Adapting to Today’s ‘New Normal’

When the Grateful Dead wrote their classic song “Truckin’” in 1970, little could they imagine that the chorus, “Sometimes the light’s all shining on me/Other times I can barely see. Lately it occurs to me/What a long strange trip it’s been,” would be equally, if not more, prophetic for 2020.

It’s almost certain that the showroom you return to will not operate as the showroom you left. Showroom owners will need to navigate the reopening process and determine how their showroom will operate. They’ll also need to anticipate and respond to changes in consumer attitudes and behavior.

Opening does not necessarily guarantee that clients and customers will automatically return. A Morning Consult study in early April 2020 found, for example, that 24% of consumers would not feel comfortable shopping in a mall for at least six months and only 16% said they’d feel comfortable going to a mall by mid-summer.

The plan to reopen your showroom needs to account for the fear and skepticism that many of your clients and team members may have. Assuming the primary reason consumers visit showrooms is to see, touch and feel products and experience displays, how comfortable do you believe your clientele will be doing so? How willing will customers be to use touchscreens and keypads to view videos or operate working displays?

Showroom owners will doubtless have to develop and effectively communicate protocols to earn the trust of a leery clientele. As Peg Steep wrote in Psychology Today: “Trust is the foundation of all human connections, from chance encounters to friendships and intimate relationships.”

Consumers need to believe that they’re safe when they walk into a showroom. Showrooms will need to account for new social-distancing norms, and may need to establish guidelines for the customers and staff that may enter the space at any one time.

Showrooms will also need to control traffic flow with measures that may include one-way aisles and floor markings, as well as signage that encourages customers to remain six feet apart. Showrooms may also use infrared thermometers, provide hand-sanitizing stations at entrances and exits, and create safe spaces between customers and designers and other team members. Showrooms will also have to implement disinfecting protocols for high-touch surfaces such as pulls and handles on displays, doors and other areas.


Showroom design and layout is also responding to the changing retail dynamic.

Stephan Roy, president of The SH Group, explains: “We are focusing on making customers feel safe and comfortable when designing showrooms for our clients. To do this, we create a safe traffic flow and wider aisles, employing natural directional signage that expedites decision making with less staff involvement.

“Natural lighting and eliminating unpleasant odors, improving air quality and ventilation, and providing consistent thermal comfort all will enhance the showroom experience. It’s all about creating a great first impression and making people feel safe in the showroom, focusing their energy on purchasing.”

At its four New York-area showrooms, Best Plumbing Tile and Stone rearranged the sales associate stations to allow for social distancing by marking a six-foot radius on the floor around each desk. The showrooms will also offer a sanitizing station at the entrance and will require the use of face masks by associates and visitors alike.

“A big change will be making our showrooms appointment only, at least for now, in an effort to control traffic,” stated company President Jonas Weiner. An appointment-only model will help showroom owners control the number of people in the space at any one time and anticipate the staff required.

Showrooms will be well served to supply masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment to employees and expect customers to wear or expect them as well. Jerry Payner at Litt’s Plumbing K&B Gallery, outside of Cleveland, OH, sells masks to customers visiting the showroom for $2 and donates the proceeds to local first responders.

Guidelines for the number of customers and staff that can safely navigate the retail space at any one time will need to be established by showrooms. The guidelines should be based on square footage and social-distancing requirements.

The “new normal” will almost certainly also require new staffing schedules and protocols. Avoid mixing different workers on different shifts to prevent having to shut down your entire operation if one of your team members tests positive. Train your team to engage customers while wearing a mask and gloves and avoid asking questions such as what they are looking for. Instead, encourage customers to explore different displays and samples on their own to identify designs that strike positive chords.


Other reopening considerations may include the following:

  • Appointment-only, so you can control the number of people in your showroom at any one time, including the staff required.
  • Reduced operating hours. For example, the KB Studio in Boulder, CO requires every customer to sign a guest health screening declaration before entering the showroom. The declaration asks visitors to confirm that they have not returned from international travel in the last 14 days, have not had close contact or cared for anyone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, experienced flu- or cold-like symptoms in the last 14 days or cared for or was in close contact with someone who experienced cold or flu-like symptoms in the last 14 days. The declaration demonstrates that the showroom takes the safety of its customers and team members seriously, allows for contact tracing if needed, and reduces risk of exposure to team members.

As consumers have the opportunity to emerge from home confinement, their mindsets are more than likely to have changed. There inevitably will be a group of people who’ve been financially hurt by either a furlough, layoff or salary reduction, and that group is likely to stick to the basic necessities. Then there’s a group who have been stuck in their homes for a couple of months and have noticed that their baths, kitchens and other spaces are not what they would like them to be. They may want to reward themselves and their families for the hardships that they’ve endured.

Consumers have also been forced to shop online during sheltering-in-place mandates, even if they had not previously been much of an online shopper. As Derek Thompson recently pointed out in The Atlantic, “Online shopping has gone from a regular habit for a minority of consumers to a crucial part of America’s recreational infrastructure. One-third of Americans bought groceries online in the past month (April) and tens of millions of them did it for the first time.”

Thompson notes that shopping’s share of total online retail sales has been increasing at approximately one percentage point per year, but a recent UBS analysis predicted that COVID-19 will immediately increase that share from 15% to 25% – in other words, a decade of change concentrated in several months.

As more consumers become increasingly comfortable with online purchasing, online experiences will need to be more robust. Showrooms should learn from the mistakes department stores have made. Iconic brands such JCPenney, Neiman Marcus, J. Crew and others have declared bankruptcy or are on the verge of doing so. Their downfall is attributable in large measure to failing to respond to changing trends, modernize their stores, invest in their sales teams and adapt quickly enough to e-commerce and social media.

There is no better time than the present for showrooms to create omnichannel platforms that allow customers to purchase online or in-showroom. Showrooms moving forward will need to eliminate friction not only from the purchasing process, but also for the entire buying and renovating experience. Don’t be surprised if there is an increasing number of traditional showrooms that offer installation services.

The pain and hardship inflicted on retail and showrooms that resulted in mandates to close operations and shelter in place also has created, and will continue to create, unique opportunities in the industry. Showrooms are learning how to present products, designs and proposals remotely. Businesses are using more creative marketing tools.

As one example, Frank Morris, a principal of Granite State Cabinetry in Bedford, NH, is hosting a weekly webinar to explain to homeowners the benefits and processes of renovating kitchens and baths. In the first three sessions, more than 20 unique homeowners participated and, after each session, Granite State received at least four follow-up calls requesting more information.

Showrooms also can take a page from the real estate industry and offer virtual showroom tours to customers who may be uncomfortable visiting in person.

Whatever the “new normal” looks like, it will be vastly different than the “old normal.” There remain many unknowns. That’s why the first steps in a reopening strategy should focus on the physical aspects of your showroom and changes that will make your customers, prospects and team members feel safe to enter virtually or in-person. ▪

Thomas B. Cohn is founder and president of Cohn Communications, Inc., a multi-dimensional group purchasing, marketing and association management firm. He also serves as the executive v.p. of the Decorative Plumbing & Hardware Association and as executive v.p. of the Bath & Kitchen Buying Group. 

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