The showroom at Aurora, Colo.-based Bell Plumbing & Heating Co. has gone through several incarnations over the last 85 years. CEO Larry Bell’s grandfather Denny Bell started the business in 1926 in the south Denver area, which included a showroom and a parts center.
“I’m not sure you could call it a showroom by today’s standards, but it was a space to show product,” Bell says. “That was considered heresy in the industry because he was selling parts to consumers. But that’s what he was interested in. If he could get people in the building, then he could show them what else he could do. That was the company philosophy, and it hasn’t changed much over the years.”
Display areas depicting full kitchens with appliances such as refrigerators, dishwashers and garbage disposers or bathrooms with tubs, toilets and lavs provided a way that customers could see the range of product Bell Plumbing offered. The showroom was tied to the service and installation business.
In 1955, the company moved to a new location, which had space for the showroom. During the 47 years Bell Plumbing occupied that building, the showroom quickly spilled over into office space, warehouse space, any extra space available, Bell says. The company had its own garage and mechanic for truck maintenance and repair - but the mechanic was relocated to provide more space for the showroom. And as the showroom continued to grow, it became more disorganized.
So when Bell Plumbing moved to its third location in 2002 - due to eminent domain and a highway expansion project - Bell and President Greg Palmer made specific plans for the design of the showroom, laying it out exactly as they wanted, including the parts counter in the back. The building is the former site of a family-owned lumberyard and is bigger than any facility the company had occupied before.
The retail portion of the company, which is about 16 percent of the company’s business, comprises 8,500 square feet of the 43,000-square-foot building.
Today the company focuses on the residential service and repair market within the Denver metro area, occupied by 2+ million people. While the showroom is its own profit center, it adds sales to the balance sheet for other departments within the company.
The success of the business, Palmer adds, comes from how the individual departments - service, remodel, HVAC install, store, HVAC/remodel sales, warehouse, clerical and management - interrelate with one another. “A person coming in for a remodel estimate might not even know that we have a store - even though we advertise like crazy,” he says.
You won’t find walls and walls of faucets and sinks or a toilet lineup in Bell’s showroom; Palmer doesn’t believe similar products should be in the same place. Product groupings or pods are more intimate, reflecting a certain style or manufacturer. Nor will you see distinct paths that lead customers a certain way past the various types of plumbing fixtures.
“We prefer our salespeople to engage customers and guide them through the showroom,” notes Palmer, who also manages the showroom. Bell Plumbing has seven full-time employees for its store: three in the showroom and four on the parts counter. “Those customers will see more of the whole showroom instead of just one product area. If someone comes in looking for faucets, he or she might not know that we sell tankless water heaters.”
Taller displays such as shower doors are kept toward the back of the store so as customers walk in, they can see the vast space the showroom occupies, he adds. Vignettes are installed around the outer walls and windows. Clients may see a complete line of a particular brand in one vignette and complementary lines working together for a certain design aspect in another.
Choice In Service LevelBell Plumbing added a new construction business shortly after World War II. With an Air Force base near Denver, and soldiers coming home from the war, the area was rapidly growing. The housing market was “gold” during the late 1940s and early 1950s, Bell says. The company entered into commercial new construction at the same time. Bell, who worked part time in the business as a plumber’s helper during high school and college before becoming a full-time employee in 1968, recalls the company had its own carpentry fabrication shop in the early ’50s, producing kitchen cabinets and Formica countertops.
In the late 1990s, the company exited the commercial new construction business.
“Our project team was getting older, and we knew we were going to have to make the conversion to CAD and other technologies,” Bell explains. “We just weren’t ready to do that on a very small margin.”
Palmer adds, “It was the only part of our business that was commercial, and it didn’t really fit into our business plan.”
Bell Plumbing continued its focus on the showroom and selling product through the years, which eventually led it to the remodel business, Bell says. The company belongs to Quality Service Contractors, which is an enhanced service group of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors – National Association.
The greatest percentage of Bell Plumbing’s showroom business comes directly from the consumer. Marketing has been targeted to middle-class and upscale clients, but is slowly moving toward more higher-end projects, Palmer says. The remodeling business is very strong in the Denver area, and Bell Plumbing has remodel jobs booked more than 30 days out.
And while the showroom carries a few product lines that are familiar to consumers shopping at the big-box stores, most of its lines are of higher quality specifically selected to draw in those upscale clients. Bell’s installation expertise is another differentiation from the big retailers.
“The expertise and experience of our employees, plus the quality of the product we sell, differentiates us from our competitors,” he adds.
The sales philosophy at Bell Plumbing - from the service techs to the remodel contractors to the showroom salespeople to the office staff - is to help people, not push product.
“We’re not a store that just pushes product or a design center that doesn’t understand the mechanics behind what it is selling,” Palmer explains. “We’re the store that employs technicians who understand plumbing and heating mechanics, yet can design and install solutions that are both aesthetically desirable by the customer and mechanically in sync with the home’s construction.”
But Bell Plumbing is sensitive to protecting its contractor/client relationships, designing and pricing products based on the level of service needed on a job-by-job basis.
“With us, the remodeling contractor has a choice when determining the level of service he wants from us,” he notes. “We can be the wholesaler who simply orders product and will price that order very aggressively. Or the contractor can send his customer to our store and we’ll provide full-service attention - product selection, design, measuring, logistics, warehousing, budget consulting, education and financing. We’ll even send technicians to complete a portion of the project if the contractor asks us to do so.”
Bath-and-kitchen remodeling makes up 11 percent of Bell Plumbing’s business. Palmer expects it to increase as the company continues to market its showroom and retail services to remodeling contractors. In addition, the company recently began to reach out to designers and contractors specializing in bath-and-kitchen remodeling.
“There are kitchen design firms out there that will plug a $50,000 kitchen into a house that maybe mechanically or electrically can’t support it,” Bell explains. “We like to look at all the factors. Will the water heater support this new kitchen or a fancy bathroom? That’s a value add we offer.”
The Green BathroomHomeowners aren’t beating down Bell Plumbing’s door for water-saving and energy-efficient products, but Palmer believes it’s because many green plumbing products are more expensive than their nongreen counterparts. People are price sensitive these days, and the driver for most green technologies seems to be federal, state and local tax incentives.
However, Denver has instituted water restrictions the past few summers, Bell states, and the water districts have provided incentives for homeowners to install low-flow toilets or low-flow showerheads, as well as replacing inefficient laundry or dishwashing appliances.
Bell’s showroom has many of these green products on display for those willing to pay the price to make their bathrooms or kitchens environmentally friendly. For Palmer and the showroom staff, part of their mission is to educate homeowners about what products will work best in their bath or kitchen remodel. That includes teaching them about the various green plumbing products now available - and how they work. Homeowners then have a more realistic expectation of performance.
A few of the eco-friendly products Bell Plumbing displays in its showroom include:
“They’re great in this marketplace because most homes are ranch houses on one level or one level and a basement,” Bell explains. “If someone adds a bathroom at the end of a house, a hot water recirc will keep the hot water flowing to that bathroom.”
Palmer says it took 60 seconds to get hot water in his home before installing a recirc pump. “It’s a convenience, obviously, but it does save water as well.”
The showroom displays high-efficiency furnaces, as well as countertop lines made of recycled glass, recycled paper and recycled wood products. Not only do Bell’s vendors make eco-friendly products, they also engage in eco-friendly practices, such as the cabinetry manufacturer that generates its own power.
“It’s who you align yourself with as well as the products you sell and how you run your own business,” Palmer explains.