Over the years, we've toured many showrooms run by contractors and plenty of others run by wholesalers, too. And they certainly come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. But when we thought about how to sum up Benjamin Plumbing's showroom in Madison, Wis., “just right” came to mind.
You know, not too glitzy, not too plain. Not too small, not too big. (Although if it's “too” anything, at 6,000 sq. ft., it is one of the largest contractor-run showrooms we've been in.)
No, this one's just right. Just enough product - the kind that company president Dale Benjamin knows inside and out, knows how to fix, knows he has the parts for, knows the manufacturers and their warranties, and knows he can make a profit selling.
And, maybe even more importantly, just enough expert help to ease consumers into making the right decisions. Which turns out to be just how Benjamin has learned to incorporate the showroom into his overall operations.
“I'm not a salesman; I don't sell anything,” says Benjamin. “But I am an educator. If consumers trust us, we can definitely help them make better decisions.”
Benjamin says today's consumers are deluged with almost too much product information - not all of it dependable. Go to a home center, for example, and the $50 toilet special may become the benchmark for every other toilet on the market. Or if price really is no object, then consumers might be swept away by décor without considering the short-term availability or the long-term practicality of their choices.
“It does come down to choosing between one of two choices,” Benjamin says. “But we have to be prepared to show an assortment of product, and, more importantly, also be able to take the anxiety away from making the final choice.”
Benjamin says he sees it all the time - this analysis by paralysis - particularly when it's a husband and wife making decisions together.
“All I say is, let's just start with one room,” Benjamin says. “Focus on one thing. For example, tell me whether you want a single-handle or two-handle faucet. If you pick one of those options, you've immediately eliminated 50 percent of your decisions. After that, you can help narrow it down more by asking about style and price point.”
Bath remodeling has always been considered the slow and steady side of the business when compared to the more cyclical side of new construction. It's just the “onesy, twosey” almost retail approach that limits overall success. But when you can get that one job, it's usually quite a piece of work.
“Homeowners remodeling their bathrooms or kitchens don't just go into it thinking that they are going to fix a couple of things,” one marketing executive for a plumbing manufacturer told us. “They are prepared to completely redo everything. So the mindset is there from the get go.”
Market RevealedA survey done last year by the National Association for the Remodeling Industry gives some idea of the current strength of the remodeling market. (Keep in mind that NARI membership is remodeling contractors overall. Still, Benjamin is an active member of NARI and, with bathrooms and kitchens popular remodeling projects, the trade group's research still has plenty to say to PM readers.)
Modern ApproachesBenjamin Plumbing was founded by Dale's father, Ralph, in 1962 - his father still works there today. It was your typical one-man-band-type of shop, Benjamin says, with modest beginnings. Dale remembers his dad working out of a barn at one point, and says the company's first truck was a converted Kroger grocery truck.
Jump to 1987 and you can at least get a sense of the more modern face the company has worn since moving in to its current 50,000-sq.-ft. facility. The site holds the showroom and every other plumbing operation the company performs. Benjamin Plumbing specializes only in plumbing work, both residential and commercial - including new construction and service/repair - and currently has more than 50 employees and 35 trucks in the field. (In fact, we first heard about the Benjamin showroom operation through Dale's brother, Lee, who sent in photos of the truck fleet. For more information, take a look at “Many Ways To Communicate,” PM's Truck Of The Month, January 2005.)
The showroom is currently 6,000 sq. ft. and has about everything you would need for the bath and kitchen. Interestingly enough, the showroom doesn't include one vignette, a common site in many showrooms we've visited.
“We group all our product categories together, to make it easy to compare features and benefits of products side by side,” Benjamin says. “If you're looking for a sink, you see all the sinks at once - and you can picture how it will look in your own home.”
The company didn't always use this approach. In fact, Benjamin showed us an old issue of Domestic Engineering, a one-time national trade journal that featured Benjamin's first showroom operation - one in which there was nothing but vignettes.
“I think we had about eight or nine vignettes,” Benjamin remembers. “As well-decorated as you could want them to be. I think people could have actually used the facilities if we had a front door on them.”
But pretty vignettes don't always mean practical sales tools.
First, those vignettes took up a lot of square footage, and only showed, say, eight toilets, sinks and tubs in eight vignettes.
“I think a lot of square footage was devoted to 'oohs' and 'ahhs.' You certainly do want a 'wow' factor in a showroom, but I think you can get that by also helping customers compare products and more easily make a decision on what they want.”
By placing product categories together - lining up a dozen toilets, for instance, one after the other - customers can compare them side by side without racing from one vignette to another.
“I notice more times than not that when someone moves from one sink to another, they will notice just how deeper some sinks can be to reach into," Benjamin adds. “That may be a good thing or that may be a bad thing, but they'll never know unless can easily go back and forth from one sink to another.”
Second, changing the look of a vignette (or, worse, vignettes) required major surgery. But fashion makeovers aren't too time-consuming or costly with Benjamin's setup. A lineup of toilets doesn't need to be changed all at once. Rather, a new fixture may be added without changing the entire toilet lineup.
Serve It UpWhile the showroom is a highly visible aspect of the company's remodeling operations, Benjamin offers other services to set it apart.
The company employs three remodeling estimators who travel, free of charge, to evaluate the kitchen or bathroom to be remodeled. The estimator can give homeowners a quote on the plumbing products and labor to complete the project. If other services are needed, like carpentry or tile, then Benjamin acts as a “remodeling broker” of sorts and can suggest reputable contractors in many other fields.
“We bring others to the process and others brings us to the process, too,” Benjamin sums up.
Another aspect of the Benjamin showroom is its inclusiveness to the casual shopper. The space is also a retail store in the sense that if a DIYer wants to come and buy product, Benjamin will do it. And it pays to not underestimate your customers.
“Not long ago, a consumer came in without an appointment and bought $2,000 worth of plumbing fixtures,” Benjamin says. “That's why we will also sell a $2 part. You just never know what will happen when you have a space that a consumer can just walk in to.”