PM's 2009 Wholesaler Of The Year ― F.W. Webb
A Showroom For Everyone(Editor's Note: We’ve written on this subject before, so we encourage you to search out the topic at www.pmmag.com.)
Right now, there are more than 34 million Americans age 65 and older, and that demographic is expected to be 70 million by 2025. Many of these Americans intend to “age in place” - stay put in their own homes for as long as possible. However, the bathroom can be the prime reason why a person must move. Without the proper plumbing products, the simple act of bathing and using the toilet can be dangerous.
We weren’t more than two steps into the showroom before Scott Smith, showroom development manager, F.W. Webb Co., made sure we knew what we were getting into.
“Right from the start, we wanted people to know that we’re ‘traditional,’” Smith says, pointing out the highlights as we stood just inside the entrance of a Frank Webb’s Bath Center, Methuen, Mass., “that we’re ‘modern,’ that we’re ‘kitchen,’ that we’re ‘bath,’ and that we’re ‘lighting.’”
People are going to know the showroom is something else, too: “accessible.”
The Methuen location is essentially two showrooms in one: a typical Frank Webb’s Bath Center, a growing chain of 27 showrooms located throughout New England and upstate New York, and a Frank Webb’s Accessible Living Bath Design Center that takes up about a third of the total 7,000-square-foot space.
While some of the first residential accessible products weren’t much more than knockoffs of products for nursing homes or hospitals, many plumbing manufacturers have made great strides to capture the “aging-in-place” market of older Americans who intend to stay in their homes for as long as they can.
Today’s grab bars and shower seats come in just as many colors as sinks and tubs. But Smith went further, making sure to incorporate regular mainstream plumbing products that with the right installation height, can be made right for someone in a wheelchair.
“Nobody would ever think of using a great piece like this for an assisted-living bathroom,” he added. When it came time to write this article, we honestly couldn’t recall what good-looking piece he was pointing out since so many of the displays looked like they’d fit in anywhere. About a dozen vignettes inside the accessible center show consumers that they don’t have to give up style in order to be safe.
“With baby boomers driving many market trends at the current time, we felt it was important to look at their needs and desires as they get older,” says Danielle Frank, the showroom manager at Methuen. “It’s also always a challenge to work with clients with physical needs that require special construction in their home due to the fact that many items were either unattractive or not on display.”
With all the fashion on display no matter the need, it’s important to note that F.W. Webb got into the showroom business eight years ago to help the contractor. Smith says about 70 percent of the overall showroom business comes from contractors referring their customers to the facilities.
“We want the contractor to know that the showrooms are an extension of his business,” says Jeff Pope, president of F.W. Webb Co., based in Bedford, Mass. “Our showroom team can take the burden of vast product knowledge off his shoulders and our fully trained staff can do all the customer contact and take care of upselling the customer, too.”
By an extension of his business, Pope also means the showrooms are backed by the same extensive inventory a wholesaler the size of Webb can provide. That means the bath centers have more product than a typical Home Depot will ever expect to see. And while remodeling or construction projects typically have some lead time to organize, if something is needed right away, Webb has more than 300 delivery vehicles and a 400,000-square-foot Central Distribution Center that can make overnight delivery a no-sweat possibility.
There are plenty of other innovations that Webb has done to make the life of the contractor an easier one. You’ll find a couple of other stories in this issue on other contractor services, but the showroom is a very visible place to start.
One of the big pushes the company always makes is to educate the contractor about the advantages of referring customers to one of the bath centers.
“We’ve moved forward with today’s market and left behind the wholesale-only mentality,” Frank adds, “but we maintain our dedication to all of our contractor clients. We work with clients referred to us by wholesale customers in a variety of ways and leave the choice to the preference of the installer who made the referral.”
This typically comes down to a couple of options for the contractor:
- Contractors may choose to oversee the sale of the product, so Webb quotes and sells the product directly to them, leaving the contractors to make as much or as little a markup as they prefer on each item.
- Some contractors no longer prefer to be the middlemen in the sale of decorative fixtures. In this case, they receive a referral credit for the sale made by the showroom consultant. The credit is based on the total sale made by the showroom staffer and issued directly to the contractor.
Time: This might be the biggest reason of all. “We spend our time keeping totally up-to-date on the latest plumbing products, new trends, finishes and features,” Smith says. “That’s our full-time job.”
Obviously, the job’s far from over after the customer walks out the door with a wish list checked off.
“We can provide product specs and installation instructions,” Smith says. “And we’ll order material, coordinate jobsite deliveries and more. We’ll do what we can to make sure things go the way the contractor and homeowner want them to.”
Upsell: Opportunities open up for everyone involved whenever a homeowner visits a bath center.
“Visiting the showroom also expands possibilities for the homeowner who may not have realized that her kitchen faucet from 1980 does not have to be replaced with the same style,” Frank adds. “She can upgrade to a pull-out spray model or add a soap dispenser without major trouble. These style options and upgrades mean extra mark-up opportunities for the installer in product and, in some cases, in labor.”
(It’s worth noting, too, that the showroom staff does not work on commission.)
Flexibility: The showroom staff works on appointments, and it’s a natural for anyone seriously contemplating a major bath and kitchen makeover. But Smith also says walk-ins are common since some shoppers don’t want to feel any pressure and will reach a decision on their own terms.
However, in talking with Frank, it’s clear she likes the customers that are ready to take their time.
“The clients that most enjoy the showroom and the experience with the staff tend to be interested in completing their project by selecting quality products for their home that will not only be durable and functional, but also look great and add value to the property,” Frank adds.
Financing: Webb has recently partnered with Bank of America to offer customers up to $30,000 in credit to pay for a new bath or kitchen. Customers can easily apply over the phone. If approved, Bank of America can transfer the funds directly to the customers’ checking accounts.
Investment: It’s hard to be subtle about this benefit. The first Webb showroom opened not that many years after Webb stopped using its famous “Wholesale or No Sale” slogan. To walk into one of its showrooms now is to see how far the company has removed itself from those old sentiments, while still keeping the trade first and foremost in mind.
First, there’s 27 of these bath centers, with plans to open three more this year for an even 30. While a lot are naturally centered around the Boston metropolis, there’s one as far north as Bangor, Maine or west as Binghamton, N.Y.
Second, plenty of showerheads and whirlpool tubs are operational - always a good touch to appeal to a consumer’s senses. Some displays feature radiantly heated tub surrounds and working steam units, too.
“Working displays also take the mystery out of how a body spray shower looks and feels or how a water-jetted tub differs from an air-driven tub,” Smith says. “You can see how kitchen pull-out faucets work differently from pull-downs or see how hand-held showers feel vs. a rain showerhead.”
Advertising: This one could easily fall under the “In-vestment” category, but we figured it needed its own spotlight. Webb spent the last few years advertising the bath center with display ads in a number of regional home shelter magazines. Lately, however, the company’s been putting its ad dollars into commercials for cable TV on shows appealing more to women viewers. The company currently has three different ads. In addition, Comcast viewers can also view a two-minute, on-demand “video brochure” on the bath center.
The Web: Since the creation of the show-rooms, the bath centers have had their own Web site, www.frankwebb.com, which includes some simple step-by-step plan-ning advice to get a homeowner started. “My Projects” lets homeowners keep track of their options and even get some feedback from bath center staff.