The Showroom’s Key Role in Creating the Market

We recently did a name brand recognition experiment in our showroom. It is an exercise we entertain every so often to teach our staff a valuable lesson about the kitchen and bath decorative plumbing industry. Over the period of a week, we asked every person who entered the showroom if they were familiar with the name Baldwin, a major manufacturer of door hardware.

Most of the customers we spoke with associated the name Baldwin with pianos. Other responses included the actors (Alec and William, specifically) and a town on Long Island in New York named Baldwin. Less than 1% of our customers – including designers, architects, builders/contractors, etc. – referenced the hardware company. I speculate that those who did most likely saw the Baldwin display in our showroom before they offered a response.

We also asked customers to identify the best plumbing product manufacturers that they were aware of. Surprisingly, with the exception of Kohler, there was not a single product manufacturer in the decorative plumbing and hardware industry that had brand-name recognition among our clients.

The point of our brand name exercises is to reinforce to our staff that our showroom is what makes the market.

The fact is, less than 10% of customers entering showrooms ask for a product by name. Certainly, customers come in with pictures from magazines and say “I want this.” But they don’t come in and say, “I want this faucet because it’s made by Company Y.”

Alternatively, customers may have been to a friend’s house and seen a product that they would like to have. Rarely, however, do they mention the product by name. Instead, they say “I saw this wonderful tub at my friend Sally Singer’s house. She said she purchased it here.” And we then look it up and identify the brand.

Even in the case of Kohler, which has had great success in branding its name, and spent large sums of money to promote that recognition, there’s not a showroom worth its salt that can’t easily convince a customer who requests a Kohler product to choose another brand the customer has never heard of.

All of this surveying of customers suggests that it’s not manufacturers driving this market, but brick and mortar showrooms. Yet sadly, the key role these showrooms play is too often overlooked.

Customer Categories

Most decorative plumbing and hardware showrooms have seven customer categories that they deal with: architects, designers, builders/general contractors, plumbing contractors, installers/locksmiths (if you sell door hardware), homeowners and repeat customers

Repeat customers are a separate category because they are by far the most valuable asset a kitchen and bath showroom can have. Repeat business is why we are in business. Without it, a showroom has little chance to survive.

Showrooms generate repeat business by treating customers the right way, providing superior service not just in word, but in deed, and having a virtual wonderland of product offerings that lets the imagination run wild. If you treat customers right, they return – and refer friends and co-workers. Conversely, if you don’t treat them right or take control of problems, they tell the world.

When repeat customers return to the showroom, they don’t come back asking for a specific product. They return because of the way they were treated and the way their project was handled.

Manufacturers attempting to achieve brand-name recognition have an almost insurmountable battle on their hands because most customers really don’t know what they want when they enter a showroom. That doesn’t mean manufacturers stop advertising to the design community – but they should want and expect a better return on investment. Better returns are achieved by partnering with the showrooms that have superior knowledge of local market conditions and advertising mediums that generate the best results.

How many manufacturers have gone to their showrooms and offered to partner with them on a media campaign? How many manufacturers place regional ads in consumer-oriented publications that let consumers know where they can purchase their products? The answer is few. Yes, there are co-op advertising dollars available from a number of manufacturers, but generally they are hard to come by and not sufficient to make any significant impact.

There are manufacturers that have deluded themselves into believing that they have established brand recognition with the design community. Most designers are not familiar with plumbing and/or door hardware. They don’t, as a rule, read the same trade publications, and most don’t attend the Kitchen & Bath Industry Show (K/BIS).

Manufacturers and their reps need to know why most designers spec a product or product line. They don’t do it because manufacturers have created the market that has caused designers to fall in love with their products. Designers become familiar with products because of the education they receive from the independent showroom. They will spec a product because they used it on their last project and it was relatively easy to install. They may spec a product because there is a financial incentive to do so. They may become familiar with certain brands because they have established relationships with showrooms that have directed them to specific product lines. They may even spec a product simply because they were unaware of alternatives.

Education Process

The education process starts with brick and mortar stores whose employees, in turn, educate the consumer. The showroom act as a walk-in, hands-on catalogue where customers can actually see, feel and experience a vast array of unique products.

Many showrooms offer working displays, and if they don’t, they should consider doing so. Showrooms can explain why certain products are superior to others, while at the same time not demean a single product line. However, showrooms can only educate their customer base if they have a well educated and trained sales staff.

I recognize that manufacturers and reps may challenge this assessment. They will assert that, in many showrooms, sales professionals are little more than order takers. In some cases, that assessment is accurate. However, those showrooms still make the market because 90% of customers honestly don’t know what they want and do not request specific products by name. So even the least sophisticated showroom creates the market, simply by being there.

Because most customers don’t have an inkling of what they really want or need when they enter a showroom, sales professionals can quickly establish themselves as trusted advisors. Building relationships requires getting to know each customer. They ask questions that will help them better understand clients’ wants, needs and desires. Manufacturers don’t know the clients’ personalities, backgrounds or desires in the same way. By contrast, those of us who work in the showroom establish relationships so we can direct our customers to the products that best serve their needs.

Every customer wants to be treated as special. They want to know that the showroom will support them throughout the project. Kitchen and bath showrooms distinguish themselves and create the market by supporting customers technically, by staging the sequencing of construction and by offering a level of service and knowledge base that is unavailable from any other source.

The services that brick and mortar showrooms offer to differentiate themselves are not available from the Internet or from direct buying organizations. The Internet does not talk back to its customers while they shop online. Direct-buying clubs will not send a plumber to fix a problem caused by poor installation and pick up the tab.

The Internet is not going away, and will become an increasingly important resource for the customer and the showroom. It is being used for research. And, every showroom in the country has been victimized by customers who use the showroom to become educated and then make their purchases through the Internet, direct-buying club or other locales where the price of the product is “cheaper.” Showrooms need to develop strategies to protect themselves from this situation.

Our showroom and others around the country have developed proprietary systems for labeling products. We limit the use of manufacturer displays that make it easy for customers to identify product names and numbers on the Internet or through buying clubs.

Customers will continue to come to the showroom to be educated in the hope of finding the same product cheaper on the Web or through a direct-buying organization. They need to be taught the value added that a showroom provides.

Showrooms and manufacturers both need to understand the reality of today’s marketplace. Without brick and mortar showrooms, purchasing on the Internet and through direct-selling establishments would be greatly reduced because customers would have no way to see, feel, touch and experience products that they are considering for purchase. Manufacturers that do not realize where their bread is truly buttered will lose out in the long run, especially if they do not realize that the brick and mortar showroom makes the market.

Kenneth S. Goren is president and co-owner of the Fairfield, NJ-based Hardware Designs, Inc., which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Goren also serves as president of the Forte Buying Group, which represents more than 170 independent showrooms.

“DPH Perspectives” is published in Kitchen & Bath Design News under the terms of an exclusive industry alliance between KBDN and the Bethesda, MD-based Decorative Plumbing & Hardware Association (DPHA).

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