Two other stores to open in Chicago suburbs in 2006; customers furnished with 'qualified installers' list; Premier Showroom program for distributors to continue.

Kohler Co. opened what may be its first of many retail stores nationwide last month in Chicago with The Kohler Store.

The manufacturer will open two other stores in the city's suburbs next year. With lessons learned from these three retail outlets, the company plans to rely on its traditional plumbing distributors to operate other Kohler Stores throughout the country.

“The Kohler Store will prove to be an excellent complement to our existing distribution channels,” said Jim Lewis, Kohler's director of market development. “The stores are an investment in the future of our wholesale distribution, both in terms of our distributors owning these stores and the lessons Kohler can learn that can then be applied to our current showroom program.”

The 7,000-sq.-ft. downtown store opened in the Merchandise Mart Nov. 17, and features nearly 300 Kohler, Kallista and Robern products, including 30 with running water. For example, customers will be able to flush six different toilets and operate a number of shower systems. The new store also features a collection of room designs by several noted interior designers.

Seven sales associates will be available for various levels of consultation, ranging from free basic design to fee-based home visits. Each associate has logged more than 200 hours of related education and is a certified design consultant by the National Kitchen & Bath Association.

“Any product in the colors that we display on the showroom floor will be quick-shipped to the customer within two days,” said Michelle Kowalski, manager of the new store. While partial shipments can be arranged, the store's staff can also have all product warehoused until everything is ready to be installed.

As far as installation, the store will supply customers with a list of “qualified installers” based on customer referral and evaluated by the store's management.

A 4,000-sq.-ft. store featuring Ann Sacks luxury tile and stone adjoins the Kohler Store. The Kohler Store is part of the Merchandise Mart's LuxeHome, a collection of 29 other retailers offering high-end home-building and renovation products.

The two other suburban stores will not be as elaborate as the flagship store. Lewis says the company will open a mid-sized store in the range of 3,800-4,000 sq. ft. and a smaller store in the range of 2,800-3,000 sq. ft.

“The idea is to work with these three different models to learn as much as we can,” he added. “If we are successful, we will then ask our distributors to own other Kohler Stores.”

The new retail stores were a hot topic at the company's Distributor Conference held last November. “We introduced the concept last year, but really got into it this year,” Lewis said. “In the end, the question we fielded more than any other over the course of the three-day conference was 'How do I get involved and own a Kohler Store?'”

Lewis says any store opened beyond the first three would be owned by distributors rather than, say, a K&B dealer.

“Our distributors have always been a large part of our success in local markets,” he added. “With their help, we can best address local conditions and provide the highest service to the consumer.”

Lewis added that the selection process would be based on how well a distributor is able to commit to the “unique demands” of retail selling. “Elements we will consider include location, personnel, inventory and delivery.”

In the meantime, the company will continue to rely on its Premier Showroom program of approximately 500 wholesaler showrooms to reach both the trade and the retail customer. Rather than a choice of one or the other, Lewis figures Kohler is likely to depend on a combination of Kohler Stores and Premier Showrooms to reach key markets.

“A distributor showroom is like a department inside a department store,” Lewis explained. “For many consumers, that's the right solution.”

But Lewis adds that more often consumers want to immerse themselves in the brands they are interested in.

“The Kohler Store ensures that we have a way to present our brand consistently and powerfully,” Lewis said.