Wholesalers' showrooms offer some distinct advantages when compared with the giant home centers.

Yesterday I had a "big box" experience -- and it wasn't a good one. I had to return two irrigation timer boxes that stopped working after six months. I also needed to pick up some light bulbs and batteries. It should have been easy, but it wasn't!

The store no longer stocks the timer I needed to exchange. I was told the timers were in the plumbing department. They weren't -- they were in the landscaping area. I could not find anyone to help me. When I did find someone, he said he would be happy to help me, but he was really from the paint department and not too familiar with the landscape department.

I had to do the timer exchange at the returns counter, where it took three phone calls and 15 minutes. Then I had to go to a regular checkout line to buy my light bulbs and batteries. There were 16 checkout lines (I stood there and counted them), but only two were being used. I was twelfth in my line and the grumbling was terrific. I could hear something like, "These big guys came along with low prices, chased the little guys away, now prices have gone up and you can't get any help!" So I wasn't the only one having a bad big-box experience!

If you have a relatively nice showroom, have people who know their products, offer a reasonable list of customer services and try just a little harder to make clients happy, you can and should sell circles around the big boxes.

The main big-box players are The Home Depot and Lowe's, along with Home Expo and Sears Great Indoors. Yes, these are big businesses. But as I experienced yesterday, big doesn't necessarily mean good! Yes, they have tremendous buying power. Yes, they are fine marketers. Yes, they offer one-stop shopping, including installation on many products. Yes, we should be aware of who they are and how they do business.

But no -- we shouldn't concede one single client or one single order to them. There are so many things we can and should be doing better. Let's review several areas:

  • Parking. Instead of a huge parking lot and a long walk to the front door, our parking should be convenient and easy -- specially on rainy or snowy days.

  • First impression. As opposed to a huge open warehouse with concrete floors and orange-and-green racks, our showroom is warm and comfortable. We have carpet or tile on the floor. We make the client feel at home.

  • Meeting and greeting. No one has ever said, "Welcome to our store. How may I serve you?" when I've visited a big box. But that's the very first thing we do in a showroom environment.

  • Clean, complete and up-to-date displays. Go visit a big box -- you won't find the same thing. Our displays look "homey." Theirs don't!

  • Showroom staff's appearance. Our people should be dressed professionally in keeping with the high-end products we show and sell. Blue jeans and an orange apron with "stuff" hanging all over it may be okay for warehouse selling, but it's not how I'd want a salesperson to look when I'm about to spend several thousand dollars on nice-looking products.

  • Undivided attention and help selecting products. Clients building a new home or doing a major remodel want help in selecting the products that will meet their choice of style, quality and budget. This may require several hours of one-on-one relating. Our showrooms offer this; big boxes don't!

  • Well-trained salespeople. This is an area where we should have a huge advantage. Our showroom salespeople should have in-depth product knowledge and know how to use it. Today's customers want to know features and benefits, and they want to work with people who can answer their questions. The big boxes have a very difficult time in this area. They just have too many products and not enough people. We have to make training one of our big value-added advantages.

  • Establish rapport. Our salesperson's greeting, smile, handshake, willingness and availability to spend time with our clients are all part of building a relationship with them. He is the expert and "friend." People like doing business with people they like. Showrooms offer this. The big boxes certainly don't.

  • Doing a complete and accurate quote. A showroom salesperson using her knowledge and selling skills will help clients develop lists of the products they need. The lists will be complete (including all accessories) and accurate (styles, colors, finishes). At the big-box store, customers have to put together their own lists. Unless they have done it quite a few times, the list will be missing important items and will have mistakes.

  • A showroom will tag and hold products. The big boxes won't. This service means the product will be ordered, brought into the warehouse and held for a short but reasonable length of time. When it's needed, it's there. Most clients don't have storage space at their job sites. This is another value-added service that we offer.

  • Job-site delivery. Most showrooms offer this on one item or a whole house of products. Most don't charge for this service. (I think they should.) The big boxes offer delivery through their "Pro" (contractor) division, but it's with some reluctance. They would prefer that the customer loads it in his cart, pushes it through the checkout line to his car or truck, and lifts it into his vehicle. This may be easy for the young and strong, but not so easy for many. In my area they charge $30 to deliver "one toilet or a hundred."

  • No long lines. Our showrooms do not have long lines like the one I experienced yesterday, when it took me almost 30 minutes to go through the checkout line.

  • Showrooms are good at "the little things." We offer hot coffee, tea and soft drinks at no charge. Our public restrooms have convenient access, look nice and are clean. Many showrooms have play areas for children. Our showrooms are well-lit and offer the staff and clients a place where they can sit down to study quotes, review plans and close the sale.

  • Visualization. Our showroom displays allow the clients to imagine what the products will look like in their homes. This makes it easier for them to make decisions.

  • Apples vs. apples? Branded products such as Delta, Moen or Jacuzzi in the wholesaler's showroom may not be the same items that are sold through the big boxes. The products may look alike, but may have different components and warranties. We have to do our homework in this area and be sure our clients are aware of the differences.

  • Follow-through. A showroom salesperson will be on the phone asking about the quote, the order, the job and the finished project. I promise you this won't happen with the big boxes. Our showrooms should send out notes of thanks for the business. If the project is big, perhaps we can send flowers, magazine subscriptions or certificates for dinner for two at a favorite local restaurant. What do you think the odds are that the big box would do that?

The personal touch

The showroom offers a much more personal experience in every way. Most clients who are building new or doing a major remodel want or need this. The big boxes aren't as good in most of the areas described above. But they are awfully smart, and they're working right now trying to figure out how to do a better job in all of these areas and more.

As the big boxes grow and redefine themselves, plumbing wholesalers and independent showrooms will have to continue to identify and refine all the things that make their value-added package more appealing.