A Paradigm Shift for Showrooms

by Autumn McGarr

It’s no longer business as usual nowadays for kitchen and bath showrooms. The COVID-19 pandemic has seen to that.

Indeed, the public-health crisis currently sweeping across America is forcing significant short- and long-term changes at showrooms, due to the virus’s impact on clients, prospects, design associates, business owners, suppliers and subcontractors.

Many of the changes had already been taking hold as part of the industry’s natural evolution, including the advent of cutting-edge technology and the way consumers shop. But COVID-19 has dramatically accelerated and highlighted the process.

That salient new trend, among others, is underlined by the findings of a major new survey conducted by Kitchen & Bath Design News among showroom owners across the U.S. The survey, fielded in mid-June, found that even while the initial impact of the coronavirus is receding – and the market rebounding with the phased reopening of the U.S. economy – a significant number of kitchen and bath showrooms are literally being transformed from top to bottom, in many cases literally overnight.

Among the key changes, KBDN found, are the implementation of a host of virus-mitigation tactics, a sharp rise in “by-appointment-only” showroom visits, and the increased use of technology tools – including virtual showroom tours, digital presentations and online consultations with clients, prospects, design associates and subcontractors. A significant number of showrooms are also being downsized, redesigned or shuttered completely, with far more seeing the imposition of virus-related protocols – among them cleaning and disinfecting procedures for high-touch surfaces such as product displays, touchscreens and keypads; providing hand-sanitizing stations at showroom entrances and exits; limiting showroom attendance; mandating protective masks, and creating “safe” (socially distanced) spaces between customers, designers and other team members.

Some of these changes are likely temporary, lasting for only as long as COVID-19 continues to have a palpable impact, survey respondents say. Other changes, they suggest, may well be permanent – part of a paradigm shift, or new reality, for showrooms of all sizes and market niches.

There’s little doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has been enormously challenging for retail businesses, including kitchen/bath design firms, that have traditionally relied on regular, face-to-face interaction with clients, prospects, subcontractors and others. The coronavirus has rendered that form of contact problematic, if not downright impossible.

But most showroom owners are seemingly adapting, KBDN has found.

Showrooms are increasingly utilizing video-communications tools and mastering the finer points of e-design and remote jobsite management. They’re increasingly converting workflow to online formats, and making virtual showroom visits, demonstrations and consultations part of their corporate mix. Websites are being made more functional. Social-media strategies are becoming an integral part of marketing campaigns.

Brick-and-mortar showrooms, quite likely, will never go extinct. Kitchen and bath consumers – even as they continue to grow increasingly comfortable with online – will always want to touch, feel, visualize and compare products; always want to gather ideas from creative, inspirational showroom displays and vignettes; always want personal contact with the design pros and sales associates who are providing expertise, guidance and reassurance.

But while showrooms will likely remain an integral part of the industry landscape, it’s equally likely that they’ll never be quite the same as they’ve been in the past, even after the restrictions wrought by COVID-19 are rescinded and consumers become less fearful and wary.

The businesses that will successfully emerge from the coronavirus pandemic will be those that are fast on their feet, amenable to landmark change, and can operate in the virtual environment that will doubtless continue to emerge in the post-COVID-19 marketplace. ▪

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