My favorite part of doing these articles for Supply House Times is when I am able to feature a unique showroom business.

This month it is my privilege to showcase Gerhards, the showroom division of La Crosse, Wis.-based First Supply. The company also has the distinction of having opened the very first Kohler Signature Store in 2012.

First Supply, which features the fourth and fifth generations of the Poehling family in leadership roles, opened its doors in 1897 and is one of the oldest family-owned plumbing wholesale businesses in America.

Gerhard “Gary” Poehling opened one of the first showrooms in the country in 1940. It was established for contractors and homeowners to view kitchen and bath product displays. In 1986, in honor of Gary, Gerhards: The Kitchen and Bath Store debuted. Today, Gerhards features 13 locations around the Midwest.

First Supply treats its showroom business as a separate division and recently hired former Eddie Bauer executive Bob Rasins to be the chief operating officer of the company’s kitchen and bath stores. Raisins brings 31 years of retail experience to the business. This allows First Supply to pursue a more consumer-friendly focus with Gerhards and the Kohler Signature Store, while still driving the sales through a strong professional channel. 

As you are well aware I preach about the big differences between running a wholesale business and a retail-oriented business. They are very different and learning to be great merchandisers — to focus on delivering an exceptional shopping experience to showroom clients — means stepping out of the traditional wholesaler box. There is no question that First Supply has stepped out of that box.

The big apple

First Supply operates 27 branches and one central distribution center. It features manufactured product lines in the HVACR, builder, plumbing, waterworks, industrial PVF, and pump/well and septic markets. Its more than 117 years of service has resulted in a well-recognized name, especially as a plumbing distributor. 

For purposes of this article, we’ll focus on the Appleton, Wis., showroom. This operation has about 4,000 sq. ft. of display space and is physically located in the same building as the wholesale business. There are five staff members: a kitchen and bath store manager, three kitchen and bath design/sales consultants and one kitchen and bath sales consultant.

The company refers to its showrooms as “stores,” indicating it sells and not just shows products. Gerhards store hours are: Monday-Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 2 pm. On Thursday, the store remains open until 7 p.m. The store is closed on Sunday.

Total showroom sales account for about 10% of First Supply’s total sales. First Supply ranked No. 25 on the 2014 Supply House Times Premier 150 list of wholesalers. 

The company utilizes a fairly standard mode of displaying products by using a combination of some vignettes and some product groups (products are separated by category). Gerhards has a large custom shower “live” display because it believes this is paramount to selling the experience. There also is a working kitchen that not only helps sell the products, but also allows for the opportunity to have chef demonstrations and live events within the store. 

The company has done extensive research regarding showing real prices and model numbers on display products. It concluded consumers want and even demand total transparency. That has become a trust issue. When the clients don’t see this information, they become skeptical and lose confidence in the environment.

This is a subject that can be debated both ways. If you show real prices and model numbers, it makes it much easier for clients to shop you on the Internet and with other competitors. If you don’t show this information, the client may walk before you even have an opportunity to sell your value.

The other alternative that I see more and more showrooms utilizing is to show your net price and your own internal model number. After years of recommending no prices and model numbers, I am convinced that showing a price and a model number (the real number or your own internal number) is the correct way.

Spreading the word

First Supply utilizes a variety of ways to market its Gerhards stores, including radio, print, digital, industry and consumer events and sponsorships. The relatively new Appleton branch received a huge PR boost when the local paper wrote an article about its operation.

The company has a website for the Gerhards side of the business and admits it continues to be a “work in progress.” First Supply is heavily involved with social media and currently utilizes Facebook, Twitter, Houzz and Pinterest. The company is proud of the level it has achieved with social media and plans to grow and push hard in this important area. 

I asked what type of person the company looks for when hiring a sales consultant. The answer was “high energy and sales-oriented.”  First Supply has written job descriptions for every position and it does semi-annual job performance evaluations using ASA’s Success Factors program.

The store team does a once-a-week staff meeting before the doors open and does a five-minute huddle prior to opening each day. I love this! It gets folks to work before the bell rings and everyone pumped up and ready to attack another day.

The Appleton showroom does not have an outside salesperson, but feels it is critical for each sales associate to maintain and be responsible for their own trade relationships. The goal is to have showroom revenues split 50-50 between plumbing and kitchen.

First Supply works hard to promote a team environment between the showroom and the wholesale side of the business and it compensates both sides to help create a win-win scenario. Showroom employees are encouraged to wear casual business attire that reflects their own personal style, but also follows basic guidelines that reflects pride in themselves and the company. The criteria is stylish, pressed and clean. 

The staff offers complimentary refreshments to clients. There are several flat-screen TVs in the showroom used for educational purposes. 

I asked the always tough question of what, in their opinion, makes them different, better and more unique than the competition. Here is their answer: 

“We make every effort to ensure the consumer receives an experience that exceeds their expectations,” Rasins says.  “Anyone can be mediocre. Our goal is to impress with delight while taking the pain out of their purchases. This results in building confidence in the consultant-consumer relationship to a point where the consumer can confidently rely on us. Today’s consumer is a busy person. They often are concerned with how we can alleviate some of the stress that comes with most building and remodeling projects and make their shopping experience efficient and fun.”

Signature talk

Let’s spend a moment talking about First Supply’s Kohler Signature Store in Edina, Minn. The company was the first wholesaler to work with Kohler on this relatively new concept. There are now five Signature stores in operation and more on the drawing board. These stores are truly a retail-oriented operation.

The Edina store is located in a standalone retail location and as the name implies, it features Kohler products including Kallista, Robern, Ann Sacks, Kohler Surfaces and Kohler Exclusive Vanities. 

The Edina store has 3,145 sq. ft. of display space and has a staff of seven. There are a number of “live” displays and each product shows a product name and list price. 

The Kohler Signature Store has a comprehensive marketing plan that focuses on three aspects:  trade, consumers and design. The store holds trade outreach events, training classes and meetings, consumer-focused events featuring product, and design and planning events (speed design, celebrity designer events and home tour events). KSS uses a multimedia effort to reach current and potential customers including print, billboard, social media and outreach. KSS also is supported by the Kohler family of brands at a national media advertising and marketing level.

KSS utilizes its Kohler microsite webpage (hosted by Kohler). The store’s social media push is big and continues to grow. It also is a key aspect for initiating a conversation with customers, consumers and trade. 

Each new employee goes through the KSS “on-boarding” program, which is a combination of Kohler product, design and technical information as well as First Supply’s company history, computer and human-resource training. 

KSS works closely with First Supply to call on customers to grow their business. Together the Twin Cities market team can meet the needs of the trades, builders, architects and designers. KSS lives by the motto in the form of a quote by William Morris hanging over the door of the store: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” 

KSS believes its responsibility is to ensure the consumer has a buying experience that matches the products Kohler creates. The customers must be able to confidently and efficiently select beautiful and functional products they can take pride in to own and use.

First Supply has truly embraced the showroom business. It understands wholesale and retail are two distinctly different businesses. The company recognizes the terrific revenue and profit potential of being in the showroom/luxury product business and it is taking full advantage of it.

Good selling!