sales manager, the showroom takes a different approach to the standard selection center, combining a little of all of Hamilton-Gray’s ideas.

“In the tile showroom, for example, all of the tile is on a hanging display system we created because we wanted to display the tile in the same way designers display fashion,” she says. “All of our appliances are on rolling carts, so we have the ability to roll any appliance up to the electrical, gas or water hook-up and turn on the appliance.”

This versatility, Wilkinson says, is important because it allows clients to fully experience a product’s range and enables the client to make an informed, and often quicker, buying decision.

Jayne Wolf, of DreamMaker Bath & Kitchen of Rockford, MI, describes a “color” room in the firm’s showroom, where many samples of products are stored.

“There’s a spectacular quartersawn oak island with an unusual granite top. Clients can sit at the island to look over product catalogues or have all of their products placed on the island to see how they might go together,” she says. “One finds many door styles and glazes, countertop choices and samples of wood flooring in this room.”

Going Live

If there’s one thing kitchen and bath dealers want consumers to experience, it’s the rather unspecific feeling of being at home. While the specifics of how to create that feeling may be open to interpretation, there are a few different methods dealers cite as being consistently effective.

Perhaps the most common of these is the use of “live” displays, vignettes and other areas of the showroom where potential clients can interact as much as possible with whatever appliance, surface, fixture, cabinet or cabinet component they’re considering.

The common consensus among designers and showroom staff is that, the more interactivity the clients can have with these “live” displays, the more likely they are to get a good sense of what they’re buying.

At Salon Blue Ridge, Wilkinson notes that all displays are working. “All of the appliances have the ability to be ‘live.’ In the plumbing showroom, we show working showerheads and kitchen faucets, a working THG waterfall tub filler, a working BainUltra bath with chromatherapy and a Jaclo Rain Bar. Our clients just love it.”

She adds that part of the firm’s philosophy is to educate the client on all of the products the firm carries. Having fixtures and appliances that work in real time does this more effectively than words alone.

David Perkins, marketing manager for Bakersfield, CA-based Urner’s, says the company recently remodeled its “Showcase Kitchens” to widen the capacity for client interaction.

“We wanted to more effectively showcase four of our major appliance vendors – GE Monogram, Dacor, Viking and Thermador – in modern, creatively designed kitchen vignettes that help capture the homeowner’s imagination and emotional desire for a new, pro-style kitchen of their own,” says Perkins.

He reports that “Showcase Kitchens” has evolved into more than the firm first envisioned, a part of the greater outside community.

Interactivity is two-fold: First, it allows those who come into the showroom to better understand the way a countertop feels, or how induction cooktops work, or how quiet a new garbage disposal can really be. Second, it gives the firm a way to bring the greater community into the showroom by creating a space in which to congregate.

Urner’s has taken its remodeled kitchens and created a marketing tool, a community connection and, ultimately, greater brand recognition by hosting a variety of events including cooking classes and manufacturer demonstrations.

“We’ve hosted cooking classes by the local Multiple Sclerosis Society chapter, and offered up the facilities for a training class presented by the Kern County fire department,” says Perkins. Other events have been created to draw attention to the showroom, including Urner’s Wine Tasting event and a California Building Industry Association mixer.

“Most recently, we hosted a successful ‘Iron Chef’-type cook-off in partnership with The Bakersfield Californian newspaper, in which nine finalists competed in front of over 150 spectators for prizes provided by GE Appliances,” Perkins adds.

Wolf reports that her showroom hosted a local Tasters Guild event, where a Tasters Guild chef prepared summer “deck foods.” The firm also hosted an event to celebrate its first anniversary.

Smaller showrooms, too, have found ways to utilize their space to build a greater community presence. For example, Gulio Giometti’s Catalina Kitchen Studio, in Orland Park, IL, doesn’t have the kind of space that can facilitate gallery-type seating for larger events, but he reports, “We’ve been invited by local colleges to host small seminars, where kitchen design is explained from a practical standpoint.”

Salon Blue Ridge’s events have taken the place of traditional print advertising, says Wilkinson.

“We’ve gained most of our business by word of mouth,” she says, due in part to events planned to get people into the Salon.

“In April, we hosted our first annual architect and designer party. We invited 50 to 60 architects and designers into the Salon to meet our staff and enjoy food prepared by chef Keith Jones, who is known as ‘The Champagne Chef’ from Colorado,” she says.

The firm has also used its space to support local causes. “In May, we had over 300 people from the surrounding community purchase tickets to benefit the Free Clinics of Hendersonville, NC, a clinic that provides free health care and services to low-income, uninsured residents. Two local chefs, Mark Starr and Michael Atkinson, donated their time, and together, the Free Clinics made over $50,000 with our help.”

Technology's Influence

Technology’s mission is to improve the lives of its users by making tasks easier. Let’s face it – if you’re resistant to that technology, you’re missing out. If you don’t have a Web site or an e-mail address, chances are you’re losing jobs to a firm that does. Now that Google has become a verb, potential clients are fully looking to Google you and see what kind of design chops you have. If your firm doesn’t pop up in the search engine, somebody else’s will.

But the technological advances that are having the greatest impact in the industry are taking hold inside the showrooms themselves.

“Technology has been greatly influential – audio/visual equipment being incorporated as a sales tool now necessitates the planning of such areas of use during the design process,” reports Hamilton-Gray on the considerations designers are taking when including space for technological advancements.

Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) monitors are common now, and some firms are using them to display project designs and layouts in 3D while reviewing plans with clients. Others have projects running on a continuous reel to display previously completed jobs to those visiting the showroom.

As “smart” technology finds its way into the home so, too, does it find its way into showrooms, where such technology can both dazzle clients with its possibilities and make running certain systems within the showroom effortless.

The IMAGINE showroom has installed “Total Home Technology” solutions by Crestron, with components such as touch panels and networking capabilities.

“The system controls all of the lighting, audio/visual equipment and our security system, so our showroom is like a ‘smart’ home,” says Hackett.

For those who like to be able to turn on their home lights, set the entertainment center to play a little Mozart and turn on their bar blender from their office across town, there is no shortage of companies developing this kind of smart technology.

“Our entire showroom is fully automated using a product called Life/ware,” reports Wilkinson. “We can control the audio, climate and lighting through four different Microsoft Windows media centers located throughout the showroom.”

Life/ware enables its users to control systems remotely as well, from across the showroom, or from off-site locations via computers that are programmed to do so.

Wilkinson considers technology important not just in the way the products and designs are displayed, but also in the products themselves. The Salon kitchen offers a TurboChef speedcook oven that is large enough to hold a 26-pound turkey and, using its Airspeed technology, can cook that turkey in about an hour and a half.

Wilkinson believes it’s important to stay current, and notes that Salon Blue Ridge carries products like Liebherr fully-integrated refrigerators, Fisher & Paykel Dishwasher Drawers, handmade, custom Molteni ranges and the Rain Sky by Dornbracht.

“We also have high-tech appliances such as a TMIO oven, which can communicate with the owner by e-mail or phone,” she adds.

Technology that helps make life easier also has much simpler results, proving that design advancements don’t have to be all bells, whistles and microprocessors to be innovative. Wolf believes that some of the best innovations that have made life better have been in the area of accessible design.

DreamMaker Bath & Kitchen of Rockford has a number of accessible areas, including the fully ADA-compliant public bathroom on the first floor of the showroom.

“It features an everyday man’s style with flush-door hickory vanity, curved laminate countertop, white beadboard walls and laminate flooring,” she says. “There is a low-threshold fiberglass shower, which our seniors love, and an attractive grab bar display.”

The decorative grab bar might not seem like much in the way of a technological advancement – after all, it can’t be programmed or receive e-mail from the toaster oven. But it is one very good example of the way competent and compassionate design has made life easier and more beautiful for those with disabilities, and of the perceptive designers who recognized that need and gave it a stylish solution.

Other Room Displays

Then, there’s the elusive other category: home to the vast number of spaces kitchen and bath dealers and designers can create that don’t include the kitchen and bath. For kitchen and bath showrooms, other rooms – including closet systems, home entertainment and media centers, home offices, mudrooms, laundry rooms and master bath suites, among others – can mean expanded profit centers.

“Other” room sales, however, behave in a way alien to kitchen and bath sales because the client rarely comes in planning to do these spaces. When people walk into a kitchen and bath showroom, they generally know what they want remodeled. But when they’re done looking at baths and they see that gorgeous entertainment center with the leather couches and the custom cabinetry, anything is possible.

At some point, most kitchen designers have worked on an adjacent laundry room that got out of control and turned into a full-on mudroom addition. The trust that is established with one successful project paves the way for further projects. For this reason, showrooms should not be shy in promoting their “other” strengths.

“The vast majority of ‘other’ rooms are by-products of major renovations – whole house or whole floors of a home,” that his firm has been involved in, says Giometti.

When asked about the percentage of space they dedicated to “other” room designs in relation to their bread-and-butter kitchen and bath displays, dealers’ answers varied widely.

“We have a 50-50 mix of kitchen and bath displays and ‘other’ rooms,” report the managers at IMAGINE. IMAGINE has rooms for a complete home, such as a library, children’s room, foyer, mudroom and a custom bar with repurposed French wood.

Size does not necessarily limit a showroom in this respect, either.

“We’ve created furniture pieces that address some ‘other’ applications, such as lockers, closets, dressers, armoires and vanities,” says Giometti, whose showroom is located within a multi-use commercial building.

At Salon Blue Ridge’s Salon, the area one first sees when entering the showroom has four separate and distinct areas, notes Wilkinson, including a living area with a Rumsford fireplace and an HD television and café area with seating for 12.

These “other” designs serve as an informal welcome mat to those entering the showroom.

“The client is not immediately consumed with displays filling every spare space,” says Wilkinson. “We want to invite them to join our showroom family – have a cup of coffee and become acquainted with the showroom consultant with whom they’ll be working.”

It’s this first step, she says, that begins to establish a trusting relationship with clients, making them feel more at home.
Because, in the end, feeling at home is what good showroom design is all about.