If a plumbing contractor or homeowner in Savannah Georgia can’t get the answers or product they need from the local big-box home improvement store, the associate will call family-owned and operated Sandpiper Supply to the rescue. Not a scenario you’re used to hearing every day in the independent distribution world.
“Pretty often we get calls from Home Depot and Lowes referring customers to us,” says Christy Ellis, showroom director at Sandpiper Supply. “They know us and they know our team has the behind-the-wall and in-front-of-the-wall expertise to solve virtually any problem.”
Sandpiper Supply’s deep technical knowledge dates back to 1977 when husband and wife duo Chat Howard Sr. and Carol Howard opened a one-location plumbing distribution business. Howard Sr. remained active in the family business until he passed away in the fall of 2023. Today, his children, Chat Howard Jr. and Christy Ellis, run the family business nearly 50 years after its founding.
In the early 2000s, plumbers started asking Sandpiper Supply for “pretty trim” plumbing finishes and products the business didn’t originally stock. Carol Howard began working with customers to get those requested products and soon after, Ellis moved back home to Savannah to take over the task of opening a showroom division.
“Our showroom division started in the corner of our pricing room with one desk and one computer monitor,” Ellis says. “I worked out of there meeting with both plumbers and homeowners to start up our decorative side.”
Meant to be
The opening of Sandpiper Supply’s first brick-and-mortar showroom is truly a “right place, right time,” story. Just as Ellis was working to start up the showroom business, The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) reached out interested in purchasing Sandpiper’s original property in the Starland Dairy area.
“We told them to find us another property and we’d consider it,” Ellis says. “We did a property swap and built the building we’re in now in Mid-Town Savannah.”
With this property swap, Sandpiper Supply was able to expand its footprint in Savannah and surrounding areas while adding a 2,000 square foot showroom. “We were fortunate to be able to move into this new location that is much more high-profile and high-traffic,” says Howard Jr., the company’s president. “We went from a location that saw 250 cars per day to one that can see upwards of 18,000 cars a day.”
After the move, Ellis got to work building the front of the new location into a showroom, while the back of the property housed the company’s wholesale-distribution and warehouse side.
“We couldn’t have planned this move if we tried,” Howard Jr. says. “The guy from SCAD who originally approached us found the new location and built us a new building on it. We swapped keys and the showroom was born, perfectly near the historic, downtown Savannah area where most of our business comes from.”
The Plumbing Help Desk
Sandpiper Supply’s showroom is backed by the company’s longstanding technical product expertise from within the wholesale side. According to Ellis, the two business sectors are always evolving to work better together.
“It’s a challenge and a blessing to have both sides of the business to manage,” Ellis says. “We in the showroom have the expertise of the wholesale side to call on and use to better serve our customers. We can handle technical customization jobs because we can walk into the wholesale side and ask certified plumbers how something can be done.”
Howard Jr. agrees, adding that the business model on the wholesale side is known as “The Plumbing Helpdesk.”
“When plumbers get stumped, they call us,” he says. “Our counter team is very technical and they are amazing researchers — and it’s not just one of them, it’s the entire team.”
Sandpiper is passionate about finding the right solution for customers, no matter what it takes. “If one person can’t find the answer for you, we’ll find someone that will,” Howard Jr. says.
Just as the showroom team relies on the wholesale counter for technical expertise, the wholesale side can rely on the showroom designers to understand the look and feel the customer is after. Both sides work together to create a synergy that serves all needs of the customer. “Between the two sides of our business, we’re able to provide exactly what the customer wants or needs,” Ellis says.
Renovation at the right time
Sandpiper Supply held a grand reopening of its newly renovated showroom in late 2023. The company was focused on upgrading technology throughout the showroom to provide more working displays and show off the tech-advanced bath and kitchen products of today.
“This was a complete gut and remodel,” Howard Jr. says. “We busted concrete, pulled ceilings out — the whole nine yards — to create a blank slate for our showroom team.”
According to Howard Jr., if the showroom designers had any idea in mind for the showroom, this remodel was the time to do it. “We wanted to set ourselves up for the next ten years to be prepared for the rapidly changing technology in our industry,” he says.
Brittany Andrae, showroom manager, says the new showroom is more functional for both customers and the sales staff. “The displays are easier to navigate through and the flow of the entire showroom is much nicer,” she says. “Our goal was to create and elevated look and feel for our customers.”
Howard Jr. points out that there were two driving reasons that made now the right time to invest in full showroom remodel. “First, we saw the need to refresh our space and get new product on display to position ourselves better in the marketplace,” he says. “But the second component was looking down the pipeline realizing that we were likely going to be in a situation where homeowners were in a ‘golden handcuff’ of a 2.75 interest rate — they aren’t going to sell their homes, they’re going to invest in remodel.”
Obviously, the Sandpiper Supply team’s foresight was correct, as homeowners are in that exact position today avoiding selling their homes to take on 7-8% interest rates. “We knew if what we thought was coming to the housing market played out, we needed to be in the position to show our customers more displays and more product,” Howard Jr. says.
When it comes to what changed throughout the renovation, the easier question to ask would be, “what didn’t change?”
According to Andrae, the showroom team wanted the fixtures to speak for themselves. “We opted for more white backgrounds which make the faucets pop,” she says. “We have accents of walnut wood and warm tones that add the luxurious feel we were after,”
Clean, inviting and elevated are the words Andrae uses to describe the new showroom. The team also opted to leave displays unbranded to help customers shop for what they truly want.
“We don’t have brands out right now which lets our customers look around open-minded for what they like, instead of sticking to a particular brand from the start,” Andrae says.
When customers walk into Sandpiper Supply’s showroom, the goal is that they feel welcomed, by both the team and the environment. “Although we went for an elevated look and feel, the showroom is still inviting and relaxed,” Andrae says. “We never want anyone to come in and think ‘Oh, I can’t shop here.’”
Ellis points out that the showroom team is great at making customers feel welcome no matter what price point they’re shopping for. “We’ve all been to a place where as soon as you walk in you think you can’t afford it,” she says. “We didn’t want anyone to feel that way; we want people to know we can meet their needs at any budget.”
Andrae adds that the sales team works hard to make sure customers are comfortable. “The team is creative; they’re able to work with customers by finding out what look they like and then taking them to similar styles within the their price point.”
The Sandpiper Showroom team also pays close attention to how they pair up customers with sales associates. “We know not every person is going to be perfect match for every customer,” Ellis explains. “We don’t take it personally; we focus on pairing customers with the team member that will make them feel the most comfortable and welcome.”
Andrae points out that today’s showroom customer buying habits has evolved in several ways, one of which being that they care more about product quality and style than in year’s past. “People want to express themselves with color, texture and more high-end accents,” she says.
On the flipside, today’s customer is prone to shop online, which leads to unrealistic expectations for both price and lead times. “Lead times are a huge touchpoint right now, probably even more important than price in some cases,” Andrae says. “Customers have looked online and know they can get something within a few days, while our lead times might be much longer, depending on the brand.”
To combat this issue, the Sandpiper showroom team is sure to set accurate expectations in an initial meeting with each customer.
To stay up-to-date on the latest bath and kitchen design trends, Andrae and Ellis attend many trade shows, attend panel discussions and stay active on social media with designers.
“Our relationships with vendors through Luxury Products Group (LPG) and the Decorative Plumbing & Hardware Association (DPHA) are incredible valuable,” Ellis says. “They’re the ones doing a ton of education and building relationships with vendors to see what’s coming down the pipeline.”
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A part of the community
Being a local, family-owned business, Sandpiper Supply is committed to investing back into its community — a business principle that Carol and Chat Howard Sr. instilled in their children.
“They taught us early on that we have a duty to give back to our community,” Ellis says. “We use our social media to help with that.”
For example, each year the team hosts a Halloween costume contest on social media where everyone that enters tags a charity in their post. After the votes are cast, Sandpiper Supply will donate to the charity of the winner’s choosing.
The company also awards a scholarship every year to local high school seniors. “We ask them to write about what makes Savannah home,” Ellis says. “Because we want them to go nurture their skills and bring them back to reinvest in Savannah.”
Ellis adds that social media helps get the word out for the scholarship, and the team has received some truly impressive essays over the years.
“We’ve invested in social media for our philanthropic endeavors, but also to show local designers that we are up-to-date with trends and what’s going on in the plumbing industry,” Ellis explains.
The care for people starts inside the doors of Sandpiper Supply, and according to Andrae, the family-first atmosphere is what keeps the showroom team strong.
“We’re fortunate to have found great employees from both the design world and the customer service world,” she says. “But what’s impressive is being able to retain them, and it’s 100% Sandpiper’s culture that does that. The company takes its family environment seriously and shows employees that they are valued every day. Just like our showroom associates are passionate about being welcoming and kind, so is the Sandpiper leadership team.”