Darlington on Showrooms: An Interview With David Hawkins, Showroom Designer
Every year I get several calls and e-mails asking if I do showroom design. I do not! I have strong feelings about layout, flow, keeping like products together, accessorization, etc., but I am not a designer and always defer to those folks who have talent in that area.
In the past year my path has crossed with David Hawkins, who is a showroom designer. Several of my clients have used David to help them with the design of their showrooms. I have been tremendously impressed! In my opinion, David has emerged as one of the country's premier showroom designers.
I have several plumbing wholesale clients that have multiple showrooms (from five to 50). Until recently, each location was different. There was no commonality, no central theme, and no brand identification. I strongly believe that the “big boxes” have the right idea. Find the format, layout, colors, materials, size that works best. Then replicate it - over and over again. There are cost-effective reasons for this, but more importantly it provides a consistency to the look and presentation of products. And it builds “brand.” Sure, the size of the showroom may vary depending on the demographics of the local marketplace. So what you can do here is come up with three different sizes based on the demographics: Size A showroom might be 3,500-4,000 sq. ft.; Size B showroom would be 2,200-2,750 sq. ft.; and Size C showroom, 1,500 to 2,000 sq. ft. Other than size and the amount of product displayed, every showroom would look and feel alike.
Hank: Tell me a little about your background and how you have evolved into one of the country's best showroom designers?
David: Believe it or not, before I went to Kent State for Design I was a journeyman carpenter, which has been a great help to me in that I don't design things that can't be built. As for store designs, jewelry stores gave me the experience to move on to plumbing showrooms, which is really selling “jewelry for the home.” I started designing in local (Ohio) commercial projects and slowly evolved into retail-oriented spaces. I did my first plumbing wholesale showroom designs about seven years ago and it's just taken off.
Hank: What are the main themes you follow in designing a decorative plumbing showroom?
David: The main theme for every showroom I work with is to make the products that are being sold take center stage. I want them to be the most important thing potential clients see when they first walk through the door…and as they continue their journey through the showroom.
Hank: You know that I like keeping “like” products together as much as possible. How do you feel about this?
David: I absolutely agree with you on this! It's beneficial in two ways. First, it makes it easier for clients to make their selection. All the options are in full view. Secondly, it allows the sales consultant to take charge of the selection and selling process by keeping the selections close. Decisions are quicker and easier and there is a minimum of running back and forth to various areas of the showroom. It's less confusing for both the client and the sales consultant.
Hank: I know that lighting is a big part of your background. I also know how important lighting is to a great showroom. How do you make it work in your designs?
David: As I mentioned before, the products should take center stage. I feel lighting is absolutely the best way to achieve that goal. It acts like the spotlight for an actor on stage. Yes, the initial cost will be more than general illumination, it will take more time to maintain and consume more energy, but it will pay big dividends in increased sales because it will show off the beauty of the product.
Hank: Most folks have trouble bragging about themselves. But here's your opportunity to brag just a bit about yourself. What awards have you won? What projects are you proudest of?
David: I have been fortunate enough to have several clients that allowed me to be creative with both design and lighting. From these we have received three national awards, two showroom design awards and one showroom lighting award. I've also received eight regional awards - three of these being for showrooms.
The projects I'm most pleased with are the ones where the owner was skeptical of the design, and then more than pleased with the results. They brought me joy because it took courage on their part to proceed when they were doubtful.
Hank: I know that you did the showroom design for Falk Plumbing Supply in Little Rock, Ark., also one of my clients. SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES did an article on the company in June 2004. Tell me a little about this project.
Hank: We've had the chance to discuss showroom design - we've always been in agreement on how very important the “little things” are. Could you please elaborate in this area?
David: “Trifles make perfection, but perfection is no trifle.” Hank, you and I are together on this. A display with an empty hole, a lav with no faucet displayed on it, a burned out bulb…and how about that scrap of paper on the floor! All these things bark out at the consumer that “we don't care how we look!” Would you leave the house in the morning with messy hair (that is, if you had any hair!) or a wrinkled shirt? If you would, then I don't think you'd be working in my showroom. Well done accessorization to make showroom displays look and feel like home are important. Serving the right refreshments in the right way leaves great impressions - and obviously the professionalism of the sales staff is very important.
The showroom manager might say that he and his staff are too busy to replace that burned out light, or dust the displays, or vacuum the floor, but that first-time client doesn't have an appreciation or understanding of your schedule and isn't willing to accept an unkempt showroom. Spot checking the appearance of a showroom must be a regular appointment! If necessary, rotate the responsibility among staff members…and start with the parking lot! That's where the very first impression is made. That's where the client's experience begins with a company. Make it a great first impression!< Hank: You have developed a kind of “signature” for your showroom designs by using neon tube lighting to spell out messages or emphasize different areas. Explain why you do this and why you believe it adds to the showroom design.
David: You have probably noticed in theatre productions, movies and concert performances that colored lighting helps set the mood and brings attention to the scene. Colored lighting adds excitement and helps emphasize attention to our merchandise. If it's laid out properly, this can lead a client on a journey through a showroom - adding to the “experience” that you have worked hard to create.
Hank: I've been very encouraged in recent years to see more and more plumbing wholesalers really taking the showroom business more seriously. Especially in the areas of product diversification, marketing the showroom to more than just the plumbing trade and in building out nicer showrooms. Is this your impression also - and what comments do you have regarding this statement?
David: You're right, Hank, showroom owners and managers are moving toward nicer showroom designs because they see the value of this important profit center. I think they're being forced to do this by many factors:
1. Competition - Being forced to build a better mouse trap is better for both the client and the industry as a whole. This competition holds our feet to the fire and makes all of us perform to the best of our ability. If we don't, the sale will go to the competition.
2. I think clients are smarter today. They do their research, are better informed and are not as willing to take a sales consultant's word for things about products they are interested in. It's harder to “snow” a client! Sales consultants need to know their products - and present a true picture of their performance - otherwise they appear unprofessional. Let's face it, that's one of the things that separates a showroom from the discount houses.
As for product diversification, it seems the manufacturers are broadening their lines, which require showrooms to “show more, and know more.” It creates a wonderful opportunity for a sales consultant to “add on” sales. I call it a “check builder,” like selling dessert after a nice meal.
Hank: Here's a tough one. What does your crystal ball tell you showrooms will look like in the next five to 10 years? Will there be any major changes?
David: I was afraid you might ask something like this! The obvious answer, of course, is that there is a trend of getting away from the warehouse or discount stigma and becoming an upscale retailer. Even though this trend started several years ago, it is still very slow to catch on in our industry. I still meet resistance to this notion. However, the real excitement comes from the potential of the baby boomers who have money to spend on luxuries that our showrooms offer. They will have the money for new homes, vacation homes, additions, kitchen and bath remodeling, etc. My only words of advice are to be prepared with a great showroom facility, a well trained and knowledgeable staff and a retail mentality, because if you're not ready to take their order, the next showroom will!
Hank: Finally, David, what advice or words of wisdom do you have for plumbing wholesalers on how they might approach their next showroom build out or remodel?
David: If anyone knows the answer to this question, you do! A showroom is a huge commitment - not just in capital, but also in personnel. Once those elements are in place, companies will need to give their team the right tools with which to work. This includes turning every square inch of showroom space into a profit center.
As I said earlier, competition will continue to grow and companies need to ask themselves how they will hold on to existing customers and at the same time attract new ones. They also will need a superior showroom and a knowledgeable staff who can offer solid professional advice in a sincere and timely manner. Most of all, it will require the mindset of top management down, to put these elements in place in order to create a true profit center.
Having said all that, I like to tell my clients, whether they are building a new showroom or remodeling an existing one, do not be afraid to spend the money to do it right! You will get a very positive payback from your investment. The trick is to not spend a penny more than needed, but be the best in your marketplace! People like to do business with the best in their field. People love winners!
In summary, we know that showrooms are here to stay. They're getting better and better every day - in every way! Wholesalers learning retail is happening (maybe not as quickly as I'd like, but it's happening). Showrooms are becoming important profit centers and the luxury products and their buyers (consumers, designers, custom home builders, architects and remodelers) are growing as well.
How long before consumers will be able to do virtual showroom tours online? How long before showrooms have flat screen TVs telling their stories? How long before a showroom client is given a listening device that walks him or her through the showroom - stopping at various stations? How long before showrooms start to sell soft goods, tile, lighting, granite and other related products? My feeling is - not all that long on any of these futuristic trends. Will you be a leader or a follower?
You can learn more about David Hawkins at www.dhawkinsdesign.com or call him at 330-923-0401.