We want the retail trade, that’s what we’re after,” says Colleen Horner, the confident proprietor of Colleen Horner Bath & Tile, located in the humble hamlet of Pewaukee, Wis., just a half hour drive outside Milwaukee. Standing amid the opulence of her two-level, 3,800 sq. ft. showroom, it’s easy to agree that she’s more than prepared to get what she wants.

The showroom may bear a new name, but the space adjoins the offices of Horner Plumbing, now 55 plumbers strong, which has been in business for 30 years.

The showroom has everything anybody could possibly want for the bathroom. And not just the items you’d expect a plumbing contractor to supply — faucets, tubs and shower doors — but also the unexpected — tile for the walls, stone for the floor and purely decorative items such as $135 Q-tips holders, $25 water goblets, plus imported towels and linens you’d have a hard time finding after a two-hour drive to the big city of Chicago.

But beauty’s only skin-deep, and in the round about world of retailing, Horner will only get what she wants by giving consumers what they want and have come to demand from any other retail environment. And that goes for service as well as style. Effective merchandising, no matter what the product, means telling and selling a complete story. It means controlling the seemingly spontaneous impulses of any buying process, leaving nothing to chance yet everything to possibility.

Horner’s staff stands ready to do this show-and-sell process to a customer walking in just for a faucet or as they have for homebuilder accounts for decades.

“We have a great showroom,” Horner adds. “We have the plumbers. We have a dedicated staff. And we have great products.”

Fickle Whims

For the past three years, we’ve used the occasion of this month’s Kitchen & Bath Industry Show to highlight just how far plumbing contractors have risen to cater to the often fickle whims of the consumer. The stigma for contractors has long been that they possess great mechanical aptitudes, but don’t have an ounce of merchandising sense in their bones when it comes to dealing directly with the public. Leave the necessary merchandising flair to the K&B dealers of the world, or at the very least, the barn-like atmosphere, but massive square footage allotted to the big-box home centers.

But we hope our stories have proven that stigma to be incorrect. Very incorrect. As the bathroom takes center stage in a person’s home, we don’t think there’s anyone better suited to tackle the job than a merchandising plumber. A company with only excellent mechanics is at just as much of a disadvantage as designers who wouldn’t know a tee from an elbow.

“I think that Colleen Horner Bath & Tile should enhance Horner Plumbing and vice versa,” Horner says.

Contractors are bridging the gap by opening well-appointed showrooms and jumping in with both feet to merchandise their products with a combination of behind-the-wall fundamentals with in-front-of-the-wall savvy.

Two years ago, for example, we introduced Tim Miller and his showroom, Prestige Bath & Tile, in the western suburbs of Chicago; last year, readers met David Judd, owner of Master Bath & Tile in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Before these folks opened their own showroom, everyone was their competition: other contractors, wholesalers, Home Depot, K&B dealers, you name it. Everyone had the same products and the same “look.”

In Miller’s case, he wanted to move his builder customers out of the chrome-and-white mentality when it came to outfitting the bath. For Judd, he wanted to spotlight his existing new construction and remodeling business, and stave off growing competition from the big-box retailers. Both wanted to be the main conductor to orchestrate bath purchases, and not leave it to less skilled practitioners such as K&B dealers, or to the chance of getting a hand-me-down sale from a wholesaler’s showroom.

Now it’s Colleen Horner’s turn for fame.

Showroom Veteran

While Colleen Horner Bath & Tile opened just 10 months ago, the business is no stranger to running a successful showroom.

New construction has always been the mainstay of Horner Plumbing, the business Colleen’s husband, Bruce, started in 1969. Currently, the 500 homes Horner Plumbing helps construct annually range in price from $100,000 to $800,000. In late 1988, Horner Plumbing opened up its “Private Design Centre,” at its former location just outside of Milwaukee, Wis. As the name suggests, the old 2,200 sq. ft. showroom was open by appointment only. When Horner Plumbing closed a deal with a homebuilder, staff from the Centre scheduled an appointment with the home buyer to go over a thorough review of all the potential plumbing items that might go into the new home. The Centre was meant to tantalize home buyers into upgrading and adding on to the plumbing originally specified.

There certainly was a merchandising angle to it all, and home buyers certainly did choose to upgrade any number of items. But it also helped maximize labor efficiency, a critical component to any plumber trying to make a profitable go at the fiercely competitive residential construction market.

Since the old showroom was for a specific purpose, uninvited drop-ins would only get in the way. Technically, the Centre’s real customer wasn’t the home buyer, but the homebuilder. The appointment-only strategy gave Horner Plumbing the chance to give undivided attention to serious customers. As a result, the business became the trusted partner for many area builders.

Colleen Horner wanted to do more and leverage the company’s excellent reputation for service. Besides new construction, the company could branch out into the even bigger market for remodeling, perhaps acting as a general contractor or simply selling the product at retail to the committed do-it-yourselfer. And while the old showroom’s philosophy insulated the company from wasting time on “tire kickers,” she knew there were other less aggravating ways to run a true retail showroom.

“People knew us, builders definitely,” Horner says. “But not architects, designers or other influences on consumer purchases. And clearly, we never catered directly to the public since they couldn’t walk into the old showroom.”

As the company was preparing to build new headquarters in 1997, she also considered suggestions for fashioning some of the space for a showroom. But it wasn’t until she visited Tim Miller’s suburban Chicago showroom two years ago that she knew exactly what she wanted to do, and who to enlist for help.

Merchandising Expertise

The common denominator to all our recent showroom stories has been consultant David Lyon. Lyon has more than 25 years of experience in showroom design and merchandising skills. Up until a few years, he typically plied these trades to plumbing wholesalers. But then, he started to attract contractors. Horner’s showroom is his latest work.

“Contractors are looking for more control over their work, more control on what product they want to install and have allegiance to,” he says. “Their knowledge of the mechanics of plumbing is second to none so I think it’s a natural that more contractors are opening such showrooms as Colleen’s.”

Lyon’s merchandising skills come into play in four areas, and have reached a height we haven’t seen until our trip to Colleen’s showroom. Layout, product mix, a dedicated staff and promotion not only help you find what you want, but lead you to what you need. You may not even know what you need, until you find what you want. But that’s the beauty of merchandising. Take a look at what we mean:

  • A Merchandising Layout: Retailers have long known how to make effective use of space. Such merchandising layouts are the first step in Lyon’s work.

    “I don’t think the word ‘showroom’ adequately describes what should be accomplished,” Lyon told us two years ago. “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 or a clothing store.”

    That quote still sounds good to us today. And we also think we’ve written plenty of pertinent words about properly laying out a showroom. For more information, visit our Web site and click on the three stories you’ll find linked at the end of the electronic version of this feature.

    Suffice it to say that Horner’s showroom functions more like a plumbing department store. There’s a clear sense that the “faucet department” is here, while the “tile department” is over there. In addition, complementary products such as faucets and accessories are located nearby each other.

  • The Right Product Mix: Great merchandisers make the customers think, “This store has everything I need, including items I never thought of beforehand. Why should I go anywhere else?”

    On its face, this advice first applies to plumbing. The showroom does have a broad display of plumbing products, including items such as accessories and even some faucets that Horner can buy direct.

    “Having the right product mix is crucial,” Horner says. “As contractors, we typically depend on wholesale distribution for our products. However, the bottom line is how much margin we can make, and purchasing direct can be very profitable. There are plenty of lines we can buy direct. That translates into better buying power, which means better bids and better jobs. That puts us way ahead of other contractors.”

    But Horner goes above and beyond the usual plumbingware. Tile, marble and stone are a new addition. And a vital one at that. While Horner is new to the market, there’s no discounting the margins she can obtain with these decorative options.

    But it’s the soft goods at Horner’s showroom that we’ve never seen before in our coverage. Imported towels and throws, as well as decorative objects line the front windows of the showroom.

    “We’re creating a veritable bath department for boutique items that are hard to find,” Horner says. “You won’t buy these at Target!”

    At the moment, she has her eyes on the future for this portion of the business to grow. “Right now we’re working with people who are constructing new homes,” Horner says. “At this point, they’re not thinking about towels and other items to put the finishing touches on the bathrooms. But it will come later.”

  • A Dedicated Staff: A dedication to service is nothing new since it was a mandatory element of the old showroom. However, the staff is now big enough to cover the new bases as well. Truth be told, many of the showrooms we’ve been in suffer from a lack of qualified people. Not so with Horner. Louis Caracci and Mary Weiler, for example, were hired from away from tile stores since this was brand-new territory for Horner. (However, keep in mind, everyone is cross-trained to be knowledgeable and sell everything in the showroom). Meanwhile, Judy Saichek is an award-winning interior designer with more than 25 years experience. Managing the operation is Linda Kennedy, who spent the past 10 years managing a local plumbing wholesaler’s showroom. Finally, Tara Gosey, started out as Horner Plumbing’s receptionist, but her customer service skills turned out to be better suited for the showroom.

    To leverage the required knowledge required for the less than stylish stuff behind the wall, two master plumbers and four journeymen are usually in the neighboring Horner Plumbing offices to provide mechanical answers to any tough questions from the showroom.

    Although not on staff, an NKBA-certified designer works on call, so to speak, to help by drawing up blueprints for large jobs.

    As with the old showroom, builder accounts are encouraged to make appointments. Horner added that starting soon, one person on staff will be dedicated to builder clients, with the rest of the staff free to handle walk-ins.

  • A Promotional Campaign: “Creating a showroom is a tough job in and of itself, but it’s only one element of making a retail business successful,” Lyon says. “Colleen brought in the right product mix so that customers don’t need to go anywhere else, which you can’t do without a nice store. But none of that would work unless there’s marketing and promotion to bring the public to the store.”

Horner Plumbing’s name and reputation since 1969 may be enough to keep the existing home builders happy. But Horner wants to build on that base, and also gain the interest of custom home builders — the type like the one they’ve already started working with on a $700,000 home. Her plans also include a well-crafted plan to go after the retail walk-ins, as well as other influential parties in the sale of bathware.

Full-page display ads regularly run in the local Milwaukee magazine. Beyond advertising, Horner has a 12-month plan for direct mail each month geared to architects and zip codes of high-income neighborhoods. The direct mail consists of a different post card each month depicting various elements of the showroom, say, soft goods one month, and tile the next.

Other promotional gambits of the past include a grand opening, during which a designer working on a 15,000 sq. ft. mansion with 10 bathrooms first learned of Colleen Horner Bath & Tile. The work first started out with just the tile — all $130,000 worth — and later included the plumbing fixtures and shower doors.

Horner also plans to host a monthly meeting of the local chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers, as well as a fund-raiser for cancer, a disease to which her husband succumbed in 1993.

“Horner Plumbing is well-known, but we consider Horner Bath & Tile to be a brand-new business,” Horner explains. “Right now, I don’t have a budget for advertising and promotion,” which means she’s not questioning the amount yet. “We’ll eventually fine-tune it and keep our money invested in whatever promotion gives us the best return. But right now, it’s important to get our name out and keep it out there.”