Martha Stewart would love a plumbing contractor like Tim Miller. Not content with simply selling an occasional upscale tub or faucet, Miller wants to sell you the lifestyle that goes along with such beautiful plumbing products. Hence, Miller’s four-month-old showroom, Prestige Bath & Tile, North Aurora, IL, also sells tile, towels, knickknacks, chairs, even antique urns to completely outfit your dream bathroom.

Antique urns? Don’t laugh. Miller says a doctor from London called him after seeing a Prestige advertisement in Chicago magazine. The doctor will be stopping by when he visits the Chicago area this spring.

And what exactly is a working kitchen, complete with Viking range and Subzero refrigerator doing in a bath and tile shop? Providing an extra measure of comfort for hungry customers at times, and providing extra ambiance at all other times.

“Before we opened this showroom, everyone was my competition,” says Miller, owner of Prestige Plumbing. “Other contractors, wholesalers, Home Depots, K&B dealers, you name it. We had the same products everyone else did, the same ‘look’ as everyone else, and everyone else discounted. Now we have some exclusivity in terms of our products and no competition in terms of what we can offer the customer from just one showroom.”

It’s hard not to feel like a kid in a candy store walking around Miller’s new 4,500 sq. ft. showroom. We’ll let the pictures accompanying our story do most of the talking to describe the setting. Suffice to say literally every square inch of space is designed to sell — even the floor includes alternating samples of tile, stone, marble and mosaics. And not only do customers buy what they came in for, but, like that kid, find it near impossible not to stuff their pockets with other goodies they never would have considered beforehand.

This is actually Miller’s second showroom. For about a year before opening the new showroom, Miller operated his first facility from the same site. “It was high-class and well-done in its own right,” Miller explains. Pictures of his original showroom depict a “cookie cutter” look, which consisted almost entirely of vignettes. “It certainly lacked the selection and the singular look we have now.”

Curious Blend: Miller’s eight-year-old business based in the far western Chicago suburbs is a curious blend of new residential construction, which most plumbers know enough about to not want to do, and a strong commitment to a luxury showroom, which most plumbers don’t know enough about to want to do.

His main “customer” for the showroom is a bit unusual as well. In terms of billing, it’s the home builder. In terms of care and attention, it’s the new homeowner. Miller works around any allowances the builder offers the homeowner, but it’s the builder who passes on the additional costs.

In addition, it’s odd that remodeling work wasn’t on Miller’s mind when he opened his showroom. While he’ll gladly sell to anyone who walks in, he says he operates in a “new home mentality” for now and doesn’t want to break that pattern.

He’s been trying to emphasize “the front of the wall,” after specializing in what usually goes behind the wall. Currently, his workforce of 15-20 plumbers plumb more than 700 homes a year. He does the trim, too, but even he’s the first to admit that it was almost always the no-brainer chrome and white package.

“For some builders, chrome and white is all they want to deal with, and we’ll gladly continue to do the work,” Miller says. “But we’ve made a conscious decision to steer toward high-end products.”

Although most of his business is new construction, Miller also employs one tech dedicated to residential service/repair. The company used to do residential HVAC, but phased the work out with the advent of the new showroom.

New residential work may not be a contractor’s first choice of how to ply his trade. But clearly, Miller must know how to stand out in a tough part of the market. For example, Miller says he’s earned a name for his company for quality work by routinely sending out a crew of five plumbers to completely rough-in a house in one day. Other plumbing companies usually send out less men and spend a week doing the same amount of work.

Miller wanted to trade off on his solid reputation among local builders, and offer new homeowners the chance to trade up on their bath purchases. Above all, he also wanted to be the main conductor of these purchases, and not rely on wholesalers to offer Prestige a “hand-me-down” sale.

“Why shouldn’t contractors have luxury showrooms?” Miller asks. “When everything’s said and done, we’re the ones ultimately dealing with the customer. I’m the one in there persuading the builder that there’s a tremendous range of design ideas beyond chrome and white. Along the way, I don’t want to lose control of the process by sending them elsewhere. A wholesaler with a showroom can steal my customer just as easily as Home Depot.”

Department Store: Ultimately, Miller’s showroom functions less like a “showroom,” and more like a Plumbing Department Store. There’s the Tile Department in one corner with an eye-catching array of decorative possibilities. A Faucet Department displays more than 300 faucets, which is adjacent to a Decorative Accessories Department to naturally complement a faucet purchase. The Luxury Bath Department is meant to inspire, while the 5' X 7' Bath Department brings some of the luxury down to the confines of the traditional-sized bathroom. Keep in mind that the beauty of this merchandising layout is much more subtle than our description; there is no sign that announces any of these “departments,” you just know they’re there.

“We really didn’t derive a big income from the old showroom,” Miller admits. “But in just the first few months since we’ve opened again, we’ve done more in business than we did in the year we had the old showroom.”

Retailers have long known how to make effective use of space. This retailer’s sensibility to showroom design and marketing is the hallmark of the consultant Miller called upon for help with his second showroom.

“I don’t think the word ‘showroom’ adequately describes what should be accomplished,” explains consultant David Lyon. “What we’re really doing is opening a ‘store,’ and inviting the public in. As a result, you become a retailer, and your customers are going to expect your store to function just as if it were a shoe store, clothing store, whatever. That’s a mindset that people in the traditional plumbing distribution channel don’t always easily understand.”

Lyon has 25 years of experience in the decorative plumbing business, and a real showman’s eye for the drama it takes to effectively operate within a retail setting. Until recently, Lyon’s bestowed much of this knowledge on wholesalers. Conventional wisdom says that only wholesalers can afford such high-end showrooms. But lately, more and more contractors are seeking his help. He’s designed another store due to open in August, (see sidebar) and says he’s in preliminary discussions with three more contractors.

“I’m willing to work with anyone who will make a strong commitment,” Lyon says. “I think more contractors are coming to the conclusion that thanks to their superior product and installation knowledge they’re the ones that should be controlling this business.”

More Than Just Looks: While it’s easy to see Lyon’s impact in terms of the physical layout of the stores he designs, just as much, if not more, of his influence goes on behind the scenes. (For more on layout, see the following feature.) Take product selection. Think bathrooms, and you’ll think faucets, tubs and water closets. Well, why not tile?

“Good retailers tell the whole story and are able to sell the whole story,” Lyon explains. “We shouldn’t get locked into thinking that we just sell toilets. In Europe, for example, kitchen and bath shops sell dishes, towels, tableware, linens, everything that makes a house a home. At Christmas time, these stores do a tremendous business in sales like this and introduce people to much bigger sales down the line. In this country, we’d just as soon close up for the holidays.”

By adding tile, stone and marble to the product mix, Prestige gives customers the opportunity to coordinate their entire bath from floor to ceiling, and wall to wall. There’s also less chance of the customer walking out to shop at a tile store that may also sell additional bath products. What’s more, the line Miller sells grants an exclusive dealership so Prestige is the only place customers are likely to buy what they see on display.

“Great merchandisers make the customer think, ‘This store has everything I need, including stuff I never thought of. Why should I go anywhere else?’ ” Lyon adds.

In addition to adding tile, marble and stone, Miller also increased his lines of plumbing goods and decorative accessories at Lyon’s urging. Many of these additional lines Miller buys direct, which he believes puts him at an advantage over wholesalers operating showrooms.

“A wholesaler has a lot of money tied up in inventory, and will obviously want to sell what he stocks,” Miller says. “I don’t have money tied up in inventory, and can therefore offer customers more choices. My margins are much better as well; the profit on our tile is very good, and I don’t need to inventory the stock. The lead times on the projects we do generally give me plenty of time to order what I need after I get an order.”

Every item on display at Prestige includes a price. Again, as in retailing, either customers can afford something or they can’t. To cut down on price-shopping, Prestige includes its own special product codes. “You can never eliminate price-shopping entirely,” Miller says. “It’s a fact of life in a retail environment. But what isn’t a fact of life is an insistence on discounts. You don’t go to the cash register at a clothing store and ask for 25 percent off.”

Miller does discount — but only to people, such as builders and designers, who bring in business.

Once the store opens, Lyon continues to help with a long-term advertising/marketing program. Many of the displays at Prestige, for example, double as full-page ads in Chicago magazine. These ads in turn are reduced to post cards and mailed to builders, designers and architects. Miller also just sent out a direct mail piece to the same audience illustrating the blueprint of his store along with all the lines carried. He says he currently spends around $10,000 a month to promote the store.

Miller’s future plans are to expand into kitchens. While he didn’t want to emphasize kitchen sales right away, Miller’s kitchen display has already earned him four kitchen jobs. “This is certainly not a cheap business to get into, but my feeling is that it’d be more expensive not to get into it.