The Educated Consumer is Good for Business

Is the educated consumer the showroom's best customer? The answer is a resounding yes.

That perspective is na've. It is not a question of whether or not showrooms should be in the business of educating their customers. If we don't provide our customers with the information they need for successful project completion, we won't survive long in the marketplace.

Few independent showrooms have the resources to compete with multi-branch retailers and national home centers. However, we can knock our competitor's socks off by providing consumers with information and products that they cannot obtain from any other source.
There is a need for balance. Deter-mining that balance begins by understanding the needs of different market segments.

Segmenting the Market
Most consumers who enter showrooms can be broadly categorized as professional customers (designers, architects and builders), homeowners and researchers. Researchers are those customers who shop a showroom with the sole purpose of obtaining product numbers and pricing information so that they can look for the cheapest price.

"The price hunters represent a challenge and an opportunity," claims Barry Goldberg of Union Hardware, in Bethesda, MD. "We learned a valuable lesson from one of our competitors who would send his customers to our showroom to look for different products and then promise to sell whatever they saw in our showroom for less. We had to decide to either ignore them or make an investment to try to make the sale. We knew that the first option eliminated any possibility of a sale."

Goldberg continues, "We concluded to make the investment, but to invest carefully by not spending too much time with those who were not interested in discussing anything other than price or only wanted to know style types and product numbers. In many cases, we were able to convert [them] by demonstrating a complete understanding of the customer's project."

The researcher often comes in with a price-first mentality. However, price often gets placed on the back burner when sales professionals can use their superior knowledge to gain a competitive advantage. Demonstrating an understanding of a project may be as simple as asking customers if they plan to slope the ceiling for a steam unit or to relate the intricacies of integrating components in a complex shower system.

Educating the Consumer
Because of the ease of access to information, particularly on the Internet, many customers are self-educating themselves before they get to the showroom. Much of the information is wrong, partially incorrect or not applicable to their particular situation. When that occurs, the showroom is in a position to capitalize and create lasting relationships.

Carter Hardware in Beverly Hills, CA, notes, "Our approach to customer education is to provide information that helps our clients achieve their goals. We become valued partners by perceiving situations that customers rarely think about until it is too late."

Bill Fiddler of Fiddler's, in Honolulu, HI, takes a similar approach to consumer education. He uses luxury car manufacturers as a benchmark.

"I have profited from the marketing strategies employed by BMW," he states. "While other car makers tout glamour and appearance, BMW focuses on data and performance information."

BMW claims that it produces premium cars, not luxury cars. The message BMW offers stresses engineering as opposed to aesthetics.

The lesson that BMW and other luxury car makers offer to decorative plumbing and hardware showrooms is that function and performance are equally important as or even more important than form. There are spectacular showrooms with jaw-dropping vignettes. But, they don't necessarily relate how products function and why they are technologically superior. The customer wants pretty; that is why they are in the showroom in the first place. The most successful sales professionals and showrooms focus on technical and performance characteristics.

Union Hardware easily illustrates the material difference in faucetry with cutaway displays. It is not difficult to appreciate the difference between faucets made of solid brass and those with plastic parts.

Customers can better appreciate performance capabilities when vignettes in the showroom work. The ability to relate technical performance differences distinguishes the luxury market from the commodity market and can help make the professional showroom the destination of choice for decorative plumbing and hardware products.

Fiddler agrees. "Our competitive advantage is created when we explain the reasons thermostatic valves are superior and describe flow rate capabilities, anti-scald features and precise temperature controls. Relating performance differences of the products in our showrooms versus those found in a home center creates an emotional attraction that becomes more important than how a product looks or the price at which it is sold. This education is vital to showroom success, and it involves explaining to customers the unique benefits that only decorative products can offer."

What the Pros Know
The education of the professional community is not substantially different than the processes used to build relationships with homeowners. Interior designers, architects, homebuilders and other professionals who specify and purchase decorative plumbing and hardware products also need to understand functionality and form.

Showrooms can make themselves invaluable resources to the professional community by raising designers' consciousness and relating a level of expertise that they cannot find elsewhere.

Designers understand the cost when products are delivered late. They understand the expense of incomplete orders. They appreciate when the showroom can develop solutions and recommend alternatives that make their clients smile.

We create value for our designer clients at the Bath and Beyond by helping them match form with function. When we receive a designer's plan or spec, we acknowledge the design concept and look for avenues to enhance performance and serviceability. We welcome opportunities to interview customers with their designers to gain an appreciation for the performance characteristics that they want. When we do, we can value engineer projects that help clients and enhance the image of the designer.

Despite the best intentions, there are times that certain customers and designers just don't get it. When those situations arise, it usually is in the best interests of the showroom to fire the client.

That is exactly what Bill Fiddler did with a large design builder. "Although the client represented a considerable piece of business, we found that the company's inconsistent practices took too much of our time and energy to continue an effective relationship."
Approximately a year after parting ways, the client returned because he could not find the same level of quality and service that Fiddler's provided. He realized that the professional showroom's expertise added to his bottom line.

Showrooms are advised to meet frequently with members of the design community through office visits, new product introductions or seminar programs. Developing case histories of projects that demonstrate a showroom's track record of enhancing a project's profitability can expand market share. Leveraging a showroom's superior knowledge to educate customers will bode well as the decorative market continues to expand and new players enter the field.

At the Decorative Plumbing & Hardware Annual Meeting held in October, John Wills, group president of Plumbing Products for Masco, and Laurie Breininger, v.p. and general manager of Kitchen and Bath Products-Americas for American Standard, reported that sales of decorative plumbing products doubled in the last year, and that trend is expected to continue.
As the commodity producers expand offerings into the decorative arena, the consumer will be exposed to more information, have a better understanding of the aesthetic and look at the showroom more often. The window of opportunity is open, especially for showrooms that engage consumers with superior knowledge and provide a level of service that makes them an invaluable resource.

Jeff Burton is the owner of the Bath & Beyond, a major San Francisco, CA-based decorative plumbing and hardware showroom that was honored with the 2003 DPHA Showroom of the Year Award. Burton served as the first president of the Decorative Plumbing & Hardware Association (DPHA) and was the first DPH showroom owner to serve as president of the National Kitchen & Bath Association.