For most of the many articles I’ve written for this wonderful publication I have waited up to the deadline (the first of each month) to look for inspiration to put words to paper. Yes, I still write them by hand! But I have hit upon a new means of inspiration. I’m enjoying the fourth day of a Caribbean cruise with 25 classmates from college. Now I’m not going to give away the number of years since I matriculated from Lafayette College, a quasi Ivy League institution of higher education located in Easton, PA. Suffice it to say we’re all either grey or bald, a tad overweight, and wearing either eye glasses, hearing aids or both. Where does the time go?

It has prompted me to reflect on all the changes I’ve seen in my lifetime - and hope to see for many more years to come.

I got started in this great industry more than 50 years ago - working for one ofSupply House Times’ very first Wholesalers of the Year. American Standard and Crane ruled the fixture world. Fixtures came in one color: White! Faucets were either chrome or chrome! There were a few showrooms, but you talk about “plain jane” and poorly merchandised. They just weren’t an important part of the wholesalers’ overall business strategy. Most wholesalers were family owned. I don’t believe there were any conglomerates. The wholesaler I cut my teeth with had about 20 branches and they were one of the “big daddies.” I don’t believe there were any independents, and even kitchen and bath dealers were a fledgling business.

Let’s fast forward 50 years. Wow - what a change. Kohler is the big player in fixtures and faucets. American Standard has experienced a number of challenging changes but is hanging in there. Crane is a mere image of their original self and there is a newcomer from Japan that’s making some serious waves. The plain white and chrome has given way to an unbelievable array of beautiful luxury kitchen and bath products. The standard old 5-foot by 8-foot bathroom (a place of necessity only) is now one of the most important rooms in the home (along with the kitchen). There are literally hundreds of small “mom and pop” manufacturers of bath and kitchen luxury products.

While the wholesalers dragged their feet taking the showroom business seriously, hundreds of independent bath and kitchen businesses sprang up all over America and Canada. (My business was one of them.) Many of these independents learned how to sell “retail.” They opened their doors to all comers. They learned how to sell for profit and today earn a large share of the ever-growing luxury bath and kitchen product business.

For the past 13 years I have pleaded with wholesalers to study this important business opportunity and add this highly profitable piece of business to their portfolios. It’s been slow coming, but it’s happening.

One of the biggest changes I’ve seen is the total dominance of the plumbing trade 100% involved in the buy/sell of all plumbing products to them losing that portion of the business. Plumbers refused to do showrooms. They refused to be any part of “selling” the homeowners. They wouldn’t accept the new products that were being rolled out and they felt entitled to a hefty profit on the sale of all finished plumbing products. (Plus, they were installing the products and demanding a nice profit on this.) I absolutely believe they do earn and should be fairly compensated for the installation portion. But if they don’t contribute to the buy/sell phase, they shouldn’t expect remuneration. I remember when electricians were 100% involved in the buy/sell of lighting fixtures. Today it’s zero, nada, zip, nothing! That’s what’s happening with the plumbers and plumbing fixtures.

I’ve seen fixtures made available in a huge array of colors and styles and faucets offered in a couple dozen finishes. I’ve seen water conservation products become mandated and popular. I’ve seen the American marketplace open up to products made by companies all over the world (and in most cases very well made). I’m witnessing things called “green” and “lead free.” I’ve seen kitchen and bath products being shown at K/BIS and the builders’ shows grow from the back rooms to the forefront. I’ve seen “function” become every bit as important as “form,” and I’ve seen homeowners take charge of what products will be installed in their homes - regardless of whether it’s new construction or remodel. They rightfully believe that it’s their home, their money, their style, color and finish choice, and they want to make the important decisions on what will be purchased, who will do the purchasing and who will do the installing.

Here are some really positive changes I’m seeing wholesalers adopt:

  • They are starting to treat the showroom business as a separate profit center. They are starting to generate accurate profit and loss statements and for the first time truly identifying what their return on investment is in this important segment of their business.

  • They are starting to create accurate annual budgets for the showroom.

  • They are putting together retail-oriented marketing plans.

  • They are going to school on what it takes to operate a successful “retail”-oriented business.

  • They are making themselves more customer friendly with convenient days and hours of operation.

  • They are learning that offering a nice diversity of products (expanding beyond the traditional wholesaler products) brings in more potential clients, which leads to more revenues.

  • They are learning to be better merchandisers of their showroom products.

  • And - hold on to your hats - many wholesalers are finally learning how to sell to achieve the kind of gross profit margins they deserve. Margins are finally leaving the 20s and moving into the 30s! Hurray! How long before they hit the high 30s where they should be?

  • And hear this: Wholesalers are learning that hiring, training, motivating and compensating showroom managers and sales consultants better really does pay dividends. Like many things in life, you get what you pay for.

  • Unfortunately there are a number of areas that still need a lot of work (including many of the above listed items). Here are a few:

  • Very few wholesalers have a detailed/written 3-5 year business plan for the showroom segment of their business. How in the world can you get from Point A to Point B if you don’t have a plan?

  • The showroom business, just like the wholesale business, is a selling business. Very few companies offer any type of selling skills training. As I’ve stated a number of times before, nothing happens until the sale is made. So why in the world wouldn’t you try to help your salespeople be the very best they can be?

  • Very few companies have spelled out written job descriptions for their showroom employees.

  • Very few companies do regularly scheduled job performance evaluations with and for their showroom employees. Doesn’t everyone deserve to know what’s expected of them and how they’re performing?

    To borrow a phrase from a famous American: “I have a dream….” My dream continues to be that the owners and managers of wholesale businesses that operate showrooms will do everything possible to learn all they can about this exciting, rewarding, fun part of their business. Like almost anything else, good things start from the top and filter down. During this slowdown in new home construction and while folks are regrouping from the downturn in the economy is when you should be building (or rebuilding) a solid foundation for your showroom business. New construction and remodeling will come back, and come back strong. You need to be positioned to take advantage of this great opportunity.

    Please feel free to e-mail or call with questions or comments, or if I can be of any service.