The Boutique Showroom’s Identity Crisis

"We would ask, ‘Why would anyone travel to a store to buy something they don’t have to try on first?’”

Scrolling through a feed of negative reviews from a mechanical contractor on an ad Chown is running on social media for a well-known, high-end luxury line we’ve carried for more than 20 years, the comments range from, “Let your plumber buy the products so you get the labor warranty when it fails,” to less professional anecdotes such as, “Brand X is crap – better off buying something cheaper and easier to install.”

These real time examples open a Pandora’s box of questions that many smaller, boutique kitchen and bath showrooms have been asking for more than a decade – chiefly, “Who is my customer?” In reality, what suppliers should be asking is, “Who is my customer on this project”?

I’ve spent my entire working career in the Pacific Northwest at Chown Hardware, my family’s business since 1879. Our longevity speaks to a reputation built on service and standing behind the products we’ve been selling for five generations.


After the big-box store boom in the mid 1990s, we pivoted toward lesser-known luxury brands in our industry – brands that offer unique designs and craftsmanship worthy of an investment. Naturally, that choice directed us to interior designers and high-end homeowners as our target customers, but we had no idea the risks that waited around the corner.

We knew we would be competing with the big wholesalers and small electrical and plumbing stores, but we came to realize that our biggest blind spot was not competing showrooms, but the last person on the job installing the products we sell. Granted, after 30 years of trying, winning some and losing others, we have an established clientele of plumbers and contractors loyal to our business. However, the path to loyalty was anything but, well, loyal.

I’ve experienced horror stories I shudder to recall. One example involves one of our salespeople, who told a plumber that he would gladly give him a price and a delivery date, but he was not going to share a shopping list for the plumber to value engineer the spec with another wholesaler. That led to ‘someone’ taking a wrench to every piece of ceramic and acrylic on the job and pinning it on freight damage, putting us in one of our all-time favorite lose-lose scenarios. Our reality is that the blame for mistakes, more often than not, will always be on the person who isn’t in the room installing it, even when we do everything right and regardless of who bought the product.

Once we scaled the walls of the big-box scare, our next obstacle popped up – the internet. We spent many anxious nights wondering if we were witnessing an unavoidable threat to our way of doing business. We would ask, “Why would anyone travel to a store to buy something they don’t have to try on first?”

More than 20 years later, what was true about clothing is just as true about decorative hardware and plumbing to a designer: they want to try it before they buy it. We operate a luxury showroom so our clients can have a place to touch and feel the differences in quality and craftsmanship firsthand. A website simply can’t equal that experience, but it can motivate someone searching for a bargain on their investment. That brings us to the luxury homeowner.


The biggest complication that the internet has created for showrooms is the retail customer “shopping” for a good deal. In contrast, most of the trade values the time and effort invested by showroom salespeople. In fact, many designers include a clause in their own contract stating that all fixtures need be purchased through the specifying showroom. Oddly enough, countermeasures like this aren’t often put there to protect the partnerships involved – they’re actually there to ensure the accuracy of the specification. The more the client shops the product, the more opportunities there are for human error and toxicity on the jobsite.

We have been doing this long enough to know that a homeowner specifying their own products is a recipe for mistakes – especially when it comes to door hardware. By the time a sales associate has explained all of the technicalities of how to order it correctly, the onus is still on them to execute it correctly, even though we insist they let us do it. That is why trade discounts exist, because it makes everyone’s lives easier by getting it right the first time. That was then, today is now.

That brings us to the most controversial shift in our market – price. Twenty years ago, it made sense to allow an expert their markup to guarantee accuracy and reward loyalty. Today, there’s simply no room for the plumber, builder, designer and showrooms to all make margins on the goods we provide. So, what needs to change and how?

I think the responsibility for change is partially on the showrooms to educate our customers on what a successful trade relationship looks like in 2021. Advise customers that it doesn’t make much sense when a plumber, who installs ordinary shower valves on a regular basis, charges the same rate to install a high-end shower system from Germany. A shift in perspective might very well re-stake their claim as the expert if the work matches the quality of the products being installed. There is a clear responsibility we have as professionals to take ownership and pride in the quality of our work.

A colleague in our industry once put it to me this way, “Would you let the person who cleans your house pick out furniture for a $10M home based on how easy it is to clean?” No! That is why that homeowner hired a designer – to navigate and find the most functional and beautiful furnishings for their home. That is the mindset we have to have in this business – discovering who our customer is and being willing to walk away when it’s not the right fit and keep them coming back when it is.

There is no right answer to how we identify our customers, only a lot of a wrong answers and warning signs along the way. One of my mentors in this business bought all of her salespeople a little owl desk ornament one year. Because I’m from Oregon and we have a lot more eagles and hawks, I wasn’t expecting there to be any symbolism attached to this ugly ornament that has been sitting on my desk most of my career. She waited for us to ask her, “What’s with the owl?” before telling all of us individually that the owl was a reminder that our first task in the business is repeating the question “who?” like a team of owls.

When you know who it is you’re dealing with – a homeowner, a designer, a contractor or a plumber – you start to recognize the pattern and you have multiple opportunities to influence a new customer by identifying their needs and solidifying your relationship with a project first, and maybe a lifelong customer if you know your worth. ▪

A fifth-generation member of the family hardware business, Nathanael Chown is the marketing manager at Chown Hardware. Based in Seattle, Nathanael has played an integral role in expanding the Portland-based hardware business into Washington. This past year, he helped launch Chown Hardware’s new Seattle Showroom, which earned a 2020 DPHA Showroom of the Year Award and  NKBA 2021 Innovative Showroom Award.


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