Today's kitchen and bath showrooms continue to grow in size, scope, product offerings and amenities. Yet even as dealers plan for growth and upgrade technologically, many are still struggling to update their displays as quickly as they'd like.
These are the findings of a recent Kitchen & Bath Design News survey, which polled more than 200 kitchen and bath dealers across the country and Canada about how they use their showrooms.
The average square footage of survey respondents' showrooms was 2,383.6 square feet'and nearly one third (30.8%) of those surveyed cited plans to expand their showroom sometime in the next 12 months (see Graph 1).
As one dealer explained it, "Expansion just makes sense right now. Business has been good, and I have no doubt that the market is going to stay strong, with interest rates still good and housing values that keep going up. So investing in the home is still one of the smartest things people can do. On top of that, the past two years have seen record numbers of first-time home buyers, and now that they're settled into their homes, they are looking to upgrade, particularly in the kitchen and bath."
Likewise, a significant portion of dealers surveyed expected to increase the number of kitchen and bath displays in their showroom during the course of 2005, with 35.5% saying they were planning to increase the number of kitchen displays and 27.3% saying they were planning to increase the number of bath displays (see Graph 2).
Nearly ten percent of those surveyed (9.6%) even said they were planning to open an additional location within the next 12 months to keep up with increased demand.
One of the most interesting findings of the survey related to kitchen and bath dealers' growing love affair with technology. In fact, some 61.4% of dealers surveyed reported increasingly using technology in their showroom (see Graph 3) in one form or another. This is particularly notable because, just a few years back, many small kitchen and bath dealerships faced criticism for their lack of techno savvy. Clearly, smart dealers have gotten with the program'whether that program is computer-aided design software, accounting software, or even computer kiosks for showroom browsers to use to further their education. And while the virtual showroom may still be a ways down the road, there's no question that today's showroom has gotten a technical makeover as well as an upgrade in design features and amenities offered.
But, while dealers scored high marks for showroom and technological growth, they still face some significant challenges, particularly with regard to staying current in terms of displays and products. Despite a strong remodeling market'or, perhaps because of it-many dealers reported some difficulties keeping up with new products and updating showroom displays in a timely manner, and this was frequently cited as an area they'd like to improve in.
As one dealer noted, "With all of the new products and specs changing so often, it's difficult to keep up. And, it's a catch 22'when business is best, you're too busy to update your displays the way you want to, so at the time you have the most people coming in your doors, your displays are most likely to get dated."
That's a legitimate concern, because when it comes to building the perfect success strategy, it's still all about the products. In fact, when asked to rate the factors with the greatest impact on their showroom's success, dealers voted "product lines carried" as the number one factor, with 60.4% citing this as key to their showroom's success (see Graph 4).
"It's competitive out there, so you have to know your products, and have all of the latest, cutting-edge stuff," stated a Northeast-based kitchen dealer. "Even when people don't want to buy [the newest, trendy] stuff, they want to see you have it. Your products are a reflection of you, your showroom's values and your commitment to quality."
The second most frequently cited factor was "creativity of displays," noted by 50.6% of respondents as essential to their showroom's success. As one dealer on the West Coast explained, "A product by itself is valuable only to those who know product names and what they do. How you display them is the way you bring them to life for people, and give people a chance to fall in love with them. It's not rocket science that a granite countertop with a fabulous stone backsplash in a gorgeous, fully accessorized kitchen is much more powerful than a couple of countertop material samples stuck to a board."
Not surprisingly, location also scored high among survey respondents as a key factor in a showroom's success, garnering 45.1% of dealers' votes. "It's the same as real estate," maintained an East Coast kitchen dealer. "You invest in location, and then you get the traffic. What you do with it is up to you, but at least you can get the people in [if you have a good location]."
Showroom layout was another key factor, cited by 43.3% of dealers, many of whom made it clear that layout is essential to the overall experience the consumer has in the showroom. Said a Midwest-based dealer, "There's a science to drawing people through a space, but it's also an emotional thing, what kind of experience they have when they're in your showroom. If it feels cluttered or unorganized, that can stress them out or make them feel rushed. You really need a layout that keeps them in your showroom, not just literally but mentally and emotionally."
Another 28% of dealers saw special services offered as a key factor in their success, while 14% cited advertising and promotional events, and 12.8% believed the presence of CKDs or CBDs on staff was key to their showroom's success. Signage (7.9%), live displays (4.9%) and reputation (4.3%) were also noted as key factors in creating a successful showroom.
In order to differentiate their showrooms, kitchen and bath dealers are increasingly looking to offer special amenities and services to make the showroom experience more enjoyable. Many of these are employed to help create a full-sensory experience, with a combination of music, lighting and scent working together to create the desired ambiance.
As one dealer explained, "You hear the phrase 'destination' a lot when you talk about showrooms. Showrooms today really have to provide a 'destination' feeling to keep customers' attention. People just don't ooh and aah as easily as they did 20 years ago. They have shorter attention spans and tend to be jaded, so you have to pull them in on multiple levels if you really want to hold their attention. We start with some funky sculpture in the reception area with this really cool backlighting, then they come into the showroom proper and there's streaming video, classical music, and all kinds of good smells from our cooking demonstrations. It makes it feel personal, not just like they're in another store. It's really important to make it personal."
It's no surprise, then, that nearly half (49.1%) of dealers surveyed incorporate music in their showrooms (see Graph 5). Said one West Coast dealer, "You can do so much with music and mood. Music can make someone feel stressed or rested. It can slow them down or make them feel happy. For a relatively cheap investment, you can help create and control the mood of the people who come in."
Specialty lighting was also a popular amenity, with 33.1% of dealers employing it to enhance their showrooms.
Live bath displays, with the beautiful, calming effect of water, were in evidence in 9.5% of dealers' showrooms, though many of those who do not yet feature these live displays say they plan to in the future. "There are some logistical concerns with these," explained a dealer in the Southwest. "There's more maintenance, and it's more expensive to set up. But I think that's the direction we're going in, because live displays have far more impact."
Cooking demos were also offered by 8.9% of the showrooms, though, again, this was something many dealers expected to do more of in the future. While more than a third of those surveyed (37.5%) neither display nor sell appliances, many more dealers reported that they felt having appliances in the showroom was essential-even if they were displayed but not sold (which 35.7% of those surveyed said they do). "It adds the complete kitchen feeling, having appliances," noted a Southeast dealer who doesn't sell appliances, but has them in his showroom. "It's better to have them live, which we're not doing yet, but that's on our list."
Added another dealer, "We debated [having live appliances]. Since we don't spec or sell appliances, why take up so much space with a product we're not selling? But we decided to do it anyway because a working kitchen is so multi-functional, and cooking demonstrations bring in people like flies to honey. After all, how can you sell kitchens and not have food?"
While creating a sensory experience is definitely a factor common to most successful showrooms, amenities may also focus on practical considerations, such as how to entertain small children while their parents look at kitchen products, or amuse bored spouses who were unwillingly dragged along on the shopping trip. Likewise, how do you educate those browsing the showroom without being intrusive or pushy?
To that end, some 29% of those surveyed reported including TV and/or video into their showroom.
"It's got so many uses," enthused a dealer from the Northeast. "You can make it part of an entertainment center display, so it's selling for you, but you can also put cartoons on for the kids to keep them occupied, or the football game on for the husbands while the wives shop, or set it to HGTV to help create a mood. Or, you can have your own video teaching people about remodeling, while touting your business and showing off your work. There's just no down side."
Indeed, entertaining kids has increasingly become a part of the savvy dealer's arsenal, with nearly a quarter (24.9%) of those surveyed saying they have a designated children's play area to keep kids occupied while their parents shop. While some regret the loss of space, others believe it's an essential part of keeping customers happy' and unharried-as they shop.
A key component of any showroom's success is its ability to keep a few steps ahead of-the competition. Of course, first it's essential to identify that competition, and sometimes that's not as easy as it looks.
If you think the big, bad home center is the biggest competitive threat on the kitchen and bath landscape, you might be surprised. In fact, when asked to identify their primary competition, more than three quarters (75.1%) said it came from other kitchen and bath dealerships (see Graph 6).
By contrast, only a little more than a quarter (26.2%) saw home centers as a primary source of competition. Additionally, 1.8% cited builders, and 1.2% named cabinet shops as competitors. Less than 1% (0.6%) of respondents said their primary source of competition came from contractors, with another 0.6% saying it came from "other sources."
Interestingly, not a single dealer cited the Internet or e-retailers as a primary source of competition. As one dealer explained, "As kitchen and bath remodeling becomes increasingly about the experience, home centers and online merchants are at more of a disadvantage. An experience, by definition, is personal. And how personal can it be on a computer, or in giant aisles where the products are stacked up 20 feet high?"
Of course part of staying competitive is staying fresh, with updated displays that reflect the latest products and trends. Unfortunately, this is one area where many dealers felt they fell short, with nearly half (45.2%) of those surveyed saying they updated displays only every two years, and another 16.9% saying they freshened up their showroom every two years or less (see Graph 7).
Another 24.1% of respondents said they updated some aspect of their showrooms annually, while 10.8% said they updated their showroom every six months. A mere 3% said they updated it every three months.
"You can get carried away with it, chasing every trend," noted a dealer who is fond of frequently updating her showroom, "sometimes to the point where I come to work and feel like I don't recognize the place." However, she believes that "changing out little things, accessories, maybe one striking piece'that keeps the showroom fresh. And customers really like that."
In the end, though, when asked what they felt most differentiated their showroom from the competition, most dealers felt it often comes down to intangibles. "You can't put 'value' on a display, yet people know it when they come into your showroom and find it," said another dealer whose business has been through four generations. "Mostly, it's about ensuring they have a good experience shopping with you. What you do will fluctuate, because each customer is different, their needs are different. But if you create dreams for a living, you have to give them a dream-worthy experience if you want to be truly successful. There are a million ways to make people happy, and if you find one that works, you'll be in business for a long, long time."