High-End Goes High-Tech

High-End Goes High-Tech

For many kitchen and bath dealers, the goal of technology in the showroom is to give clients a full-sense experience one that enlightens the eyes, the ears and the soul.

By John Filippelli

While these are valid considerations, designers are also finding that technology, when used well, can greatly enhance the kitchen and bath showroom experience. So, rather than debate over the value of a handshake versus the click of a mouse, some designers have simply decided to offer both. This allows clients to enjoy the best of both worlds so their customers can enjoy the benefits of personal, face-to-face interaction while being additionally educated and informed in a variety of high-tech ways from live cooking demonstrations and virtual tours to Power Point presentations and even video conferencing.

As explained by Mary Jo Camp, CKD, CBD, CID, v.p./marketing for the Rohnert Park, CA-based McPhails showroom:

"Technology is a great tool to disperse information. But, customers still want personal attention, and they get it from our associates."

In fact, the goal of many designers who integrate technology into their showroom is to give clients a full-sense experience that leaves them well informed, comfortable and confident which creates better personal relationships, as well.

Additionally, technology can give clients a better sense of where the project is going, helping to make them an integral part of the design process, according to Maureen Flemming, designer for the Millburn, NJ-based Sawhorse Designs, and secretary of the Technology Subcommittee for the Hackettstown, NJ-based National Kitchen & Bath Association. "Many clients have difficulty visualizing a three-dimensional space when it is represented in a two-dimensional medium.

Therefore, virtual reality has a very important place in our industry. [It] enables customers to better visualize how the finished space will ultimately look," she explains.

While clients certainly can benefit from a high-tech showroom, business-to-business relationships also reap the rewards of new technology, dealers agree. In fact, many have found that a high-tech showroom creates a more efficient movement of information and allows for more jobs to be processed, ultimately making designers and their clients more satisfied.

Educating clients
At the Purcell Murray showroom in San Francisco, CA, Tim Murray, president and co-owner, has given new meaning to the term higher education.

"We have a 50-person amphitheater that offers full audio-visual capabilities," he explains. In fact, Murray often has live celebrity chef demonstrations for clients to enjoy at the amphitheater. There are also opportunities to attend cooking classes directly on the premises.

Camp's firm has implemented similar technology. "We have installed flat-screen TVs in our demo kitchens so we can show close-ups of cooking demos or in-house cooking videos, or run the Food Channel for consumers to enhance their shopping experience. We also present Power Point presentations as part of our Culinary Arts Education Program," reports Camp. "This installation is giving us the opportunity to do so much more for our design community, our builders and the end-users right on the selling floor."

The Purcell Murray showroom, which is divided into several interactive areas, enables consumers to experience the product lineup first hand, according to Murray. "We offer an interactive kitchen," he notes, pointing out that every product in the kitchen is "live," enabling customers to "virtually test drive" the appliance before or even after they purchase it.

Technology is also used to educate clients about appliances at the Suwanee, GA-based HADCO showroom, a distributor of such major appliances as Thermador, Gaggenau and Bosch.

According to Barry Cohen, v.p./marketing, the showroom features a Care & Use Class, where consumers learn to care for their appliances and understand the various features, with screen technology and overhead cameras simplifying the educational process.

Flemming also suggests that technology such as virtual tours or Power Point presentations can be used to strengthen a client's ability to visualize potential designs.

Likewise, video conferencing is a terrific form of technology that can be used in the showroom to enable a spouse, architect or interior designer to be included who otherwise might not be able to be present for a design meeting.

Purcell Murray is contemplating similar technology, Murray says: "One of our plans is to 'Webcast' product training meetings and cooking schools that can be broadcast directly to a dealer's store [for a client to enjoy]."

Says Gary Callier, CKD, co-owner of the St. Louis, MO-based Callier & Thompson Kitchens and Baths, "We use an LCD projector to show kitchen and bath designs to the clients. When the design is projected on a large screen, it comes out almost full-size."

Callier adds that this allows clients to easily visualize what their new project will look like and also allows them to interact in "real time" with any design changes they would like to consider.

Furthermore, he says, "We typically will download off the vendors' Web site information and photos of any items for the project that we don't display in our showroom."

Taking technology one step further, Cohen says his company is currently evaluating "elevation" software to provide consumers and specifiers with a vision of what their outdoor kitchen may look like, as well.

As he explains, "They would simply [need to] provide minimal information and we could generate an elevation to enhance their appetite for this project. It may also allow them to develop a relationship with upscale builders and developers."

According to Murray, this is precisely what an effective, well-run, high-tech showroom should do help all showroom personnel develop relationships that make strengthen the business overall.
And, since it's difficult for dealers to display every product, technology can also serve as a conduit for the dealer and customer in their partnership.

Michelle Daenzer-Sapp, CKD, CBD, Allied ASID, of the Naples, FL-based Designer Outsource Services, also sees technology as a potential relationship builder. Despite not having a showroom, she notes: "In our office, we recently instituted a weekly job progress report [that can be] faxed or e-mailed for clients to read through so that they know what is going on at any given time in a project, including upcoming deadlines. This also provides information about who is working on what. This allows the client to comment and fax back any concerns."

She adds that Designer Outsource Services also has a "Work Room" section on its Web site that allows clients to view drawings in progress through an AutoCAD viewer program, creating a heightened sense of comfort and an "in-the-loop" feeling for all involved in a project.

Technology also is playing an increasing role in business-to-business-relationships, many dealers note. For instance, it can help dealers acquire and share up-to-date information regarding manufacturer lead times, new products and order tracking ultimately enhancing communication and making jobs flow more smoothly for
all involved.

As Flemming notes: "We are able to electronically transmit orders through the use of EDI (Electronic Digital Interface). This allows us more efficient order processing time and accuracies, which benefits dealers and vendors."

For Callier, the company's electronic catalog and quote and agreement/contract program allow the company to easily update products and prices as things change, all while enabling sales associates to work with the most current information.

Fleming also explains that her company is working on burning its portfolio onto a CD and letting it continuously play on the iCEBOX Flipscreen system displayed in the showroom, which offers cable TV, broadband Internet and e-mail access, CD/DVD and home monitoring capabilities for kitchens.

"I think it is an interesting and unique way to catch people's attention and showcase our company's work," she says, noting that this could be a benefit for customers or dealers.
Virtually alone

While there's plenty of talk about the future of virtual technology, the kitchen and bath industry may not quite be ready for a complete "virtual showroom."

"Virtual reality is only viable in the kitchen design business where you could project on flat screens or something that shows the different configurations of a kitchen," believes Murray.

In addition, Murray adds, "People like to touch the product, open and slam the doors and feel intimate with the product. [Therefore], I do not see showrooms becoming entirely virtual."
Flemming concurs: "I think that there is no substitute for personal contact. Designing and selling a high-end kitchen is about much more than the final product."

But, while Camp admits that she does not see showrooms ever becoming entirely virtual, she does feel that technology will increase her company's ability to show more products without increasing its physical space. "Savvy consumers want to see the 'latest and greatest,' and the addition of new products into a completely detailed showroom is a real challenge. Technology can help us expand our walls."

Camp add that the company is considering using a kiosk-type information center "to allow easy access to online specs and new products that are not yet on display in the showroom. We see this as an enhancement to our customer service effort."

She continues, "The combination of virtual reality and actual displays make [for] a very exciting shopping experience."

Flemming notes that, although kiosk technology can be valuable in certain applications, "I have
not seen it catch on as quickly as many manufacturers would like. I feel that kiosk technology does, in fact, have a place in retail showrooms; however, in my experience, the clients who seek higher-end kitchen design firms want more individualized customer and personal attention."

Indeed, most designers will agree that, even at its best, technology can never replace the personal, one-on-one interaction that clients crave. But, despite this, it can still allow customers to visualize their kitchen and experience this in a way they never would have been able
to before. KBDN