Advance Plumbing Supply operates in an upper-income area with limited distribution products.

Nestled among prosperous suburbs where automotive industry executives reside, Advance Plumbing Supply offers an upscale mix of plumbing products in its Walled Lake, Mich., showroom. The 80-year-old, family-owned plumbing-and-heating wholesaler also operates a more traditional supply house in a 35,000-sq.-ft. facility in Detroit, where it focuses on boilers and pipe, valves and fittings.

"The entire Detroit metropolitan area has been experiencing a decade-long housing boom," says Jeffrey H. Moss, vice president. He is co-owner of Advance Plumbing Supply with his father, Ronald Moss, who is president of the company and runs the Detroit facility.

"Buildings that sat vacant for years are being purchased, and values are rising," Jeffrey Moss says. "The surrounding suburbs of Detroit, especially in Oakland County, which includes Walled Lake, have seen a tremendous increase in new housing developments."

Of course, every home or office needs plumbing, and higher-value properties require higher-quality, higher-priced fixtures. That is what Advance Plumbing is focusing on in its Walled Lake showroom.

"Walled Lake is in one of the highest income per capita areas in the country," Moss says. "North and west of us are up-and-coming areas. Location is definitely important.

"We try to focus on unique limited distribution items. Automotive industry executives are building or renovating wonderful homes around here. Probably 50% to 60% of the projects we supply involve new construction, 30% are renovations and 10% are replacement business like faucets."

The Walled Lake branch was opened in 1990 when Advance purchased the business and assets of Franklin Plumbing Supply, Moss says.

"Advance has doubled the size of the building to 24,000 sq. ft., which includes the warehouse and showroom."

An upscale showroom

The showroom features brands such as Toto, Ultra Baths, Dornbracht, Duravit, Absolute, Porche, Hansgrohe, Bates, Franke, Harrington Brass, Grohe, Basco, Jason, Oasis, Speakman, KWC, Hansa and Newport Brass.

The wholesaler offers more than 100 different models and styles of whirlpool tubs from more than 15 different manufacturers. Every tub in the showroom works, Moss says. Other functioning products in the showroom include showerheads, toilets and steam generators. Advance displays more than 36 different working showerheads and two different models of working steam generators.

The 3,000-sq.-ft. showroom is nearly doubling in size with the addition of 2,500 sq. ft. that was formerly designated for contractor sales, says Maggie Smith, showroom manager.

"We have moved our contractor counter to a convenient location on the east side of our building," Moss says. "We were able to make a separate entrance that is both accessible and inviting."

The new contractor area is in a separated area of the warehouse, with access available from outside the building or from inside the showroom, Smith says.

With the additional showroom space, Advance plans to feature a display of decorative lavatories, some made of glass or hand-painted, and wall-mounted faucets. Also, the wholesaler wants to offer more upscale furniture-style vanities and vessel stands, Smith says.

"At this point we have more contemporary-styled products on display, but we would like to balance that with items that have a traditional look," she says. "There is a huge demand for traditional styles."

Other categories slated for more showroom display space include accessories, medicine cabinets, and faucets with special finishes, such as nickel, copper and oil-rubbed bronze.

"We want to incorporate more into the displays, such as adding mirrors and other accessories," Smith says.

Beyond that, Advance's goals for the expanded showroom include featuring more unique products. "You see so much product coming from Europe and Asia," Moss says. "Those products need a place to be seen and distributed. We will continue to show new products on the market, and to educate plumbers and builders."

Advance Plumbing sells to plumbers, builders, interior designers, kitchen-and-bath shops and do-it-yourselfers.

"We have bridged the gap between traditional plumbers and high-end decorative plumbers," he says. "We have a licensed plumber on staff. Contractors feel comfortable doing business with us. They know if they have problems with leaks or drips we can troubleshoot. They send customers here as opposed to a decorative hardware showroom, because they know we will sell their customer the right product and that we provide the service. We work on referrals from the trades."

High visibility

The wholesaler promotes its showroom through local bath-and-kitchen shops by helping to outfit their showrooms and providing product-training seminars. For the trade, Advance has counter-day promotions and distributes flyers in addition to hosting training events.

For example, Advance may coordinate with a faucet manufacturer for a seminar on how to install a custom shower. Some events include a social or recreational activity with a product presentation.

Other trade outreach efforts involve clothing featuring the logos of both Advance Plumbing and the manufacturer whose co-op dollars pay for the goods.

"We clothe plumbing contractors," Moss says. "We have given out thousands of hats. Every year we give out sweatshirts. In the spring and summer we offer T-shirts. We also have caps, jackets and coffee mugs bearing the names of manufacturers. We'll do whatever it takes to get plumbing contractors to use our products."

Product training and buying incentives are the best uses of co-op dollars, he says. "In a high-income-per-capita market such as this, we have to cater to the customer and we must know our products."

Other promotional activities include editorial-style print ads in local newspapers, such as The Observer & Eccentric or The Detroit News. The ads include a picture of Moss and offer plumbing tips.

"The No. 1 topic has been toilets," Moss says. "I explain the high performance of Toto. Whenever we run the ad or reprint it, we get hundreds of calls about toilets. We've even gotten some free editorial coverage in print and on the radio."

Advance also has run TV commercials on a couple of home shows and other popular programs, such as the morning news. The wholesaler ran 15-second and 30-second TV spots in March and August.

Last year Advance did regular radio spots, not to generate business for its showroom but to create more awareness of Toto, which has limited distribution in the area, Moss says.

"We want the end-user to tell the builder or the kitchen-and-bath shop owner that he wants a Toto toilet," he says. "It's pull-through marketing. It builds demand for the product. We'll do a two-step sale to other wholesalers, who buy Toto from us. We just want people to ask for this toilet. There's a high probability Advance will end up getting the business, one way or another."

Toto products are of particular interest to Japanese executives and their families who have been transferred to work here in the automobile industry, he says. "They'll call Toto to ask where they can get a product." They get referred to Advance.

Advance Plumbing also attends home shows, bringing products such as whirlpool tubs and toilets that can be demonstrated, Moss says.

The Expos are coming

In July, Expo Design Centers entered Advance's marketing area with two stores in the metropolitan Detroit area, one about six miles and the other about 20 miles from Advance Plumbing's showroom. However, the wholesaler is secure in its competitive position, Moss says.

"Expo is a higher end operation of Home Depot," he notes. "It carries some products that overlap with ours. What will separate the Expos from everyone else is the service. We're in a thin labor market, which makes it difficult to find good people. High-end products such as custom showers require more expertise and training to sell. It takes a year or longer to train someone. At Advance, training is an ongoing process. Since the Expos have opened, our customers have expressed a greater appreciation for the knowledge and expertise of our showroom salespeople."

Advance sends its showroom people to visit manufacturers' plants and to trade shows as part of their ongoing training.

"We want our associates to get updates on new products and how to sell them," Moss says. "The manufacturer can tell us about new products and how they can be sold in our particular market."

Advance has seven salespeople in the showroom. Showroom hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, and a limited staff is available from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays. The contractor area of the showroom opens at 7:30 a.m. Appointments are available before and after regular showroom hours.

Flyers are sent to the trade, inviting them to send their customers to their showroom.

When Expo has entered other markets with some of the higher-end products carried by traditional wholesalers, it has served as a marketing tool for those distributors, Moss says.

"It means more people discover these wonderful products and they go to the plumbers, builders and interior designers and ask for them," he says. "Those people come to us and shop.

"The pie just gets bigger. There is enough for both of us. Some people who walk into my showroom have never heard of some of the brands we carry. We are always striving to make people knowledgeable about different products."

Developing an Internet presence

One way to educate large numbers of both consumers and trade professionals about products and brands is with a Web site. Advance Plumbing has hired an outside firm that offers both creation and promotion services to develop a Web site.

"I felt that once the site was in place, I would need an advertising firm to help customers find the site," Moss says. "The first phase of our Web site, which went online in July, is focused on being informative for customers and end users. We list more than 50 manufacturers and provide links to their Web pages. It is like an online catalog."

The only difficulty with the first phase of the Web site is the inability to put prices on the products, he says.

"We qualify customers with discounts," he says. "When we find out who it is, we can discount correctly. To get a quote or more information, customers can contact us at the Web site, by e-mail or a toll-free phone call."

The second phase of its Web site will be addressed more to the consumer and offer online purchasing.

"You can't fight it; you have to join it," Moss says. "Our second phase will provide the opportunity to buy products online to everyone, including end users. We expect that to be up by the first quarter of 2001."

There are quite a few distributors putting products online and selling at high discounts, as much as 40% to 50% off, he says.

"They think they don't have much time invested in that type of sale, so they lower the prices," Moss says. "But you have to advertise your Web page, and that is expensive. You can't continue to sell at big discounts and spend money on advertising. In a couple of years, this practice will top itself out."

Sidebar: Cooperative promotion offers trial of whirlpool

Cobblestone Manor, a local bed and breakfast, has participated in a promotion with Advance Plumbing featuring Ultra Baths whirlpool tubs, which create a whirlpool effect with jets of air.

Cobblestone offers customers of Advance Plumbing a 20% discount off its room rate for an overnight stay in a suite outfitted with a two-person Ultra Baths whirlpool tub, or a two-hour "test drive" in one of the lodging's suites for $50. Those who take advantage of Cobblestone's offer and then buy an Ultra Baths tub at Advance get a $50 discount off the purchase price from the wholesaler.

"If I can get someone to experience the Ultra Baths hydro tub, it is almost a sure sale and worth every penny," says Jeffrey H. Moss, vice president and co-owner of Advance Plumbing.