Plumb Excellent

Plumb Excellent

Plumbing and hardware showrooms are employing innovative new strategies to keep ahead of a rapidly changing market.

By Daina Darzin

"The issues have continued to change," declares Julie Koch, owner of Elegant Additions, in Houston, TX, and 2001 chairman of the National Kitchen and Bath's Decorative Plumbing and Hardware Council. "There's been [talk] that the independent showroom is a thing of the past. I don't think it is. But things have to change. We can't do business the way we did 20 years ago."

A new clientele
A proliferation of home decorating oriented Web sites, cable TV shows and magazines have created a more knowledgeable and opinionated consumer, and this has had an impact on how plumbing and hardware showrooms do business. 

"Our customers are noticing [style trends]," says Faye Norton, president of Designer Hardware by Faye, in Oklahoma City, OK. "To stay on top of it, we have to really stay abreast of what's out there." She adds that high-end trends filter down to the mass market, but by that time, the upscale customer is onto something new. "They don't want what everyone else has," she says. 

But, even mid-level customers are educating themselves about more upscale products, she adds. "They can tell the difference between [a mid-level and high-end faucet], and they're willing to pay for quality," says Norton. 

In addition to the new consumer's higher product awareness, Koch sees today's consumers as "busier, more connected. They have different priorities for their time. Most of us are overworked, so we buy into 'what can I do to make myself feel better?' I see [the independent plumbing showroom] really catering to those consumer needs to be more of a service provider."

Kennell, who recently sold her business due to health reasons, saw a change of clientele over the last few years, from primarily plumbers to mainly builders and end users. Usually, she notes, builders would send in their clients to pick out their plumbing, sometimes accompanied by the project's designer. 
Despite a more educated consumer, many independent showroom owners cite targeting industry professionals designers, architects, builders as the way to keep one's business on track. 

"We cater strictly to the design trade and their end users," says Koch. "They know we have the track record and the knowledge base. They know we'll call them up and say, 'you know, we have a real problem with this product, it's been discontinued, but here's what we recommend to make it just as good.' We can offer that to them, which is different than what a big retailer can do. They may have beautiful products, but they don't have the time [to spend with a professional]. Our customer is used to going to one place and having someone care for them."

"We've been in existence for over 20 years," says Debbie Miller, president of Miller's Fine Decorative Hardware, in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. "What makes us different is, our customers are family. [People] don't like being rushed, or dealing with people who aren't educated [about the products they're selling]. I have no turnover in my staff, and there is never a time when people can't walk in and see the same [salespeople] and know they're dealing with 200 years of knowledge when you put us together. We want to make this a wonderful experience, not a difficult choice."

Not boxed in
The advent of upscale home centers such as EXPO Design Centers suggest to some that the independent plumbing showroom is an endangered species an idea that showroom owners interviewed by K&BDN vigorously deny. 

"Our segment of the industry isn't going anywhere," declares Koch. She believes independents need to separate themselves from Internet sources and box stores through superior service and efficient use of time and money. "And I'm not talking cheapest price," she elaborates. Rather, the independent plumbing or hardware showroom needs to capitalize on lifestyle trends such as wellness, and become part of consumers' construction team, along with the designer and builder. 

Kennell, who was named as decorative plumbing and hardware specialist for Houston, TX-based Bath and Kitchen Buying Group, agrees and believes that buying groups will be the key to survival for independent plumbing and hardware showrooms.

"Members [of buying groups] should see increased rebates, increased percentages and have quicker problem resolutions," she notes, adding, "they should also be able to have custom products made for them similar to 'big box' or chain stores."

Adding, "Vendors will see more product loyalty and timely payments of bills. That's a big benefit."
Tony Vanario, president of Richmond Ceramic Tile Distributors, Inc., in Staten Island, NY, believes EXPOs are a plus to his business. "We're happy to see [them]," he insists. "It's almost like a huge university has opened up to bring awareness of the product to another level. That makes [those potential customers] available to us. Once they get to that level, they're not necessarily buying, they're researching specifics. Then they'll find our showroom."

"I have a hard time finding [EXPOs] are good for my business, but I'm not one to run my business on scare tactics," says Norton. "I just do what I need to and ignore [the competition]."

Miller, who has three EXPOs in her immediate area, says the home centers have "made me aware of who I am, and made me re-decide where my clientele is going to come from. [Miller's Fine Decorative Hardware focuses on designers as its primary client base.] EXPO has raised an incredible amount of consumer awareness. [The company draws] end users who have never been exposed to products like this before, and they walk out of there thinking, 'I wonder who else carries these things.' So, I'm no longer threatened by EXPOs. But every Sunday, I'm there. I start my morning by going over there so as to be aware of product selection and sales prices."

Special touches
Vanario has adjusted to the new realities of the marketplace by stocking more upscale products and a greater variety of high-end products. "The 'one-stop-shop' concept is what we're experiencing," he elaborates. "We're getting more involved in luxury plumbing on a direct basis [with the consumer]. We sell the concept of the bathroom [as] a relaxation room, a place where you can spend some time to unwind."

He has expanded into product lines such as Corian countertops, custom showers and upscale tile products like stone medallions and mosaics, as well as increasing business with boutique manufacturers such as one who specializes in upscale whirlpool tubs. "We're seeking out those types of [boutique] manufacturers, compared to going with a conglomerate that's trying to be a manufacturer, importer and a distributor," he says.

It's an approach that's had spectacular results for Richmond Ceramic Tile. Vanario notes that the 45,000-sq.-ft. facility (including warehouse space) used to rent out retail space to affiliated businesses. But, he found it necessary to take back some of that space in order to increase the showroom space to 12,000 sq. ft. 

Norton also relies on boutique manufacturers. She complains that some of the mass manufacturers don't respond to trends quickly enough. But, even with boutique product lines, Norton has taken extra steps to satisfy her customers' needs, such as having faucetry products replated to get the desired mix of style and finish. 

Sandi Campbell, retail sales manager at BathWorks & More, in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, also believes that "style is the number one thing people are looking for." Her Kohler registered showroom features everything from Victorian looks to contemporary whirlpools and steam units "anything that's going to relax and give them the spa feeling at home." She notes that while her showroom has a major commitment to Kohler, she also tries to offer as many different brands as possible, and offers continuous service to her clientele. 

"They want someone who's going to take care of them not just [during] the purchase, but in the long haul," she explains. Upscale plumbing products are expensive, and customers "want to make sure someone is going to take care of that investment for them if anything goes wrong. We look for suppliers who have a sales rep on the road, who offer a great deal of technical service. That's a big part of our selection process when we look for new products."

Campbell adds that her showroom is the only one in her area to feature upscale plumbing accessories such as towel bars and soap dispensers. BathWorks & More has expanded into the ceramic tile market, including imported lines.

Miller has also expanded into cabinetry for sinks, with contemporary designs leading the way. She cites powder coating that gives a metal-plated look to china as a new product trend. 

"The high-end plumbing market has become flooded, inundated with product lines and vendors trying to outdo one another," Miller notes. The down side of this is that home centers are also able to offer a wide variety of products. "It's no longer privileged product for high-end showrooms," she complains. While raised awareness of products is a good thing, Miller adds, it's become harder to find the truly unique products that differentiate an independent showroom. 

Several showroom owners cited industry shows such as K/BIS as vital in keeping up with trends. Koch is particularly fond of the Frankfurt, Germany-based ISH show: "It shows us what's coming so we can let the customer know," she explains. "So, in three or four years, when the trends from Europe actually get here," her customer's picks will still be in style. "We're selling what's [trendy] in the future rather than what's [fashionable now]," she notes. 

Dazzling displays
A changing array of displays is key in maintaining excitement and consumer interest, showroom owners agree. Koch changes out her showroom at least once a year. "We show the new stuff and show it in a different way. To display something today the way you would have displayed it five years ago simply isn't applicable anymore." 

Koch hired a retail designer to redo Elegant Additions' showroom. "He brought with him the retail end, in terms of what looks beautiful," she elaborates. "Just by watching what's happening in European advertising magazines, we tried to incorporate a lot of those things. In our case, that meant introduction of color." 

"We estimate the lifespan of an average display in our showroom is 18 months," says Vanario. "It's important for a word-of-mouth operation. However, we have 15 salespeople, and I find that, if I leave displays alone, they actually get tired of selling them. You have to motivate the sales staff and get them recharged about the products. I involve the sales staff in the design of the displays, so it's their project as well."

Campbell notes that, often, her staff will tell her a particular item isn't selling but then, when the display featuring that item is changed, "it sells the next day. People are looking for variety," she believes. "If they've been in the store before, it's nice for them to come back and see something different and new."

"If you don't redo your showroom every three years, people think you have [old merchandise]. If you move it around, people think it's new," notes Norton.

Miller, on the other hand, makes some change in her displays once a month. "We don't change over everything, but we make some change, some way relocate a toilet and a sink, or shuffle around our faucet boxes, so there's not a monotony when you walk into the showroom.

"We don't hesitate to sell off our displays, we don't use manufacturers' displays, and everything we bring in works," she continues. "You always have to stay one step ahead of everybody else, keep everything looking fresh and new.

"That's what keeps us little guys going," she concludes. "You're always trying to do something no one else does, and you have to stay aware of your competition all the time. That's how you survive." KBDN