I’ve visited a number of showrooms the past several months and found they look pretty much the way they did 10 and even 20 years ago.

There are slat walls with faucet pods all around the walls, “lav” trees spread out here and there and kitchen sinks in countertops with pullout drawers below. Many of the showrooms are still using “free” displays they were able to negotiate from their vendors. Unfortunately, very few product updates have been done because of the belt tightening you’ve had to do in order to survive the worst business conditions I’ve seen in my career.

This coupled with the revolution and evolution of technology prompted me to start wondering what the “showroom of the future” might look like. A lot of what I’m about to share has been derived from Darlington’s “crystal ball.” Some of it comes from several people I believe have been and will continue to be on the “cutting edge” of the new look in decorative plumbing and hardware (and more) showrooms.

I continue to be disappointed by the lack of creativity and professionalism in the look of many of your showrooms. It’s been a big “follow the leader,” “copy the other guy” way of business. In my opinion many of the “leaders” and “other guys” haven’t done a very good job in the design, layout and merchandising of their showrooms. The standard isn’t what it could have been.

I am not, and never have professed to be a showroom designer. But, I am a pretty darn good marketer. I went to merchandising school several years ago, have written articles and presented workshops on the subject. As part of this schooling I visited some of the best retail stores in America and compared how our industry merchandises its products to how these stores do it. The comparison is embarrassing.

That’s enough negativity and beating up on you folks. I wanted to get your attention and get you thinking about what you can do to become better merchandisers and marketers.

You are selling some very expensive, great looking products. They need to be displayed and represented in keeping with the quality and value they have. You need to stop thinking wholesale and start thinking retail. You need to go to school on the subject like I did and like the retail pros have. It’s not hard to do and it’s fun.

So what does Darlington’s crystal ball reveal about showrooms of the future?

A bright future

First, I believe they will be smaller. You will be able to tell your story in a 3,500- sq.-ft. showroom for smaller- and medium-size geographic marketplaces and maybe 5,000 sq. ft. in bigger cities.

I believe they will be located in much more customer-friendly shopping areas such as higher-end, easier to get to retail complexes.

Everything about the showrooms of the future will be more customer friendly. The hours of operation will be consistent with other high-end products for the home. Yes, that means being open on Saturdays, Sundays and some evenings. I know that you just shuddered at that thought, but I’m sorry. You will have to put your customers’ desires first.

The showrooms will have a much more boutique look and feel. They won’t show and sell nearly as many different manufacturers that are represented today. They will feature your branded products and well-known brands more exclusive to you in your area. In other words, not everyone in your marketplace will be selling all the same products. You won’t be a “me too” as so many of you are today.

Everything about the showroom will be high tech. Each sales consultant will have an iPad (or something equivalent). All products will have QRC codes with your own in-house product number and your own net price (no more list price less a discount). Customers will be given a mini iPad or smartphone and be able to look up every item showing all the variations of style, color, finish and price. The customer, with the sales consultant’s help, will develop
its own takeoff and quotation.

There will be several flat-screen TVs with continuous running infomercials on your company and your vendor partners. There will be several strategically located kiosks so customers can stop and learn more about a specific vendor or product. The iPad, smartphones, flat-screen TVs and kiosks will feature both visual and audio components and offer three-dimensional and virtual viewings.

Your sales consultants will be very knowledgeable on products, design and installation. You will finally realize that yours is a selling business and you will have spent the time, energy and money to teach your sales staff those all-important selling skills. Yours truly will be so happy when you figure this out.

Spreading the word

You will have the best website in your marketplace. It will offer a virtual tour of your showroom and will tell folks why you are more unique, better and different from anyone else in your area. You will be selling your products on the Internet. Your main push in this area will be in your own local marketplace, but you’ll be happy to sell to anyone, anywhere. You will have a separate “will call” area for clients to pick up products whether they were ordered in the showroom or via the Internet. You’ll be shipping more and more product from the manufacturer direct to the client’s home.

I love this part: You will have gone to school on merchandising and thus your showrooms will be flat-out gorgeous. You won’t have everything mounted on vendor pods and boards. You’ll have your own style and design and they’ll all be the same. You will feature your own branded products and you will feature some very carefully selected, well-known national brands. You will no longer try to be all things to all people.

Part of the new professional merchandising will have you displaying “like products” together. An example would be placing all your high-priced, traditionally styled faucets together, or grouping together the more moderately priced, contemporary faucets. For the most part, the products will not be grouped by manufacturer. Think more about what works best for your customers and not as much about what works best for the manufacturers (another controversial statement, I know).

How you market the showroom will change dramatically. There will be a lot less print advertising. Your website and social media will be two main avenues of telling folks who you are. You will be more involved with the professional trade community, hosting events in the showroom and participating in their organizations. You will go to school on those really great retail merchandisers that I keep referring to (Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, Renovation Hardware and Nordstrom, etc.) and you will “borrow” ideas from them. Instead of budgeting 0.5% of showroom sales to your marketing budget, you’ll be budgeting 3% to 5% per year.

Your staff will be dressed professionally in keeping with the look of the showroom and the high-end products you’ll be showing and selling.

You’ll have a small “decompression area” for customers to sit, relax, have refreshments and begin getting acquainted with a sales consultant and your company. You may not have a piano like Nordstrom, but you will have some nice “music to buy by” playing in the background.

I believe you will have diversified your products and services to include everything for the bath and kitchen, including design and installation (oh boy, that’ll stir it up!). The more you can show and sell under one roof, the more customer-friendly you will be and the more revenues you will be able to generate.

Speaking of revenues, with this new boutique look and feel plus your own branded products, you’ll be able to realize margins well into the 40s. Your vision and mission will no longer be how big can I be, but rather how profitable can I be! Let’s face it, big doesn’t necessarily make good, but being very profitable almost always does. Think profit, not volume.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had fun trying to look into the future. I’ve probably scared and upset some of you. For this I apologize. But in both my heart and my head I believe you have to be looking three, five and even 10 years down the road.

You need to be making big decisions on who you want to be. This wonderful showroom business of ours is going to evolve and some of what I’ve just recited might come to fruition. Your responsibility is to make sure you are one of the leaders and not one of the has beens!

Good selling!