Family-owned, two-branch wholesaler Economy Plumbing Supply has singled out higher end luxury remodeling as its strategic core customer base.
“That is where our showrooms will survive - more so than new construction or the mass market,” says John Strong, president of the Indianapolis-based firm. “Big boxes or big wholesalers can kill you.”
Small independent wholesalers are finding it harder to compete with the big box stores that can advertise super-competitive loss leaders, he explains. Combined with consolidation and the presence of national wholesalers in the business, it has become much more difficult to compete for large volume plumbing and PVF sales, he says.
“That was our bread and butter,” Strong says. “If you needed a part for a faucet or toilet or unique fittings, we were the source.”
For many years the firm enjoyed decent margins and profitability on repair parts. But over the last 25 years the trend has changed - people are replacing instead of repairing their fixtures.
“We saw the showroom as another opportunity to be unique in the market place,” Strong says.
“Those are two totally separate markets,” Strong says. “The repair part of the business has been on the decline. It is a much smaller average sale.”
Indianapolis is a mid-size market with about 1.3 million people in the metro area, Strong notes. “We knew designers in Indianapolis were taking their clients to Chicago to choose products. Could we provide unique products and educate our showroom personnel so the designers would visit us instead?”
The wholesaler upgraded its showrooms with better merchandised layouts and sought out product lines that would draw the attention of designers and homeowners seeking luxury items that will make a statement.
Knowledgeable SalespeopleTo succeed in the luxury remodeling market, showrooms must be staffed by design people who can “talk the talk,” Strong says.
Training is essential. Economy holds weekly training meetings, much of which is provided by manufacturers. The wholesaler also takes advantage of training opportunities offered by the American Supply Association, the North Central Wholesalers Association, the National Kitchen and Bath Association and the Decorative Plumbing and Hardware Association, Strong notes.
In addition, the wholesaler gains access to high-end vendors and further training via its memberships in Omni Corporate Services Ltd. and the Forte buying group.
The top quality sought in a showroom salesperson is personality, Strong says. “People are not buying kitchen cabinets, they are buying confidence from the showroom salesperson, who is personable, trustworthy and perceived as an expert. We look for presence and a talent for decoration.”
Economy has 30 employees company-wide. The Indianapolis showroom has four showroom people and the Fishers showroom has five. Five employees are assigned to the counter sales area in Indianapolis and two in the Fishers facility.
Showroom AtmosphereBoth HomeStyle showrooms are designed to be comfortable shopping environments for contractors, maintenance professionals and homeowners. In both locations, the showroom shares space with the wholesaler’s sales counter area.
“We thought it can’t hurt for customers coming into our counter area to be exposed to the showroom,” notes Herb Strong, former president, chairman and co-owner with his son, John Strong.
John Strong adds that it’s easier to manage staff and resources and provide good customer service if the showroom is under the same roof with the sales counter.
The 6,000-sq.-ft. Indianapolis showroom was designed with the help of a professional retail store design expert. Based on the recommendation of the late Irving Footlik, a warehousing and materials handling expert, Economy worked with John Greenberg & Associates of Detroit to design the interior layout.
The wholesaler supports the use of vignettes in showrooms. “Salespeople like to show the product in a true setting,” he says, but it depends on the product.
Modular displays are used where possible. In the last six months the company has brought in a new vanity line and two new faucet lines.
Building The BusinessThe company invests its marketing dollars on image-oriented ads in shelter magazines such as the Indianapolis Monthly and does a quarterly mailer to designers, builders and remodelers. Also, it has joined the American Society of Interior Designers.
“We have a list of about 2,000 people and that mailer has become a big part of our marketing,” Strong says.
“About 80 to 100 people go with us every year,” Strong notes. “It’s all about relationship building.”
The showrooms are promoted under the name HomeStyle Kitchens and Baths and supported with a Web site: www.HomeStyleIndy.com.
PerformanceThe showroom in Fishers has had double-digit growth every year for the last 10 to 12 years, Strong says. Much of the growth has been with contractors, remodelers, plumbers and homebuilders, but the showrooms also sell direct to homeowners.
“Without the contractor, we might not get the customer in the store,” Herb Strong says.
“We provide the selection process,” John Strong adds.
What will it take for the independent wholesaler to succeed in the future?
“You have to belong to a buying group,” Herb Strong asserts.
The advantage of the independent wholesaler is his in-depth knowledge of his market place, he adds. “The independent knows the nuances of his market and can respond more quickly and appropriately.”
Small contractors need access to people with product knowledge, Herb Strong notes. “To win and keep their business, supply their needs with product knowledge, timely delivery and fair prices.”
Economy Plumbing Supply - 75 Years OldEconomy Plumbing Supply was founded in downtown Indianapolis in 1932 by Herbert Strong Sr. and his brothers, William and Edward Strong. The company opened its first showroom in 1939.
Herbert Strong Jr. joined the company in 1946.
Between 1965 and 1975 the company expanded with additional parking and warehouse space in downtown Indianapolis. Economy joined Omni Corporate Services Ltd. and the American Supply Association in the early 1980s.
John Strong joined the company in 1983. A year later the wholesaler relocated to a newly remodeled 60,000-sq.-ft. facility at 625 N. Capitol Ave. in downtown Indianapolis where the counter sales area, showroom, warehouse and offices could all operate under one roof.
This is when the counter sales area introduced a more “retail” concept, with self-service aisles of plumbing supplies.
The Fishers facility, with both a showroom and counter sales area, opened in 1995. Both showrooms are open from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; the downtown Indianapolis location is open from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, while the suburban Fishers facility is open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday.
In 2006 both showrooms underwent major renovations and were renamed HomeStyle.