Northampton Plumbing Supply invested $200,000 last year to open Degrees of Comfort.

Seeing may be believing for most of life’s mysteries. But when it comes to radiant heat, feeling is believing. How else can purveyors of this most seductive form of heat explain the pleasures of radiant floors or the simple indulgence of towel warmers? How else without a showroom in which operational radiant treasures are warmed up, ready to be experienced first-hand so to speak?

Too bad then that there aren’t more wholesalers like Northampton Plumbing Supply. This Massachusetts wholesaler invested $200,000 last year to open Degrees of Comfort, the most extensive hydronic and radiant showroom we’ve ever seen.

“Given options, people will buy up,” explains former plumbing contractor David Teece, who went into the supply business when he bought Northampton in 1986. “Too often contractors inadvertently limit their customers’ options, and in the process, they eliminate their profit centers, too.”

The 2,000 sq. ft. showroom, located in West Hatfield, MA, certainly doesn’t limit anybody’s options. Much of the space is radiantly heated, for example, and includes a clear section to show the tubing normally hidden underneath. In addition, throughout the showroom are working displays of various European towel warmers, panel radiators and baseboard. And along one wall are a dozen boilers and hot water heaters in various sizes. Each is connected to exhaust vents and can be switched on from a central control panel so that people can not only touch the radiation, but hear the power behind it.

Often just seeing the attention to detail paid to the craftsmanship of many high-end boilers and radiation products also pays off says Marc Kaufmann, the showroom’s director of operations.

“Selling a high-end system takes more than just a piece of sales literature, which is what a lot of contractors resort to do,” he says. “There is a growing awareness among consumers, particularly about radiant heat, thanks to a large extent from ‘This Old House.’ But there isn’t enough education. Here, people are able to see what’s inside, and shop for a heating system just like they would for practically everything else in their home.”

Kick The Tires: As a former contractor, Teece knew consumers could use a place to kick the tires. “All too often, you’d hear from end-users, ‘If I’d only known ... ’ Well we knew a showroom would be a great chance to do this. Maybe now instead of new homeowners spending $10,000 on furniture, they’ll spend $7,000 and $3,000 on plumbing and heating.”

That’s pretty much what many of the contractors we talked to about the showroom echoed with their comments.

“It’s been very helpful for us,” said contractor Steve Bommer, Copperworks Plumbing & Heating, Pulham, MA. “We’re a small shop — just me and two others — so we’re all just too busy to sit down with everybody and explain what could be had. Degrees of Comfort gives us the extra resources to show all the options customers don’t necessarily know they have.”

Contractor David Fredenburgh, DF Plumbing and Mechanical, Belchertown, MA, sends his customers to the showroom for an education. “People are caring a lot more about their heating systems than ever before, and they will forego something else if it means a better system.”

We should note that Degrees of Comfort showcases plumbing products as well, including cabinets, vanities, faucets and products particularly suited for the handicapped market.

“We started out thinking we’d just do heating,” Kaufmann explains. “But we definitely had the room, and we’ve since found out that it takes plumbing to drive traffic into the showroom.” The plumbing must work: Teece says the showroom displays helped sell 50 whirlpools in recent months, and “more shower doors in a year than the past five years.” (Degrees of Comfort, a stand-alone facility, is actually the wholesaler’s second showroom; the much less elaborate first facility was gobbled up by the expanding office space needed at the supply house.)

And it certainly helps that the showroom is located adjacent to an up-scale furniture store, as well as a short drive from other home decorating stores. “Highway 61 has become known as the ‘remodeling highway,’” Teece adds, mentioning the major thoroughfare on which Degrees of Comfort is located. “We do get a lot of people in looking at plumbing, but I’m sure that heating will catch up,” Teece says.

Geared Toward Trade: Although the showroom is set up like any other “retail” establishment, the selling policy is geared for the trade.

“We’re trying to promote business in cooperation with our contractors,” Kaufmann explains. “We’re not in competition with them. We want our showroom to be their showroom.”

Even faucets, an all too easily discounted item, are marked at full list price. “I know people can go down to Home Depot and get the same faucet for 25 percent off,” Kaufmann adds. “But we spend a lot of time with people and want to get paid for it. Plus, we mean to protect the trade.”

To promote the showroom — and radiant heating possibilities in particular — Kaufmann’s done extensive direct mail campaigns to local builders, architects, interior designers and real estate agents.

“How many times have you designed a beautiful, functional space, only to see it compromised by inappropriate or unattractive heating and cooling equipment?” reads a letter to the architectural crowd. “Degrees of Comfort can help both you and your client make choices that enhance your designs — rather than diminish them. Did you know, for example, that a mirror is available surrounded by hydronic heating elements ... in 48 colors?”

Another letter tells real estate agents that “perhaps we’ll even help close a sale for you by showing your clients a way to make the dark, dingy bathroom come to life! real estate agents can also give specially coded savings certificates to clients that could earn them a 1 percent referral fee.

A special dinner meeting held earlier this year on behalf of a local architect’s trade group featured none other than Rich Trethewy. Earlier that same day, Kaufmann organized a mini-trade show for contractors, featuring Trethewy and reps from the showroom’s various lines.

That’s certainly a lot of missionary work on the demand side. But Kaufmann’s also planted seeds on the supply side of the business by hosting local vocational training sessions as well.

Although the showroom may be set up to profit the trade, consumers clearly profit as well. “Even when no sales are made, people still thank us for showing them all the options because nobody else did,” Teece adds.

Such a “wholesale” showroom with such a “retail” look only shows how much the lines of traditional distribution have blurred.