Having a wider selection will enhance your ability to grow sales, revenues and gross profit margin.

As I travel through the United States, I am continually disappointed at how much the plumbing wholesaler showrooms look alike. Everyone has a main fixture line, then tries to show one or all of the three main wholesaler faucet lines. Every wholesaler carries virtually the same things. I understand that these are the items that the wholesalers have to inventory and sell to the plumbing trade. But why not diversify your lines in terms of manufacturer, price point, style and the type of products being sold?

The August issue of Home Depot's monthly product brochure "We've Got It!" shows a large variety of kitchen and bath products: fixtures, faucets, kitchen cabinets, tile, appliances, vanities, medicine cabinets, countertops, bath accessories, door and cabinet hardware, light fixtures. And it features multiple brands of products. Consider applying some of Home Depot's strategies to your showroom by offering a greater variety of products and brands in response to customer preference for one-stop shopping.

Think different

There are several decorative fixture and faucet lines that the big-box stores don't sell. The plumbing wholesaler across town probably doesn't show or sell them either. Here's your opportunity to offer your customers something they can't get from your competition. Research these lines, and do an exclusive or semi-exclusive program with one or more of these companies.

There's another good reason to offer products available nowhere else in your area: money! Assuming that you are buying the traditional plumbing wholesaler products at about 50% off manufacturers list price and selling them for 40% off the list price, you don't need an accountant to tell you the margins are tight. But you can buy many of the non-traditional lines at about 60% off manufacturers list and sell them at 20%-25% off the list price. Good margin enhancers? You better believe it! You can show and sell your main horses, but add a string of profitable ponies, too!

Next time you visit your favorite high-end department store, walk through the ladies' fashion department. You'll find separate selling areas for Ralph Lauren, Faconnable, Carol Little, Savvy, Armani, Escada, Donna Karan and more. These department stores are great merchandisers. They know how to appeal to a large audience, keep the customers in the store and get them to buy. Wholesaler showrooms can emulate these department stores and attract more customers by creating separate selling areas or mini-boutiques for certain categories or brands.

You can't be all things to all people, but you can expand your product offerings dramatically. Your main investment is in the display; showroom products require very little inventory. Because of the variety of sizes, styles, colors and finishes, 85% of all sales end up being special order items.

My showroom business was a Kohler Registered Showroom, but we also displayed and sold six other fixtures lines. Kohler's numbers grew every year, but so did the other six lines'. We were able to offer a better product mix for our clients. This marketing strategy differentiated us from other wholesalers and big-box stores. The non-traditional brands were always profit enhancers.

Branch out into different product categories

Displaying and selling products besides traditional plumbing items provides another great opportunity to grow showroom sales and be different. I'm talking about bath accessories, vanities, medicine cabinets, spas, lighting fixtures, tile and more. Every new and remodeled kitchen and/or bath uses these products. Why shouldn't you be the one to write that business?

Showroom salespeople should enjoy average monthly sales of $60,000 or more and gross profit margins of 35%-40% or higher. They can do this kind of volume with the traditional wholesaler products, but the margins will be in the 25%- 30% range. Ten points higher in margin should be sufficient inducement to make you want to diversify your product selection.

Salespeople like having a variety of products to sell; it's more interesting, challenging and rewarding.

Stepping outside the box isn't easy. For two or three generations, the wholesaler has sold a fairly limited line of products, mainly because the nature of that business is to buy in bulk, break it down and sell it in smaller quantities. The selling price has been largely dictated by the manufacturer on the buy side and the contractor on the sell side. Those margins are usually in the low 20s.

Enter showrooms. In the early days, they were created to show luxury products sold at the same low margins, and virtually every wholesaler showroom sold the same name-brand products, with the only difference being the main fixture line.

Historically, wholesalers have not been very good merchandisers or marketers. But they haven't had to be. The manufacturers built up demand among consumers, architects, designers and builders, which flowed back through the plumber (possibly the single worst marketer in the world!) to the wholesaler to the manufacturer.

Times have changed dramatically in the past 20 years. Now the big-box stores are selling more than 50% of all the kitchen and bath products sold. The consumer and/or builder are now the main purchasers. The group that has been the slowest to change is the wholesaler.

Follow that dollar

The most recent Supply House Times Showroom Survey found that only 34.6% of the wholesalers that have showrooms listed "bottom line profitability" as their number one reason for building them. I find this to be unbelievable! Why would anyone spend about a quarter of a million dollars unless he intended to make money?

Step back and take a look at your showroom. Do you have it for the right reason: to make money? Can you determine the actual profitability of your showroom? Do you offer all the marketing tools necessary to succeed? Is your showroom appealing and up-to-date? What products can you add to make your showroom a "one-stop-shopping" source for today's busy and smart buyer? What do you have to do to grow revenues and margins and increase return on investment?

Evaluate your situation. Move in the direction you want to go with full knowledge and understanding of where you are now and where you want to be in the future! Good luck!