Wholesaler showrooms should be a terrific tool for the plumbing contractor.

I owned my own wholesale showroom business for 18 years, and worked very closely with plumbing contractors, builders, architects, designers and homeowners. I know the tremendous value a well-displayed, well-run showroom can offer.

I'm going to recite a long list of benefits I believe decorative plumbing showrooms offer. However, I'd like to share some comments from several plumbing contractors I've interviewed in the last several weeks.

Kendall Williams, the vice president of K&T Plumbing in Loomis, Calif., said, "The showroom saves us a lot of time. We don't have to work with the homeowner or builder in selecting the products. The showroom salespeople do this for us." Kendall continued, "People don't like selecting higher-end products from brochures and catalogues, which is how we used to work with clients. Homeowners like to feel, touch, sit on and sit in the products they're interested in.

"Usually the builder gives us (the plumber) a budget for all the plumbing products. If a homeowner specs a package that is over budget, the showroom salespeople point this out and the owner can make the decision to spend more or not."

Kendall added that, "There are so many new products -- styles, colors, finishes -- and it changes so rapidly that there's no way we could keep up to date with it. This is a huge benefit of a trained showroom salesperson. They do this part of the job for us." In addition Kendall stated, "When homeowners change their minds, or there's a problem with the product on delivery issues, I don't have to deal with it. It's all part of the showroom's value-added package."

Kendall said he was initially afraid to turn this phase of the project over to the showroom; he felt he would lose control. In reality he said it has made his job easier, and they are making more money on higher-end custom work. They are able to charge more for the installation, and the dollars earned on larger specified jobs is significant.

Product Expertise

I also interviewed Roger Harper, the owner of Roger Harper Plumbing in Seminole, Fla., near Tampa. Roger echoed many of the same thoughts of Kendall. "The expertise and experience of the showroom salesperson makes them worth their weight in gold," he said.

He further explained, "The showroom salesperson specs all of the little extras and will furnish everything that is required for the job. This includes angle stops and box flanges, supply lines, tank flush levers, etc., in the proper finishes and colors."

Roger also explained that if he can get his clients away from the "big boxes" and into the showroom it's money in his pocket. He made another great point when he said, "Anyone can spec a track home, but not everyone can spec a shower that has two showerheads, a handheld shower, six body sprays and thermostatically controlled valves."

The next plumber I interviewed was Curtis Clark, the co-owner of Clark Brothers Plumbing & Heating in Reno, Nev. He made an excellent point. "Showrooms up-sell the package of products. The higher-end homeowner and builder want the best in terms of products and services, and the showroom renders this."

Selling The Showroom

Today's homeowners want to be a major part of the buying decision. They realize that it's their money, their dream home, their style and taste that need to be satisfied. They won't accept the "old way" of the plumber and builder selecting the product; using only white fixtures and chrome faucets just doesn't get it anymore.

Curtis "pre-sells" the showroom to his clients. He explains why they should use the services of the wholesale showroom -- seeing the wonderful variety of the latest styles, colors and finishes available. He also explains that the showroom salesperson will work with them on budget, and will make sure the package is accurate and complete.

The showroom salesperson then communicates directly to Curtis exactly what's on the quote so he can figure his labor and mark-ups accurately. As Curtis put it, the bigger the package, the bigger the bill. "The showroom and the wholesaler are my business partners right along with my accountant and banker," said Curtis.

In a conversation with Jerry Kuntz, president, and Garry Burroughs, general manager, of Precision Plumbing & Heating in Sparks, Nev., they said they love the wholesaler showroom. The decorative plumbing showroom satisfies their clients' "look, feel and touch" needs for the high-end builder.

The custom builder, remodel contractor and plumber can send their clients into the showroom knowing that a professional, well-trained salesperson will help them in product selection.

Both Jerry and Garry reiterated how much time and hassle this saves them. It eliminates the face-to-face time they use to spend with the builders and homeowners trying to select products from catalogues and brochures.

Another big advantage to working with a wholesale showroom is that it will order the product, bring it into the warehouse and put it in a "tag-and-hold" area until the products are needed. Jerry stressed how much money this saves them in accounts receivable, inventory dollars and warehouse space.

Garry really liked the fact that he can send his clients into a showroom and know that they will be treated in "first-class" manner. This adds to the service package that a plumber can offer. It makes his clients feel special, and this is what keeps them coming back.

Perks, Not Problems

Several of the plumbers I interviewed said their experience in dealing with a wholesale showroom was that there were never "problems" just "solutions." What a great attitude.

Only one of the plumbers I interviewed said that he would not install "product only." If the builder or homeowner bought the product from a "big box" wholesaler or independent showroom he'd say no to the installation.

The other three contractors said they would prefer to have the buy/sell go through them, but that they would do the install -- with conversation on warranty, who would be responsible for finding solutions to the problems etc. They all said they would "bump" the labor number, and would put a mark-up on the product just as though they had purchased it. This sounds like a win-win to me.

There's no question that there's a strong trend crossing America that has the custom homebuilder and/or homeowner not only selecting the product, but buying it also. It's happening. The plumber can fight it or join it. In my opinion, those who fight it (won't install only) will lose. Two thirds of a bigger loaf is better than none at all.

These words were right from the mouths of plumbing contractors who not only use wholesale showrooms, but also like them! It hasn't always been this way; there are still many plumbing contractors that resist or refuse to use showrooms for a variety of reasons. This group is in the minority and, in my opinion, will fall along the wayside in terms of working with high-end products and builders.

History Lesson

A short history on wholesale showrooms might be appropriate. They've been around a long time -- well over 50 years.

The original showrooms were developed by plumbing wholesalers for the exclusive use of the plumbing contractor. The plumber was encouraged to have the builder and/or homeowner go to the showroom, select the product, and all the sales were put through the plumber.

These showrooms were small, not very fancy or well maintained, showed primarily fixtures (not faucets), and were staffed by counter or inside sales personnel who really weren't knowledgeable on high-end products. The showrooms were treated as fifth wheels and were not very successful.

In the last 20 years, showrooms have become a very important marketing tool for manufacturers, wholesalers, kitchen and bath dealers, and now the "big boxes." Many showrooms will sell anyone, including the homeowner.

The showrooms are larger (5,000-sq. ft. plus), much more elaborate and they have a diversification of products: fixtures, faucets, vanities, bath accessories, medicine cabinets, steamers, saunas, cabinet and door hardware, mirrors, and towel warmers. Some even sell kitchen cabinets, appliances, countertops, tile, granite and lighting fixtures.

Today's wholesale showroom salespeople are true professionals. They have terrific product knowledge and outstanding sales skills.

Showrooms are much more costly to operate than a wholesale plumbing business. The build out, displays, big array of product, advertising and promotion all are very expensive. Hiring, training and maintaining showroom personnel is costly. Dealing in products that are 75 percent special order is very expensive.

Having said this, the hard fact is that wholesale showrooms must be able to make higher margins on sell than the wholesale side of the business. Respectfully stated, plumbing contractors need to be open and responsive to different discounts on showroom products than they receive on the wholesale side.

Many plumbing contractors have taken the hard stand that if they get 40 percent off list on the wholesale side that they should get the same discounts through the showroom. The plain fact is that the showroom can't exist on this.

One of the plumbers I interviewed put it best when he said he didn't care what his cost on showroom products were; he was using the same markup across the board. If his discount was less, his cost was more, but his markup on this higher cost allowed him to make more money. Isn't that what it's all about?

Wholesale showrooms are here to stay. The plumbing contractor can either embrace and support them, or he can fight them. Those that embrace will be the winners -- those that don't will lose.