Several months ago I was in the Chicagolandarea to give a talk to an NKBA gathering. While there, I visited several wholesaler showrooms. One of them absolutely knocked my socks off!

Over the years I have visited several-hundred showrooms across America and Canada. I’ve seen the good, the not so good and everything between. When I drove up to, walked into and walked through the Studio 41 showroom in the Chicago north suburb of Highland Park, Ill., I knew I was in one of the best showrooms I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting.

My good friend, Bob Lando, who recently retired from Community Home Supply in Chicago, was my tour guide for the day. His daughter, Abbey Wagner, a sales consultant at Studio 41, was our very capable guide through the showroom.

I certainly had heard of Studio 41and knew the same company was operating three of the new Kohler Signature showrooms, but I wasn’t aware of how well-done and well-marketed these showrooms were.

Let’s start with a brief history of the company. Isaac Silver founded Logan Square Building Materials in the mid-1960s as an iron, awning and fencing shop. This led to Remodelers Supply Center, which promotes itself as a “convenient, one-stop shop for just about everything a contractor would need for a home remodeling project.” The first Studio 41 Home Design Showroom opened in 1996. The name “Studio 41” comes from its first location located on Route 41 in Highland Park. Other companies under the corporate umbrella are Climate Guard Windows and Clark and Barlow Hardware. The privately-owned company employs more than 500 people across its business units.

Studio 41 has 12 showrooms in the Chicago metropolitan area — three of which are Kohler Signature showrooms. The company features top brands in plumbing fixtures, kitchen and bathroom cabinetry and decorative hardware. Studio 41 is a plumbing distributor, but does not sell rough plumbing supplies. This alone makes it pretty darned unique in our industry.

“We have a strong, professional sales and service staff in our showrooms that excels at the project sales business for the residential home-building and remodeling market,” Studio 41 General Manager John Mannion says. I have to wholeheartedly agree with John. People are your most important asset.


The all-important look

The 30,000-sq.-ft. Highland Park showroom is located in a retail-style building on one of Highland Park’s busiest streets. The curb appeal and signage of the store is terrific. There are lots of front-of-the-store display windows which are well-merchandised, plus there is ample customer parking. Yes, Highland Park is one of Chicago’s most affluent suburbs.

The first few steps through the front door almost take your breath away! The initial impression is of a spacious, open, bright and well-lit space. There are large aisles with beautiful tile and wood flooring that help lead you through the showroom. Most of the displays are white (or a very light color), which adds to the clean and open feeling.

Sales-consultant desks are spread throughout the showroom and there are specialists for each major product category — kitchen designers, hardware specialty salespeople and, of course, folks who are plumbing-oriented. The Highland Park showroom has a staff of more than 40 sales, service and administrative people.

The three main product categories have their featured areas. Products are displayed in various vignette stylings and by branded group displays. Many of the displays do feature the manufacturer’s name. Very few products reflect the manufacturer model number or price. Mannion tells me that this hasn’t been a problem. There are a number of “live” displays, mainly shower products, spa tubs and kitchen faucets. The shower products are activated by a digital display that is both easy to operate and easy on the eyes.

The company recently opened a tile room at this location and the plan is to expand this to its other stores. Studio 41’s three Kohler Signature showrooms show and sell tile through the Kohler Surfaces program. The company acquired Clark & Barlow in 2012. The Clark & Barlow name has been known in Chicago since 1894 and now is used to brand the decorative hardware division of Studio 41.

There are flat-screen monitors throughout the showroom running branded product loops. This is such a great way of educating the clients on the various manufacturers and their products.

The showroom is accessorized with a number of large (4 ft. by 8 ft.) posters featuring various vendor partners and their products. These posters are not only good looking, but help tell the showroom story.

There is a fairly large outlet center, which shows various products that are being discounted and/or discontinued. As you might expect, the public restrooms are beautifully built out and accessorized.


The sales staff

Showroom hours are Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sales consultants average $70,000-$100,000 in monthly sales with a GP margin north of 30%. They are paid on a base plus commission plan and can earn well over $60,000 for sales over $1 million annually. Product sales break out at about 50% plumbing, 35% cabinetry and 15% door hardware. Sales by customer are almost 50-50 between tradespeople and homeowners, with the majority of homeowner sales being tied to a trade relationship.

There is a written job description for each position and annual performance evaluations are conducted. For sales consultants the emphasis is on productivity and customer satisfaction. “When hiring, one of the main things we look for is people with a great attitude who will exercise customer-centric thinking and are committed to doing what it takes to be successful,” Mannion says.

The company also has a formal ongoing training program. For new hires, they are trained for at least two weeks or until ready and able to help customers. Plus, the showroom does a monthly staff meeting for all employees. Studio 41 has four outside business-development salespeople who promote the company and bring new trade relationships into the showrooms.

 The showrooms are marketed via advertising on TV, radio, online, direct mail and magazines. Mannion says TV and radio have been best for brand awareness and online and social media are best for active shoppers. He adds Houzz and Pinterest are the best social media sites for the business.

Now hear this! The company spends more than $1 million annually to market its showroom business. It truly understands the importance of looking and acting like a retail business even though it is a wholesaler.

I inquired about Studio 41’s website and online presence. Mannion says he feels it is “pretty good,” but like most of you, it still is “a work in progress.” I logged onto the Studio 41 site and feel it has a very good showroom locations page that offers a virtual tour of each showroom. I would encourage you to take a look at the Highland Park location that’s being featured in this article and you’ll quickly see why I am so impressed.

The company does generate comprehensive P & L’s for each showroom location and it shares personal performance numbers with each member of the team on a weekly basis. I know if part of my compensation was based on commission I would really appreciate knowing where I stood on a timely basis. Management does an annual budget for each showroom location and for each sales consultant. They also have a 3-to-5-year business plan for the whole company.

Studio 41 has grown from eight to 12 stores in the past three years and they tell me they always are looking for new opportunities. This expansion and growth is pretty impressive since they, like many of you, also are coming out of the recent recession.

Sales consultants dress in a business-casual manner. Each showroom has a comfortable area where clients can sit, relax, partake of refreshments and get acquainted with a sales consultant, share information on their project and learn how Studio 41 can help them.

There’s been a lot of speculation on the future of brick-and-mortar businesses. I believe that for our type of projects they are here to stay. I also believe the mega-type store, similar to this Studio 41 location, has a very bright future, especially in highly populated, more affluent areas.

If you’ve been paying attention to industry giant Ferguson lately, you’ve seen its products being diversified and the size of its showrooms grow dramatically. I believe the future for distributor showrooms is very bright, especially for businesses like Studio 41 that make a serious commitment to learning and investing in the showroom business.

Good selling!