I just returned from a consulting job in the Midwest where it snowed, rained and iced over and was cold as the dickens! My poor thin blood is just too used to sunny California and the Baja of Mexico.

My client had given me two assignments: One, to do an overview of his business, including everything from financial to human resource to marketing; Second, to evaluate his marketplace - and part of this was to “mystery shop” his competitors and his showroom operations. I love “mystery shopping.” I see the good, the bad and everything in between. And, I learn a lot! (Yes, an old dog can learn new tricks.)

I'm sorry to report that my visit to four wholesale plumbing showrooms was a huge disappointment. I've really been under the impression that wholesalers are starting to get it. That is, they've recognized the wonderful opportunity that showrooms offer to grow revenues and margins. They offer a chance to expand their customer base and strengthen their vendor relationships. Unfortunately, what I witnessed on this particular tour tells me there are a lot of folks that aren't taking advantage of this opportunity.

In the course of a year I pretty much travel all over these fruited plains and into Canada as well. I get to see a lot of showrooms. That's why my last several articles have been positive and upbeat concerning the changes wholesalers are making in their showroom operations.

Let's talk specifics. And yes, you've heard a lot of this before. But quite frankly, I'm not going to stop beating the drum for improvement until the wave crosses the entire country. I want desperately for wholesalers to succeed. I love the industry and I want everyone to be a winner.

So here I am in a mid-sized Midwest city. There are four plumbing wholesalers and each has a showroom. My client gave me a map with destinations marked. After chipping the ice off my window and getting the heater fired up, I was off! It took the best part of a day to accomplish my mission because I also “shopped” two lighting fixture showrooms with the thought this might be a good addition to my client's product offering.

Of the four plumbing wholesalers I visited, three are multi-branch and one was a one-store operation. All are long-time, well-established businesses and all have had showrooms for quite awhile.

Here's what I discovered:

  • None of the four was in a decent location. Three were in industrial park areas and one in an older part of town.

  • Only one had any roadside visibility. This one had good roadside signage (although the sign only showed the company name and not what they did).

  • Only one had easy access - the others you really did need a map.

  • In all four cases there were no related building product businesses in the area. Remember, customers like “one-stop shopping” as much as possible.

  • Two of the four had easily identifiable showroom entrances. Two of them I had difficulty identifying the entrance.

  • There was good parking at all four locations, but all the convenient spots were filled and when I went in the showrooms there were no clients. So the best parking spots were apparently being used by the employees. Shouldn't the best spots be reserved for clients - especially homeowners?

  • Only one showroom had windows that could be used for display purposes.

  • All four had the hours of operation on their doors and I'm pleased to report three of the four are open on Saturdays. (Only for four hours, but that's better than not at all.)

  • At two stores the showroom entrance was also the counter entrance and the showrooms were off to the side. This isn't as good as entering right into the showroom.

  • I was in each showroom approximately 30 minutes. This is unusual and a bit hard to believe, but I didn't see one customer in any showroom. Now it wasn't a great day to be out, but still, no customers??

  • All four showrooms displayed basically the exact same manufacturer products. All the standard traditional wholesale products. Now there's nothing wrong with this, except it sets up the scenario that the company with the best price wins! It's tough to make good margins when this is the case. The answer is diversification! Mix in some nontraditional, exclusive products. Be different!

  • Three of the four had “by appointment only” signs on their front doors. Keep in mind there were no customers in any showroom - so would they make exceptions to this policy? I hope so.

  • In my opinion, none of the four showrooms was very well done. If I were to rate them on a scale of 1-10 (one being low), two would have received 5s, one a 4 and one a 3. Regardless of whether you “protect” the plumber or not, the folks making the buying decisions are homeowners. With this being the case, shouldn't showrooms be appealing, good-looking, warm and customer friendly?

  • Two showrooms had no model numbers or prices on display product and two did (real manufacturer model numbers, too). The two that had model numbers and prices used handwritten tags - not as professional as they could be.

Now here's the part that bothered me the most - and I really can get upset over this. In not one showroom did anyone greet me, welcome me, and ask who I was or why I was there. Not one! Keep in mind there were no other customers. The sales consultants (and I use that term loosely) were not on the phone, and they obviously saw me. One consultant did look up, but didn't get up, and yelled across the showroom to ask if I had an appointment. I said no and she said, “Look around.”

After 15 minutes or so, I approached a salesperson and said I was going to be building a new house. I asked if I could buy product here. Each asked if I had a builder. I indicated I was talking to a couple and was leaning toward acting as my own general and subbing it out. Each said yes I could buy and at wholesale prices. One salesperson (again, using the term loosely) said that unless plumbers buy the product they won't warrant the work. I said I thought all manufacturers warranted their products. She said “yes,” but if there were callbacks, the plumber would need to be paid. I said I'd be fine with that - because the money I'd save by buying direct would more than offset a callback or two.

The moral of the story is that the owner of the wholesale business spent good money to build out the showroom and hired one or more salespeople to work in it. But, in this “mystery shopping” tour of four showrooms, not one salesperson exhibited any selling skills! No greeting, no thank you for coming in, no who are you and what's your project, no sales pitch on the company or products or themselves! I left each store frustrated that here's a lot of money that's been invested and the owners aren't enjoying nearly the return that they should.

My client's showroom was one of the four - so I wasn't able to give him a very good report on the looks or actions from my visit to his showroom. But the good news is, my client recognizes this and is going to do something about it. This company plans to move to a central, highly trafficked, very visible, very accessible, very customer friendly location and is going to build a large, very attractive showroom. They are going to diversify their products and learn the retail business. They are going to teach their salespeople how to sell. Selling is a learned skill that needs to be taught and protected. They're going to promote their business to builders, remodel contractors, interior designers, architects and yes, consumers. No, they're not going to walk away from their very important plumber business, but they are going to take charge of their own destiny and make their showroom business an important profit center. And, from what I saw their competitors doing, they're going to kick some serious butt! So yes, I really do believe things are getting better - but there's still a lot of room for improvement. <<