Show and Tell

Not every remodeler has, or necessarily needs, a showroom. Some have carried on for years without one, while others couldn’t imagine doing business not having a showroom. Kitchen and bath designers, particularly, favor showrooms, perhaps because they deal in such a wide variety of product styles and finishes — from counterops to cabinets and from facuets to decorative hardware. Exterior remodelers, however, seem to benefit equally from showrooms. In either case, even in this age of online shopping, display areas can provide visibility and credibility to a remodeling firm regardless of its specialty.

“I think showrooms are 100 percent necessary to show prospects and clients what they are getting. They can touch things and get an idea of the quality of products they are receiving,” says Jennifer Runner, AKBD, a designer with Normandy Remodeling, a design-build firm in Hinsdale, Ill.

“I wouldn’t want to buy a car based on looking on it on the Internet, or a house based on looking at it online or in a magazine,” she says. “Those are great for inspiration, but when you’re going through the process of a kitchen remodel, having examples in the showroom and having different kitchen styles on display is very important so customers can see what those pieces look like in person.”

Selection Is Important

While kitchen, bath and other room vignettes are important to inspire clients and give them a feel for what they can expect, selection is another important function of the showroom. “Our showroom is about 8,000 sq. ft., and half of that is where we have meetings with our clients and show them tile boards, cabinetry colors, plumbing selections, granite samples and all of the choices that go into a remodel. Having a place where we can get together, spread out and show what we’re envisioning for their homes is really important. I think it would be difficult to show clients a plan and not have the materials to back it up,” Runner says.

The first meeting with prospective clients is always in their homes to get an idea of their style, needs, wishes and requirements, Runner relates, “but then we encourage every meeting after that to be at our showroom, where we can really dive deep into the selection process.”

Normandy does get some walk-in traffic, too. “Our showrooms are open Monday through Saturday, and people can come in and walk around at their leisure and just gather ideas. After they come in, they can always set an appointment with a designer to come out to their homes, so it’s certainly open to the public,” Runner says.

Physical Presence Is Important

Having a physical presence is important, too. “That’s huge,” says Runner. “We’re a pretty large operation, and I’m one person working with a family, but it’s nice [that clients know] I have this whole company that can stand behind what I’m proposing.”

Often, at the end of an initial meeting with clients, Runner and other designers take the new customers on a behind-the-scenes tour of the two-story building, showing them the blueprinting process and support staff. “It’s a two-minute tour, but I think people really respond to it. They understand it takes a lot to have these projects built [and that we have the resources to make it happen].”

Bringing potential customers into the showroom for seminars is another way remodelers leverage their investment in a display area. Runner says Normandy always has seminars on a Saturday morning. Prospects listen to a presentation, such as Secrets of Ideal Kitchen, and get a feel for how the design process works. Then, they’re invited to have lunch and walk around the showroom, where designers are on hand to answer questions and book appointments if desired.

Building a showroom is time-consuming and costly and so is keeping it up to date. Normandy recently updated a vignette in response to changing homeowner tastes. Pristine white cabinets with gray and taupe tones have come into vogue on Chicago’s North Shore, Runner says, “and we didn’t have anything like that in the showroom. We went ahead and made the investment, and people love this kitchen.

“We have to keep in mind that some things can be really trendy but look outdated within a year,” she adds. Showing clients styles that will stand the test of time and make their investments last longer is the best policy, she advises.

Design Center, Not a Showroom

Bill Simone, president of El Segundo, Calif.-based Custom Design & Construction, prefers to call the space where he currently meets with clients a design center, but for many years he didn’t have a full blown, visible showroom.

“We had a quasi-showroom that we would bring clients to,” he says. “It was more of a conference room that had a really nice kitchen display in it, but that was pretty much the extent of it. We used it for all of our client meetings — the initial meetings, the contract meetings, the design review meetings — all those meetings were conducted in that quasi-showroom.

“It was on the second floor of an office building. It had no street visibility. No one knew it was there, and no one would stumble upon it,” Simone continues.

All that changed when Custom Design & Construction had an opportunity to move to El Segundo, where it bought a former manufacturing building, about 14,000 sq. ft., in an industrial neighborhood with some high-profile neighbors, including Raytheon, Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, DirectTV, Time Warner Cable, the Los Angeles Kings and Los Angeles Lakers, and Mattel.

In addition, Simone says he was seeing more kitchen and bath remodeling jobs — smaller projects than the additions and whole-house remodels he’d been seeing in previous years. The idea of a showroom, or design center as Simone prefers to think of it, became more attractive. “It’s really meant to be more of a design inspiration center as opposed to [a sales setting]. It’s to get the creative juices flowing for the client,” he says.

Unintended Consequences

Having for years had a design space hidden from public view, Simone was pleasantly surprised by the “unintended consequences” of the new design center, one of those consequences being a significant amount of walk-in traffic. El Segundo may be a small town, but it swells by 150,000 people a day from people who work in the major corporations surrounding Custom Design & Construction.

Two days each week, Simone says, he allows upscale catering trucks to park in the firm’s driveway, generating a lot of foot traffic. In addition, Custom Design & Construction is located on a street leading to a major thoroughfare that is home to bricks-and-mortar eateries for those not lunching alfresco at the lunch trucks.

“We thought we would have to rely on our traditional marketing efforts, and [the new design center] would be a destination location,” Simone says. “It turns out, although we still use traditional marketing, that’s just not the case.”

Like Normandy Remodeling, Simone stages events and seminars for homeowners, usually on a monthly basis, tailing off toward the end of the year and the holidays. In addition, he foresees smaller events for executives of the nearby corporations — mini-seminars or lunch-and-learn get-togethers to encourage them to bring their spouses in for a presentation.

Custom Design & Construction makes the facility, which has a full working kitchen, available to some area catering companies to do cooking demonstrations. Neighboring corporations also hold team-building events from time to time. The fee for using the facility is nominal, but it brings additional exposure to the design-build firm, Simone says.

No Clutter

The design center isn’t cluttered with product samples. “You won’t see a tower of quartz countertop samples or door styles hanging on the wall. All that stuff is pushed back into the inner workings of the design stations. As parts and pieces of a project are selected by our designers, they’re brought into the conference room where we meet with the client so patrons are not overwhelmed with decisions — and also so they understand that you can’t walk in and say, ‘I want to buy this faucet.’ That’s not what we’re all about,” Simone explains.

The design center is just under 3,000 sq. ft. and contains a dozen vignettes: five kitchens, four bathrooms, a home office, a home library and a living/family room.

Updating displays is an expensive proposition, and like Normandy, Simone favors enduring designs.

“We have some pretty talented design people here, and the materials that we selected are pretty timeless,” he says. As noted earlier, one kitchen is a full working kitchen, “so it will get some wear and tear. We figure it has a three- to four-year life span. On the other displays, we might get a little more time because the materials were purposely chosen to be timeless,” he says.

Asked for his advice to remodelers envisioning adding a showroom to their business, Simone says, “As with any remodeling project, have a clear plan in mind and have all your materials and quantities thought through so you have an idea of the overall cost, because you do sink a substantial amount of money into a design center like ours. And then there is also to the time factor. How are you going to get it built? Are you using your own people or are you using your own trade partners — all of which may take away from jobs that are in progress. How do you coordinate all of that?”