The future of showrooms in the decorative plumbing and hardware industry has been on my mind lately, especially as we hear about more brick and mortar stores such as J.C. Penney, Sears and Macy’s closing locations. Additionally, many of my friends are talking about – and using – purchase and delivery services presented by companies such as Amazon, Blue Apron and UberEATS, among others. Costco has also announced plans for a home delivery service, and you can now order items from Wal-Mart’s website and have them deliver your purchases right to your car, in their parking lot. You don’t even have to go into the store.
I believe that, eventually, we will not enter a brick and mortar store to do our shopping. If that is indeed the case, what does it mean for the showrooms in our industry?
This topic has been discussed at length among many of my peers in the Decorative Plumbing and Hardware Association. We, as key members of this industry, strive to be on the forefront of product trends and showroom design to meet today’s consumer demands, and we use the Association as a think tank.
However, because change is difficult, many industry showrooms continue to conduct business as they did 10 or 15 years ago, expecting customers’ purchasing habits to return to past patterns. We all understand that the internet isn’t going away, but because showrooms are unsure of how to retain sales with today’s increasingly used internet model, many have yet to change.
CHANGING THE SALES PROCESS
The sales process today has morphed into something quite different from what it used to be. Potential customers used to go to a few different showrooms, gather information from the sales associates, return home to think about their options, head back to a chosen store, seek out the salesperson who helped them (because they respected that the salesperson was being compensated by commission) and make their purchase.
A few years ago, this process began to shift. While consumers still traveled to the store and gathered information from the salesperson, they then returned home and purchased the product online.
I hear stories from salespeople that clients will spend hours of their time and expertise on product selection and then, while sitting at the showroom sales associate’s desk, look up their chosen product online and order it right in front of them; they are not even waiting until they get home. Many of today’s buyers do not see an obligation to value and compensate the professional showroom salesperson’s time and expertise, or brick and mortar overhead.
Another increasingly common purchasing method finds buyers starting their initial investigation online with sites such as Houzz and Pinterest, narrowing down their selections and using the internet to obtain the best prices from online stores. Then, as a check and balance, they visit a showroom with an image of what they want, thrust the picture in the showroom associate’s face and say, “What’s my price?” They do not want to be sold and they do not want any product information because they believe they have learned everything they need to make an informed decision from the internet.
I admit that even I am more comfortable purchasing online these days. Take shoes, for example. I used to have to go to the store, try on many versions and sizes and then purchase the pair that worked best; it was often a half-day-long ordeal. When internet shopping came along, I was initially hesitant to purchase shoes online because, if they didn’t fit, I’d have to pay shipping costs to return them. Now, online companies allow me to return the shoes with the freight prepaid; I have no risk. I will order the same shoe in three different sizes to make sure I get the correct fit and return either the two that don’t fit or even return all three if I want. It’s super easy and I can shop in the convenience of my own home.
Younger people have even fewer issues purchasing goods online. It’s not that much of a stretch to entertain the idea that children being born today may not ever enter a store in the future.
While my colleagues and I have acknowledged in the past few years that our industry would get to the point where consumers would purchase plumbing and hardware products online, we believed that showrooms would always be needed for the trade. We were wrong. It turns out that the trade is even more comfortable ordering products on the web than consumers because they have product knowledge and know what they need. At a recent ASID event I attended, I overheard younger designers saying that they buy or select many products for their projects on the internet.
My industry peers and I never dreamed that would happen because we incorrectly thought our specifiers would prefer to have a showroom contact to help in case there were any product issues or concerns. But, with companies mitigating online purchasing risks, the trade has no fear of obtaining the products they need via online stores.
THE SHOWROOM OF THE FUTURE
Based on the fact that more people are comfortable purchasing on the internet, appreciate its convenience and use it to obtain the best price, what will the showroom of the future actually be?
One possibility I see is a showroom owned solely by the manufacturer, providing a venue for clients to learn about the products, but not conducting any sales transactions. If people still want “touchy-feely,” this type of showcase would allow prospective buyers to see the products, learn about their features and benefits but then purchase them online. However, due to the overhead cost, it’s not feasible for a manufacturer to have its own showroom in every city in the U.S. It’s interesting to note that some manufacturers already offer these types of showrooms, but only in largely populated cities such as New York and Los Angeles.
Another, more logical, showroom solution might be to retain today’s showrooms, which offer multiple brands, but instead of dealers earning money through brick and mortar sales, they would earn money by charging manufacturers for showroom floor space. This would also allow vendors to have a national presence at a more reasonable cost than manufacturer-owned showrooms. Grocery stores already do a version of this by charging food merchants a slotting allowance that buys the vendor shelf space; the better the location and the more space taken by the manufacturer, the more the cost. With this type of set up, the manufacturers would have the ability to show goods in any city they choose; people would be able to see the products and then purchase them online.
An additional potential future showroom is the concept of a consulting showroom. With this version, multiple manufacturers’ products would be showcased, but instead of earning money through sales, the showroom would derive money through consultation or charging people to walk in the door so they may view products and ask for advice. Essentially, the showroom would charge an entrance fee and/or a fee for helping the client select products. Showrooms would become venues for consultations only and then the consumer would buy the product online. My showroom dealers and I have actually discussed providing a version of this by charging clients upfront to make selections, but returning this fee when they purchase the products from us.
A last idea is to provide a business that is all things to all people. Omnidirectional selling is the current method used by many entities where they have a brick and mortar showroom and online store. This business model is a hybrid, integrating the strong benefits of a showroom, relationships and personal knowledge, with the low-friction experience of online purchasing. Take the Wal-Mart example: You can buy goods at the brick and mortar store, you can purchase online and have it delivered to your house or you can order products on their website and have someone bring it out to your car in their parking lot. Interestingly, you can return products in the same manner; return it personally to the store, ship it back or drive to the store’s parking lot and have an associate come out and return it for you. Amazing.
So what do we do? None of us has the answer, but one thing is for sure – you cannot sit back and expect clients to come into your showroom and buy from you the same way they did in the past.
To run a successful business, you must react to the needs of the customer, and today these demands change rapidly. It’s quite possible that future showrooms will not sell goods, but instead will be venues that provide a service. ▪
Cynthia R. Carter is partner at Next Generation Marketing and president of the Decorative Plumbing and Hardware Association, located in Bethesda, MD. DPH Perspectives is published quarterly in KBDN under an exclusive strategic alliance with the Decorative Plumbing & Hardware Association.