What Makes New Products Showroom-Friendly

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Twenty years ago, if you went to a newsstand looking for a kitchen or bath magazine, you’d be hard pressed to find one. Two decades later, the choices are so plentiful, selecting only one is a daunting task.

There’s no doubt our industry has exploded. This change has been a boon for the independent showroom. The sheer volume of choice has made it both increasingly difficult and exciting for dealers, manufacturers and reps to consider new lines and commit to them.

The decision to add a new line depends on many factors, including fit within a showroom, showroom demographics, existing merchandising mix, distinctiveness of design, return on investment, support level, quality of the rep, customer service, fulfillment capabilities, ease of installation and comfort level among staff.

Every showroom faces the same dilemma. We only have a certain amount of real estate. We want to make sure we receive the greatest return on our investment by carrying lines that create value for our showroom, our staff and our customers. Showroom owners have the luxury to pick and choose from an almost endless array of products. We constantly evaluate the performance of manufacturers to weed out the ho-hum lines and look for newer alternatives.

Lines that are uniquely designed and that offer never-before-seen benefits and new technologies will generally receive positive responses. Products that differentiate themselves in the marketplace will also open doors. Unfortunately, many lines don’t meet these criteria. The “me too” lines face a more difficult challenge because their acceptance is generally contingent upon their ability to replace existing products.

A line needs to fit with a showroom’s demographic and merchandise mix. Dealers need to merchandise the showroom with products that complement one another. According to merchandising guru Marvin Traub, former CEO and chairman of Bloomingdales, retailers who want to build a successful retail business must “define [their] core customer and merchandise the store – its price points, assortments, presentations and sales promotion – for that target group.”

Faced with competition from the Internet, multi-branch retailers, national big boxes, direct distributors and others, the independent showroom can create a competitive advantage by carving a niche that caters to a specific clientele. Showrooms that promote luxury, high-end images need to be merchandised with limited distribution, luxury, high-end products.

Trying to be all things to all consumers sends a mixed message. Attempting to mix lower-priced, lesser-designed products with high-end, original designs will confuse the customer and more often than not can cannibalize margins.

“The first thing we look at when evaluating a new line is fit,” claims Jeff Burton, The Bath and Beyond, in San Francisco, CA. Burton also asks, will the line fill a void in the showroom?

Burton, like many other showroom owners, finds that not enough manufacturers or reps do sufficient homework prior to making their sales. “They need to be aware of the lines we already carry. They need to make a convincing argument that taking a new line will provide a return on investment. They need to know the lines we carry that are not performing. They need to make their case for taking up space in my showroom.”

Steve Berger, Modern Plumbing Supply, in New Milford, CT agrees. “Fit always is a prime consideration when evaluating a new line. I look at what the line will replace and [why it would] succeed.”

The potential for a new line’s success is tied to its pricing, distribution and service capabilities. “Perceived value is a huge factor in my decision-making process,” says Ken Goren, Hardware Designs, in Fairfield, NJ. “When evaluating new lines, I try to develop a sense of what it’s worth in the context of suggested pricing. I need to determine if my clientele will perceive the product as representing value, and if it will be priced at levels that make the product saleable.”

Doug Hermance, Westheimer Plumbing & Hardware, in Houston, TX agrees. “Every year, we do an analysis of our vendors, looking at sales, margins and gross profit. In addition, we measure growth, inventory turns, display turns and underperforming and obsolete inventory. This analysis helps us identify opportunities that will improve our business. The other major factor we consider is vision. We evaluate if a company simply makes a product or if it has a vision for the future.”
Burton always questions salability: “Will the line perform easily or its it going to be a challenge every step of the way, e.g. quality breakdowns, lack of quality control, missing parts, bad finishes, poor delivery and limited inventory?”

Goren adds, “I need to know shipping time, customer service practices, technical support, if the products are code approved, inventory levels and requirements and the name of the rep.”

Independent showrooms create competitive advantages by being able to feature limited distribution products. Lines that are available from a variety of other venues will be less attractive unless they are distinctively designed or have a name recognition quotient.

Manufacturer or rep support is critical to carving our territory within an independent showroom. “I look for companies that are willing to work with me in my showroom,” states C.J. Schnakenberg, Chicago Brass, Chicago, IL. “Manufacturers that have made the largest inroads understand that their job is to serve the showroom needs as opposed to selling me more product. They present a program with attractive margins. They make it easy to bring in displays. They provide outstanding customer service, offering co-op advertising, making a case for inventorying product and having a program for pull-through business.”

Getting a product in the door does not necessarily guarantee success. The first sale is made by the owner or principal buyer. The second sale needs to be made to the showroom staff.

The role of the manufacturer and rep is to make the sales staff feel comfortable with a new product, so the product training needs to clearly differentiate its benefits. Sales staff also needs to know the benefit they personally receive from recommending it. They need to feel comfortable with shipping times, and know what kind of cooperation they’ll receive when they have a question or problem.

The paradigm has changed. Several years ago when the independent channel responded to the competitive challenge presented by the large home center, the only questions we asked when evaluating new lines was who else is carrying the product and what is my pricing? Today, the success or failure depends on the value added that a line can bring to a showroom and its staff.

Victoria Findley is president and CEO of Miller’s Fine Decorative Hardware, Inc. in Juniper, FL. She serves as the Co-Chair of the DPHA Program Committee, where she is responsible for the program content of the Annual DPHA Conference. “DPH Perspectives” is published in Kitchen & Bath Design News under the terms of an exclusive industry alliance between KBDN and the Bethesda, MD-based DPHA.

Read past columns on DPH Perspectives by Victoria Findley, and send us your comments about this story and others by logging onto Kitchen & Bath Design News’ Website at www.kitchenbathdesign.com.