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The rise of large-scale, sophisticated online retailers has not been kind to local plumbing showrooms. But here’s the silver lining: You still have a huge advantage if you can capitalize on it.

Here’s why:

These facts represent an immediate opportunity for you. Buyers near your store have a passion (“Let’s get that dream kitchen!) or a problem (“It’s finally time to replace this clogged toilet!”). And they all want to talk to an expert! That’s you.
With the exception of commodified widgets and bargain brand fixtures, there’s no way an online retailer can stack up against your curated, high-quality stock and passionate salespeople that can dispense design and configuration advice.

The challenge lies in getting them in that door and efficiently selling them once they arrive. I talk with a lot of family owned showrooms who have invested decades in their expertise and untold money on capital. Here’s what I see as the major hurdles to making that local consultation and purchase happen on your floor instead of at Lowe’s or another showroom down the street:

It’s Hard and Expensive to Maintain an Effective Online Presence
Consumers are trained to expect fast, slick online product searches that display up-to-the-minute photos and specs for a vast array of fixtures and hardware. This represents a huge logistics burden and expense for the independent plumbing showroom.

Your online catalog has to be attractive, easy to navigate and constantly up to date, including specs. The “hole in the funnel” is usually created by the plumbing showroom team that doesn’t want to undertake the expense and headache of doing it all themselves or hiring web designers and back-end developers. (And I don’t blame them one bit. It’s a nightmare.) You either link to the manufacturer site or resign yourself to having the customer go explore and search on their own, at which point you’ve lost control of your sales process.

Many showrooms have turned to SEO specialists (or even added part-time staff) in an effort to rank in Google’s (or Bing’s) search results. Even if you can divert significant budget to online marketing, your best efforts aren’t even a rounding error compared to the resources that bigger online retailers can throw at this.

Improving Sales Floor Efficiency and Controlling the Buying Process
A second problem happens when you pull out that pile of catalogs when the customer asks to see something that’s not on the floor. This is second nature for many showroom sales folks, and understandably so. But there are a few reasons why this jeopardizes your sale — and why you should think about improving:

  • This takes a lot of time. If you’re like most showroom operators, you don’t have the budget to keep an army on the floor. Spending an hour with a customer hunting through printed pages means if somebody else walks in, you have to abandon your conversation (see next point) or make your new arrival wait around. This is bad.
  • Your customer gets overwhelmed — especially if they see a bunch of stuff they like, but can’t use (like a wall hung vs. a floor-mounted toilet). The proven psychology of sales tells us that presenting a customer with a curated handful of choices that are a technical fit for their project massively improves your odds of a sale.
  • Even after all this is done, they often want to go talk to their spouse, contractor or somebody else. When you say, “Sure! Take the catalog with you!”, you’ve just completely lost control of your sales process. They might get talked out of your product, start shopping your competition…or not act at all!

Going Multi-Channel
Companies report success when they can move to a “bricks and clicks” model…”bricks” being your physical store, “clicks” being your online presence and digitized catalogs or floor presentation capabilities. Traditional retailers with no complementary online strategy are underperforming — and ripe to fall in the next wave of consolidation.
The winning formula will be “bricks and clicks” thinkers who figure out how to create compelling destinations with out-of-the-box thinking — and draw online eyeballs with diverse and easily searchable online product displays that customers have been trained to expect by larger competitors.

Despite all the challenges and a very competitive landscape, most customers will still want to touch and see the product before they buy. Plumbing is still a “style business,” and customer knowledge, despite all the technology inroads, is still relatively limited.

The question is how much effort and expense is required to stand out and innovate. Even showrooms that pay in-house staff or vendors to build out websites are still bringing a knife to a gun fight — especially when you consider the back-end logistics of being able to display slick, up-to-the-minute inventory.
So here’s the good news: Technology has become cheap enough to allow even smaller showrooms to quickly add the “clicks” dimension to their “bricks” model — without going broke or crazy building their own multi-channel technology.

I’m curious to know if this is something you have experienced in your business, and if so, what you’ve tried to do about it. At the end of the day, we’ve got to share knowledge and help each other so we can improve best practices — keeping one foot in what you’re best at (product knowledge and selection) and planting the other firmly in what the 21st Century demands of our “old school” business model.

About the Author
Ace Rosenstein is president and CEO of Bravo Business Media, a provider of business growth enablement tools for plumbing and kitchen showrooms.