Business Boom Keeps Showrooms Busy

by Autumn McGarr

Never before in recent history has demand for new kitchens and baths been higher. Dan Smith, exec. v.p., Kitchen & Bath Division at Williams Distributing, who distributes kitchen and bath cabinetry across three states and operates five showrooms in western Michigan, reflects the sentiment of many in the kitchen and bath industry. “March 2021 was our best month ever, and we’ve been around since 1968,” he remarked.

There are a number of reasons for current market conditions. Many homeowners have been working and schooling from home for more than a year. They have come to realize that they are tired of their homes and their homes are tired of them. They want their homes to look, feel and function more effectively.

Second, those who have been fortunate to work through the pandemic have more discretionary income that can be earmarked for home improvements. Plus, interest rates remain at near all-time lows. Third, home values are ballooning upward, with demand for new homes far exceeding supply. This combination has made many homeowners realize that they can afford the kitchens and baths of their dreams.

Strategy Revisions

With demand in almost all markets exceeding available human and product resources, managing a showroom through rapid growth, supply chain challenges and unrealistic client expectations creates a unique set of obstacles and opportunities. This is forcing many showrooms to make systemic changes and improvements to their business operations.

Key logistic issues showrooms are addressing to manage rapid growth include scheduling, evaluating standard operating procedures, project coordination, communication strategies, staffing, managing client expectations and cost control, among others.

Mike Ferreira, a principal of Thomas Michael Kitchens in East Wareham, MA, has rewritten his showroom’s standard operating procedures. “We know where we want to go, but it’s scary that the market is moving this fast. The growth is great but it has to be controlled and regulated,” he said. To handle his unprecedented influx of new business, Ferreira has redefined staff roles and added to his payroll. He has also hired a new project coordinator to allow his sales professionals to dedicate 100% of their time to selling.

“I feel like we are running a marathon every day,” adds Frank Morris of Granite State Cabinetry, in Bedford, NH. “From appointment to appointment, everything is fast forward, except for delivery times.” A successful tactic that Morris has employed is to spend more time qualifying prospects at the start of the customer journey. He, too, has reassigned several of his administrative staff members to assist with sales and incentivized the entire team based on total sales volume.

Improving the performance and productivity of staff has been a successful tactic for several showroom owners. Dan Smith has also increased his showroom staff in response to increased walk-in traffic in his retail showrooms. He is looking to add a virtual assistant and more information gathering to the showroom’s online appointment forms to reduce the time a customer needs to spend in the showroom without compromising the ability to create a trusting relationship.

Pete Ciarlante, Jr. of Weiler’s Kitchen & Bath Design Center in Feasterville, PA also has increased his staff and expanded his product offering to respond to the best market conditions his showroom has seen since 2006. Weiler’s designers quote a $1,000 measure fee to help qualify serious customers and set the stage for creating realistic budget expectations. “This creates educational opportunities for our team to explain not only the cost of the project, but also timelines. We are finding that many customers now expect longer lead times and are willing to wait.” 

Delivery Delays

Delivery times have become a major challenge for showroom operators. “We are telling our customers that lead times are longer than we have ever experienced,” reports Marlene Ketchen of The Cabinetry in Norwell, MA. With production capacity being taxed for many manufacturers, incomplete orders have become commonplace. Most showrooms report that shipments are arriving with a number of products back-ordered, forcing showrooms to change many long-time standard operating procedures.

Sara Hines at Kitchen & Bath World in Albany, NY is quoting project installations nine months from the date a contract is signed. She would relish the opportunity to reduce that timeline, but has found it next to impossible to hire additional team members despite paying at the top of the market. She also has made the commitment not to start a project until all the materials are in stock, which allows the showroom to buy time and has enabled her to create an express schedule for smaller projects such as powder room remodels that she can fit in while waiting for products for major projects.

The key to her success with the express schedule is client communication. “We give our smaller project clients a range of start times from six to 10 weeks, which depends on when products are delivered.”

Ferreira has changed his freight strategy to help avoid deliveries being delayed at cross docks. He now has products shipped directly to his warehouse or to the job site, which is saving about two weeks for each project. He is also ordering products for six or seven jobs simultaneously, inventorying many products for the first time and shipping many products directly to consumers.

Williams Distributing emphasizes its multiple in-stock cabinetry lines, the majority of which are domestically produced, as a solution for its builder and property manager customers who need products immediately for projects such as apartment rehabs and kitchen remodels. Nationally, with longer lead times and product shortages, having on-hand inventory has helped keep projects rolling.

With most showrooms operating at break-neck speed, the need for quality control has never been higher. Ferreira reports measuring spaces at least twice – the first time at the start of the project and then prior to placing the final order. He acknowledges that it takes more time, but he also believes it is time well spent to ensure that the plan is airtight.

The need to qualify prospects at the beginning of the customer journey has never been more important. “When we hand a designer a lead, it is 100% qualified,” states Morris. “We are completely honest with prospects to the point of being blunt, advising them of the need to make a commitment because product lead times are 12 to 16 weeks out.”

At Distinctive Remodeling in Raleigh, NC, Eddie Casanave caters primarily to a custom cabinet clientele. He developed a price guide for his website, which helps his target demographic to have realistic budget expectations and serves to avoid “tire kickers.” Casanave offers silver, gold and platinum pricing packages, with each package offering different products that his customers can select from in each grouping. 

Casanave also understands that boom markets are not the time to stop marketing. He has entered into a unique partnership with the local Rolls Royce dealership, where he is an exclusive advertiser in the dealer’s brochure and a participant at quarterly events. “The partnership with Rolls Royce enables us to fine tune our marketing and dial into precisely a market segment that we want to cater to.”

Team Motivation

During this boom market it is vital to keep team members motivated and engaged to do their best work. At Granite State, Morris is using symbolic awards, in addition to financial incentives, that include gift cards and unexpected jobsite visits to demonstrate his appreciation of his team’s efforts. Ketchen has learned to provide more flexibility to her team and be more comfortable and confident with team members working from home. She also is using symbolic awards to thank her team and her clients when projects are delayed.

Sending hand-written thank-you letters to team members at home, as well as recognizing their contributions and sacrifices, helps boost morale and makes a team feel more valued. When team members feel more valued, the entire company benefits, because the team members are more productive, less likely to leave and improve overall showroom performance.

Timing affects the effectiveness of recognition. Providing positive feedback at the end of a major project can boost morale when team members need it most. Symbols, such as certificates of excellence, achievement, employees of the month and outstanding performance can be extremely powerful. Most often, recipients of these awards will post them at the desks or in their offices.

Showrooms should consider posting outstanding employee efforts on their websites and in prominent locations in the showroom. Another study found when employee performance awards were presented in public, performance increased not only for the individual being recognized but for the entire team.

Providing a thank-you letter, public recognition among coworkers, certificates and small gifts are cost-effective, easy to implement and can have a significant impact on team morale if done correctly. It takes a little bit of time, but the return on investment makes symbolic recognition equally, if not more, impactful as financial rewards.

As we pass the first anniversary of COVID-19 disruptions, combined with unprecedented business volume, doesn’t your team deserve a pat on the back? ▪

Tom Cohn serves as the exec. v.p. of the Bath & Kitchen Business Group and president of Cohn Communications, Inc., a full-service marketing and public relations agency headquartered in Bethesda, MD.

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