By Daina Darzin
No more. Not only are increasing numbers of kitchen and bath designers leaving the showroom behind, as they strive to grow their businesses in an increasingly competitive market, but designers who've worked this way for years are suddenly gaining visibility with consumers who value service and high-end design.
"I have never had a showroom, and I've been in business for 30 years," says David Kettler, president of Kettler-Austin Inc., in Austin, TX.
"I started out in someone else's showroom," notes Leslie Cohen, CKD, of Leslie Cohen Designs, in Encinatas, CA. But she found the environment want-ing; now, she manages a thriving business out of her home.
With outsourcing a growing trend in many industries, kitchen and bath designers are finding this approach has many advantages over the traditional way of doing business.
Several independent designers surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News said they felt confined, both creatively and in terms of time management, by the structure of a showroom.
Cohen particularly disliked working floor days. "I had such a booming referral business, I couldn't service people on the floor, and I was working 80 hours a week because I had to work in the showroom, then go home and do all my design work," she remembers. "I thought, 'this is nuts.' My first year [as an independent], I made a lot more money working half the hours."
"You spend a lot of non-productive time in a showroom," agrees Sharon Hopkins, CKD, CBD, CID, owner of DESIGNPRO, in Lafayette, CA. "In a showroom situation, you're always in competition with other salespeople. I thought I could do better on my own."
Cohen adds that dealing with customers who weren't really serious about undertaking a remodeling job was a big time waster. The fact that clients have to call an independent designer and make an appointment serves as a way of pre-qualifying them, and weeding out the 'looky-loos,' she believes.
"I wanted to have more free time for my family," adds Tess Giuliani, CKD, president of Tess Giuliani Designs, Inc., in Ridgewood, NJ. "I don't work any less [now], but the hours I work are hours that I call."
"It's much more flexible now," agrees Cohen. "I tell my clients, 'I'm leaving town for 10 days,' and that's it."
Giuliani also decided to leave showroom life after 10 years because she wanted more creative variety in her projects. "I was coming [to the industry] from different avenues of design," she notes. Her background includes theater design and being a goldsmith for Cartier; space design is one of her passions. "It's so much more exciting to be able to create the space first," she explains.
Control over projects is another motivating factor for many designers who have chosen to go the independent route. "I have ways I think business should be done," declares Cohen. "So even when I was in a showroom, I pretty much operated autono-mously. I like being the business owner and having the final say."
"There's no middle person here," adds Jenny Ann Pytleski, owner of Jenny Ann's Cabinetry and Design, in Lakeport, MI, who came into design via her husband's construction business. "If something has gone wrong on a job, the decision is solely in my hands. If it's wrong, we fix it right then and there, no questions asked. People like that."
Financial concerns also play a part in a designer's decision to go the independent, no-showroom route.
"Overhead, overhead, overhead," quips Kettler, when asked what motivated him to eschew a showroom.
"Especially in the Bay Area, a showroom is just so costly, unless you want to give up design and zero in on cabinet sales," says Hopkins. "My experience in a showroom is, you don't have time to do really high-end designing. Basically, the owners want you to sell cabinets. That's where the income comes from."
Arthur Thomson, CKD, sole proprietor of Kitchens by Arthur Thomson, in Honolulu, HI, maintains a showroom of sorts in one of his residences an economical solution dictated by Hawaii's economy. "Hawaii is not like the rest of America," he notes, adding that his market was severely impacted by Japan's recent economic woes. "The scale of operations that I have is prudent," he believes.
Most of the designers surveyed had a strong referral base before going out on their own - and for several, their previous showroom remains one of their major clients.
"I love working for [Eurotech Cabinetry]," says Tracey Scalzo, CKD, CBD, in Sarasota, FL, though she gets a greater variety of projects and greater contact with her clients working independently. "What Eurotech does is great, but there are other things to be exposed to [creatively]. I also wanted to be accessible to people who weren't building $50,000 kitchens. I think you need decent design at every price point."
Similarly, Giuliani still has a good working relationship with her former employer Ulrich Inc., which helps bring in business.
Beyond referrals, independent designers have used a variety of imaginative methods of marketing their businesses.
"I learned how to market myself from being a real estate agent, and I used all those techniques," explains Hopkins, who got her start buying and remodeling individual homes, then working in a cabinet business. "You really have to work it like any sales job," she says about design.
Hopkins found magazine and newspaper advertising to be expensive and ineffective, but got quite a bit of mileage out of targeting neighborhoods where prospective clients lived, getting names off tax rolls and utilizing direct mail. "That gave me a fairly good response," she notes.
Giuliani often gets new work from existing clients for such projects as summer and second houses, and apartments in New York City. She also obtains new work from participating in house tours for charity, a frequent occurrence in her high-end community.
This has even included her own home, which was gutted and re-designed several years ago. "It gives [prospective clients] the chance to walk through a project," she notes. Decorating for other charity events, participation in her local chamber of commerce, and heading a local design and decorating day are other methods for increasing visibility and contacts, she elaborates.
Scalzo gets numerous referrals from the NKBA. "I'm certified in both kitchen and bath design, so when someone's looking for an independent designer, if they wind up at the NKBA Web site, I'm one of the two in this area."
Thomson emphasizes that when it comes to getting jobs, personality counts more than premises, a strength for the independent designer. "People will buy the salesperson if they believe in him," he insists. "They don't buy the showroom. They buy me."
Nearly everyone surveyed agrees that the more personal service that's possible in an indie operation makes larger design companies and home centers less competitive. "I'm very service oriented," says Cohen. "[I do] very custom, very unique high-end designs, [and pay] lots of attention to detail and lots of attention to the client more than you can do when you're in a store."
"I'm a lot more accessible than [designers in] a showroom," says Pytleski, who goes to clients' homes for their initial planning meetings. "It's at their convenience, and I'm not stuck to showroom hours or a retail spot I have to operate all the time."
How do independent designers help their clients pick specific appliances and cabinets without a showroom? Approaches vary.
Some designers have an arrangement with a local showroom to allow them to take clients in to look at products.
One popular solution is taking new clients to see the designer's work in existing clients' homes. "You have to be able to show them," says Cohen, who believes "sometimes, that's better than a showroom." The advantage to this is that it provides a complete look with accessories, and a view of a kitchen in real life.
Other times, Cohen has used more innovative approaches, such as flying with clients to a manufacturer's headquarters to see cabinets that weren't available in area showrooms.
Giuliani often takes clients to a granite company's hangar-style facility to pick out their own slab for their countertop. She also uses a cabinetry furniture design company and sometimes takes clients to its workshop. For bathrooms, clients sometimes take a field trip to a big design shop with a wide variety of products. Giuliani also presents a portfolio of work which includes such whimsical designs as a kitchen with a floor-installed sink to serve as a huge water bowl for multiple dogs, or a media wall hidden by doors with a Japanese screen motif. "There are vast possibilities for every room," she notes.
Cohen has an arrangement with several showrooms. "I purchase their products and resell them to the client," she explains. "They sell it to me at a very low markup, and I sell it to the client at the price the showroom would have sold it at." Cohen takes care of the paperwork so the showroom has to do a minimum of work. She adds that there are some manufacturers she works with directly, a more profitable arrangement.
"We start with a portfolio of previous jobs," adds Kettler, "and we work with previous clients, [showing new clients] their kitchens. I reward my clients monetarily if I bring clients over to their kitchen. We also use catalogs and magazines for fixtures. The design and cabinets are all custom made and the client just buys into the fact that we know what we're doing." Kettler notes that his fabricators for granite and solid surface (which comprise 90% of his countertop business) and his installers all have showrooms he can utilize for demonstration purposes, as well.
"I work with a lot of small samples," says Pytleski, who's also a cabinet dealer. She explains that industry pros she deals with as a rep have enough "knowledge to hear about the kind of product I have and go through some books with me, or go through pricing comparisons. For the dealing end of it, I find most people have a pretty good idea of what they want. People come to me with pictures [from] magazines. Fine tuning [wood, door style, color] is secondary to the right design, and really listening to what they need to make their kitchen function."
Independent designers' opinions vary when it comes to the building and installation part of a job.
"I do design only," says Scalzo. "I don't handle any products. I make that very clear with people up front." Scalzo's designs don't specify brands "unless my clients know what they're working with. For instance, if I work for Eurotech, I know what lines they carry and can use the nomenclature of the particular brand the client is going to go with." She adds that often, clients have done a lot of research and made specific product choices before coming to her.
"I don't get involved in any product but cabinetry," echoes Hopkins. "It took me several years to find a [cabinet] company that would work with me directly, and I do everything out of the back of my car or in my home." Hopkins also shows new clients previous jobs. Generally, she designs with generic appliances and lets the clients pick their own. She has contractors she recommends for installation. Her work is generally remodels, though she sometimes works on new constructions with homeowners who are past clients, or referrals.
Pytleski does participate in installations, subcontracting to the same installer. "I don't pay him myself, but I will, as a convenience, arrange for him to be on the job, as well as [provide] appliances and tops," she explains. Cohen also recommends a contractor she has a good relationship with to most of her clients.
Similarly, Giuliani recommends companies for the various facets of a project. "I believe in giving business to people who are terrific at what they do," she declares. "I design it, I specify it, I follow it, but the implementation and ordering is done by companies that are excellent at that, and they manage it." Giuliani also recommends architects and artists for faux finishing and murals.
Scalzo does warn that completely handing off a project after designing it can have its down side: "You can design the greatest thing in the world and if someone chooses bad products or they go with a low bidder for their installation, what are you going to do?" she says. "And there are some clients I don't get because they want someone to handle the whole project, products and everything. But I don't really consider that a down side, because I don't want to get involved with that."
Despite such concerns, all those surveyed are much happier working the way they do. Cohen even foresees a time when she might not want to deal with the problems of others' showrooms any more, though she'd have to consider the profitability of changing her current set-up.
"I don't anticipate changing," says Kettler. "I'm not interested in increasing my growth."
"One of the problems as you become successful is that you find yourself in the position of shifting from being creative to being an administrator," says Giuliani. "Some people make that transition very well, and some want that. But that is not something I ever want to do.
"I like this freedom," she continues. "It keeps me in contact with the client, with the project. I still have this creative capacity and I don't have any overhead. It's a nice way to make a living." KBDN