Something Special

by Ashley Lapin Olian

In a world where online shopping continues to commoditize even luxury products, decorative plumbing and hardware showrooms are differentiating themselves by ensuring that they offer something truly special. They do that through their breadth of offerings – including exclusive product lines, an exhaustive selection of plumbing and hardware products and high-quality offerings carefully curated to appeal to the desired clientele – as well as customer service that focuses on educating clients rather than just selling to them.

While DPH showrooms share commonalities, by virtue of their focus on a high-end clientele that values personalization and uniqueness, the showrooms tend to have distinctive differences and features that in many ways make it difficult to group them into a single category. Some focus exclusively on the ultra high end, others offer products at different price points; some are focused mostly or entirely on European lines impossible to find elsewhere, while others offer a broader array of domestic products. And, some don’t really consider themselves DPH showrooms at all, although they offer extensive product offerings in the category.

Yet the specialized knowledge of the plumbing and hardware segments and the commitment to sharing their knowledge while promoting high-quality products is one commonality they all share, along with a passion for fresh design and authenticity.

This month, KBDN spoke with four showroom professionals about what makes their businesses unique, how they reach clients and key challenges facing the decorative plumbing and hardware industry right now.

According to David Goldberg, owner of the Bethesda, MD-based Union Hardware, “The main thing that differentiates our showroom is fresh, true designer products that are not commodity items.” He continues, “When it comes to plumbing and hardware, I carry none of the brands you see at the Home Depots, the Fergusons, or on the Internet. By going off to Europe, where they’re at the front of the design curve, I can get in front of the bell curve in design.”

For Erin Bittner, COO at Pierce, with showrooms in Dallas and Fort Worth, TX, “Constantly evolving displays, exclusive arrangements with manufacturers so we have lines you can only see at Pierce on display, and Dallas’ largest selection of door and cabinet hardware and an even greater display of plumbing products” are essential components of what makes the showroom special.

However, he notes that the experience level of the staff is equally important to the showroom’s success. “The average tenure in the showroom is 20+ years, and what you get with a salesperson who’s experienced is that they take their knowledge and save you time. Our relationships with our vendors can get things delivered when others can’t. We can solve problems, all of which comes back to saving clients hassles and headaches.”

At San Jose, CA’s SplashWorks, owner Eric Nelson also sees customer service as the most important showroom differentiator. But while most businesses claim to have great customer service, SplashWorks has proof. Nelson explains, “We actually have a certification from Diamond Certified, a company that does independent reviews with our customers, and we have a 99% customer satisfaction rating with our past customers. We are the only showroom that has kept that certification for the past 12 years.”

The showroom design also helps SplashWorks stand out from its competitors, according to Nelson. “Our showroom is not the typical slot wall that you see in a lot of places around the country, which have a warehouse-type mentality. Ours is very clean, with vignettes – tiled and working. It’s a little bit more upscale, which is the kind of customer we’re going for anyway.”

It’s all about the products for David Kotowsky, president of Chicago’s Hydrology. He notes, “I would say what differentiates our showroom from our competitors would be our curated product collections that are pure, original, authentic – high-fashion, state-of-the-art, very exclusive product lines. We only work with the best and most exclusive manufacturers from around the world. It’s a big difference from other showrooms that have a hodge-podge of product lines and collections, varying quality and design authenticity. We don’t offer knock offs or mass-market products. We don’t offer different quality levels – we only offer the best. Our belief is that our clients don’t want to compromise on design quality or authenticity.”

He continues, “From a service standpoint, we offer a much more exclusive experience in terms of our collaboration with the trade and end user. Our collaboration is much more private/exclusive. What else is unique about us is we have our own in-house technical service, customer service, service management, etc. – we go above and beyond pre, during and post services. We are able to handle the most complex projects and handle them in-house. What’s unique is not only are we a distributor of the market-leading brands in our industry, we’re also an importer from bespoke factories from around the world. We also have our own Hydrology wellness collection that we manufacture.”

While practically everyone has an online presence these days, and marketing tends to happen through both traditional and online channels, referrals still seem to be the most essential way upscale DPH showrooms connect with clients.

As Goldberg notes, “We’re a 102-year-old business, so obviously word of mouth is a big part of how we reach clients.” Being in the industry for more than a century not only provides the firm with a longstanding reputation and long-time clients, it also means Union Hardware is entwined in the community, whether doing community events, charitable endeavors or social happenings. For instance, the showroom participated in the Gay Pride Parade earlier this year, where it won Most Outrageous honors, and the Starry Night living piece of art that adorns the side of the building has won art awards; the piece also went viral online, having been viewed by millions of people while helping to spread the word about the firm and showcase its creativity.

At SplashWorks, Nelson agrees that word of mouth is the primary way the showroom reaches new clients. “Our only advertising really is the most basic you can do with Yellow Pages. Our name is in there, but there are no ads.” He adds, “Our website draws a lot of traffic because we have a really good SEO. Most of that is because we get [so much traffic from people who have been] referred by a friend and then go to Google to find our phone number or address.”

Kotowsky notes that most of Hydrology’s projects originate from the trade, including designers, architects, developers, etc. “We also host and participate in a lot of networking events,” he adds. “We also get quite a few leads and opportunities from our website, and we get a fair amount of referral business from folks who own Hydrology kitchens, baths and home furnishings. We’re not the type of brand that believes in traditional advertising, per se, based on the more boutique, bespoke, luxury brand that we are.”

According to Bittner, Pierce draws clients through “word of mouth, relationships with the design and architect community and luxury home builders…and it helps that we’ve been doing this since 1937, so we’ve met a few people along the way!”

While DPH showrooms face a variety of challenges, one of the most critical is the commoditization mentality, according to several of those interviewed.

As Goldberg explains, “People, especially the youth, do their research online by places that sell online, so the level of what they’re looking at rarely makes it out of the commodity level of products. And they see it and click on it and they’re done. So what we’re fighting mostly is that desire people have for something special versus the ease of getting a commodity product.”

Another challenge, according to Goldberg, is that many designers are uncomfortable taking design risks, preferring to ‘play it safe’ with familiar products and design concepts they’ve grown comfortable with, or that their clients are comfortable with.

“We have our customers who have and want very special things for their special homes, but because there are so few true DPH showrooms, there’s not always enough to educate the market and it goes toward the failure of being able to raise the bar,” Goldberg believes.

Nelson says, “The greatest challenge still is and will always be the Internet and the act of ‘showrooming.’ Showrooming is when people go online, see what they like and then go to the showroom to validate what they saw with no intention of buying. They gain knowledge to validate what they do know and buy it elsewhere for a perceived lower price, not realizing the pitfalls in doing so.”

However, Nelson sees encouraging signs in the recent drop in Internet sales of plumbing products (“It’s down about 37 percent this year, I think”), and he believes “this speaks to a lot of people finally realizing that the Internet is not necessarily the best way to buy stuff when you run into problems. People are getting burned and the word is finally getting out.”

According to Bittner, “The greatest challenge facing our industry when it comes to showrooms is twofold. First, there’s a lot of misinformation found online, which doesn’t accurately represent the quality and the value of the brands they’re promoting. So consumers are coming in self-educated, but unfortunately, those online retailers and manufacturers are doing them a disservice in their education process.”

He continues, “The second big challenge, and in some ways, it’s also an opportunity, is that many manufacturers have allowed the last eight years to be about cost cutting rather than coming out with truly game-changing products. So much was spent on cost engineering and bringing out cheaper, value-priced faucets, maybe they take it off shore, and you can feel the value engineering coming out of the product.

“But at the same time, we’re seeing a resurgence of authentic manufacturers coming out with new designs, new technology, a strong appreciation for the assets that come out of a showroom, and amazing, game-changing products…going back to their roots for what brought them to the dance.”

The dramatic difference in quality between the two types of products creates a tremendous opportunity to educate clients, Bittner believes, and this also enhances the showroom’s value to customers by showcasing the knowledge of the staff.

He cites an example: “The water quality is very poor in Dallas; there’s more chlorine in the city water than there is in a public pool. So we have a tap of straight city water, and one that goes through our water filtration system. I can pour two glasses right there and [showroom visitors] can smell the difference, taste the difference, and we can show them the chemical difference, the real tangible advantages in terms of health and taste.”

He continues, “Our whole showroom is built that way – you can see three door handles, feel the heaviness of the more expensive one. I think that’s the thing, about showing physically, tangibly, the difference between different gauges of steel, so people can understand what is truly appropriate for that house. Everyone and everything online looks amazing and special and it’s got a great story, but we know what quality is and our displays are built to show that quality.”

He adds, “We don’t just carry super high end, we also carry middle-of-the-road stuff, and that allows us to show the differences in a way that the Internet doesn’t. People can actually feel the step up.”

At Hydrology, where the focus is exclusively on the ultra high end, including products where customization is offered on finishes, sizes, materials, shapes, etc., Internet competition isn’t even on the radar. “We’re definitely zeroed in on the true luxury market and we’re a bit insulated from the economy as well as well as other competing pressures. While I don’t view us as a DPH showroom per se, one challenge we share would be accommodating all of the ever-changing compliance certifications and codes and water saving and all of the local agency requirements. Plumbing requirements and codes are sometimes challenging for us – it’s something that we have to pay close attention to,” Kotowsky concludes.

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