Showrooms Doing More With Less

Today’s kitchen and bath showrooms may be smaller than in years past, but despite the limited space, they are working harder than ever to showcase maximum product, displays and technology.

That’s according to a recent KBDN survey that polled kitchen and bath dealers from coast to coast about how their showrooms are being used, what technology they’re incorporating and how they see the kitchen and bath showroom evolving over the next three years.

LEAN AND MEAN

While pre-recession, “bigger is better” is what everyone seemed to aspire to, today, kitchen and bath dealers are more cautious about expansion or any perceived waste. Many large showrooms either scaled back or went out of business due to high overhead costs during the recession and, as a result, “lean and mean” has become the new hot trend.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that when asked about the size of their current showroom, nearly 70% said their showroom is less than 3,000 square feet, with more than one-quarter (28.2%) saying their showroom is less than 1,500 square feet (see Graph 1).

And, while the market is definitely showing signs of improvement, no one seems too quick to jump on the expansion bandwagon right now. In fact, a whopping 83.5% of those surveyed said they do not expect to see their showroom change size in the next 12 months (see Graph 2).

Still, some dealers are beginning to feel a bit more confident that the recovery is solid, with 12.7% of those surveyed saying they expect to expand their showroom in the coming year.

As one explained, “We’ve been very cautious about possible expansion because we wanted to be sure we could sustain that. But we have seen increased traffic and we’re booking more jobs, and it’s consistent enough that we are now looking to expand into a larger space.”

PRODUCTS & DISPLAYS

With showrooms skewing smaller rather than larger, you might think they’d be planning to showcase fewer product displays. But according to those polled, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Indeed, more than one-third are planning to add more kitchen displays (37.5%) or kitchen vignettes (36.1%) to their showroom in the coming year (see Graph 3). Another 12.5% are considering adding more kitchen displays, while one-quarter are considering adding more kitchen vignettes.

Similarly, more than one-third (36.1%) are planning to add bath displays while 27% expect to add bath vignettes to their showroom over the next 12 months (see Graph 4).

As one dealer said, “I have limited space to work with, but I’m being smarter with that space. My clients still want to see kitchens and baths, or at least vignettes that will give them some idea of what I can create in their homes. Technology can ‘virtually’ expand what I can show, but I still have to have displays that they can see and touch.”

Another added, “We’re being forced to do smaller, more space-efficient displays, but one of the benefits of that is it lets us show people how well we can design kitchens and baths that maximize every square inch. And that’s what people want today anyway.”

“Our showroom, although small, shows great examples of products and styles,” added another dealer, who cited his ability to blend creative live displays with technology to illustrate the widest array of examples of the firm’s work, and how this can be applied to a new client’s design solution.

Dealers don’t just want to show more displays, they also want to carry more products – everything from cabinetry and countertops to kitchen appliances, sinks, lighting and more (see Graph 5). Nearly all of those surveyed (98.6%) said they carry kitchen cabinets, countertop/surfacing materials and cabinet hardware, while a similarly large percentage said they carry bath vanities (95.8%), interior cabinet fittings/storage accessories (95.5%) and other-room cabinetry (94.3%).

Large numbers of survey respondents also said they sell kitchen sinks/faucets (88.4%), bath sinks/faucets (86.4%), bath hardware (80%), kitchen accessories (79.4%), kitchen ventilation (71.9%) and lighting (71.2%). The growing interest in LED lighting seems to have snagged the attention of many dealers and designers who find useful applications in everything from storage pull-outs to underlighting for cabinetry and countertops.

Nearly 60% (58.9%) of those polled said they feature major kitchen appliances in their showrooms, and several stated that their expertise in this arena is particularly important in today’s Internet-savvy market, where consumers don’t just want to buy product, but information and expert advice.

In the bath, 62.8% of those polled said they carry shower and tub enclosures, 61.5% feature Universal Design products, 60.8% carry bath ventilation products, 46% offer soaking or jetted tubs and 44.7% showcase shower systems, spas, steambaths and saunas.

Still, it can be a challenge to show it all, as some dealers pointed out: “Space is a very real constraint, and it’s difficult to have samples for all of the different options that our clients are interested in seeing,” noted one.

And others admit that, while smaller showrooms have forced them to get creative, there are still compromises that must be made. As one noted, “Technology can help with that, but you still have to make some very real choices about what to show live, and what you can’t show due to space limitations. You can’t show everything.”

TECHNOLOGY ON THE RISE

Technology is increasingly impacting all facets of our lives, and the kitchen and bath showroom is no exception. Design and ordering software, tablets or iPads, HD or plasma screens to showcase projects or videos, live product displays and apps are all common examples of technology that can be used to enhance the showroom experience for clients, while helping designers be more efficient.

So what’s the hot technology today in kitchen and bath showrooms? Computer-aided design software, an oldie but goodie, still reigns as the number one technology cited by designers, with 98.7% of those polled saying they use this in the showroom (see Graph 6).

As one explained, “The programs get better and better, more realistic and detailed, and they can be so great for helping clients visualize what the finished design will look like. Plus, you can make changes with the click of a button to show different options. People love this, and it takes some of the surprise out of the process since not everyone can visualize what all of the pieces will look like when it’s all put together.”

After design software, product ordering software was the next most-commonly-cited technology, used by 55.3% of those polled.

Tablets or iPads are also gaining considerable ground with kitchen and bath dealers for their ease of use and portability, with 43.4% of those surveyed saying they use these in the showroom.

Live displays have long been an effective showroom technology for allowing prospects to better see, understand and interact with the products displayed, so it’s no surprise that some 42.1% of dealers polled incorporate these into their showrooms. Likewise, more than one-third (39.5%) of those polled have a TV or projection technology to showcase videos about their business, new products, projects, commercials or the like.

Less popular but beginning to gain interest, kitchen and bath apps are starting to secure a foothold in showrooms, with one-quarter of dealers surveyed saying they use them.

While many dealers claim to be challenged by the intense organizational issues faced in pulling together a kitchen or bath project, only 15.8% rely on project management software, while 14.5% say they have interactive displays or kiosks, and 11.8% utilize Web conferencing in their showroom.

With smaller spaces, dealers often use technology to provide more “virtual” product displays, while interactive displays can help engage customers during the busiest times until a sales/designer can assist them.

For that reason, it’s probably no surprise that, of those surveyed, more than half (51.9%) said they will be increasing their overall use of technology in the showroom over the next 12 months, compared to 13.9% who said they will not be using more technology. With things changing so fast, it’s equally unsurprising that more than one-third of respondents (34.2%) were unsure if they’d be doing more with technology in the showroom (see Graph 7).

As one put it, “Technology changes so fast, and we do our best not only to keep up, but to evaluate each new technology to see what would be an asset to our business and our clients, and what is just noise. We liken it to during the ‘trophy kitchen’ age when everything had a million bells and whistles, and you had to sit down and figure out which of those amenities would really benefit your clients.”

CHALLENGES AHEAD

Dealers surveyed were also asked about how they see the showroom evolving over the next three years, and what key challenges they expect to be faced with. On the short list of challenges, dealers talked about tighter consumer budgets, rising materials costs, keeping up with fast-changing products and technology, Internet competition and changing consumer demographics.

And, of course, the economy remains a concern. One dealer noted, “We need to update our showroom but still find the economy holding us back. So we are unable to invest in new displays or some of the technology that would help us move forward. It can be something of a Catch 22.”

Others cited the challenges of balancing the demand for quality products with tighter consumer budgets, and fear that rising material costs could derail projected growth “because we can’t raise prices, but our profit margins are so tight, we can’t eat the losses, either.”

Still, most remained positive about the recovery, and several respondents say their biggest challenge soon may be finding qualified staff to handle all of the increased business.

As far as how the showroom will evolve, most of those polled see technology playing a key role here, though few are sure just what that will look like. “It changes too fast to be able to conceive where we’ll be in a year, no less three years!” one dealer exclaimed.

And, while most agreed that they will likely be virtually expanding their showrooms and doing more online, others talked about expanding both their physical space and their offerings to become “a more complete design center.”

One dealer said, “As things continue to improve, people are going to want improvements not just to the kitchen and bath, but to the family room, master bedroom, laundry room or what have you. So it’s important to look at what skills your firm has and whether you can be that one-stop-shopping destination for the whole home. Because that’s where it’s all going.”

On the other end of the spectrum, several designers mentioned focusing on more of a core specialty area such as Universal Design. As one responder concluded, “Universal Design and aging in place are only going to get bigger, and if you’re known as the go-to firm in your area for that, you’ll never be out of business!”

Below are some other thoughts shared by surveyed dealers about how showrooms are expected to evolve based on current and upcoming challenges:

  • As the showroom evolves and we have to use our space more effectively, I think we need to look at having more displays with ‘shows,’ i.e. live chefs, wine tastings, presentations and other events that bring the space to life.
  • One of the biggest challenges we will likely face in the future is preventing clients from being misinformed about product and pricing due to researching products on their own via the Internet. Our role as educators is going to be even more critical in the coming years.
  • Although it would seem like there’s much more information available for consumers via the Internet, we’re finding that the more they know, the greater the need to spend time with them to provide further education and clarification of all the information out there. I believe in the next few years, designers will have to go above and beyond and get even more involved than ever before to get the sale.
  • One of the dangers of a recovering economy is that you have all of these companies that have sprung up to make a cheaper product, poor quality imports, etc. These skew people’s perceptions of what prices are realistic, and then either they end up with products that don’t hold up or they feel they are paying too much. We need to emphasize the importance of quality.
  • One of the biggest challenges I think we’ll face in the future is getting traffic from our Web site or Houzz page into the showroom. We may need to be more creative to do this with virtual showroom tours that entice people online, or special events that make the showroom more experiential.

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