Two plumbing contractors’ product displays help customers focus their search. 

The showroom at Tom Drexler Plumbing features six vignettes. Photo credit: Tom Drexler Plumbing

When homeowners decide to remodel their bathroom or kitchen, they can select from an almost unlimited number of plumbing products. The same holds true if they merely want to update a faucet or change-out a toilet to a more water-efficient model.

Consumers can shop online, visit a big-box retailer, or find their way to the bath-and-kitchen showroom at the local supply house. The products they find vary in price, quality, design, finish and color.

Two plumbing contractors have discovered that their own showrooms help many of their customers focus their search.

“With our showroom, we try to narrow down different choices people will have. We can direct them to different price points,” saysTom Drexler, owner ofTom Drexler Plumbingin Louisville, Ky. “Before we opened our showroom, we sent our customers to different showrooms we were affiliated with. They would pick products we were unfamiliar with or didn’t have the parts or prices for. With the showroom we can control the ordering process and the cost better.”

Dave Ariano, president ofRavinia Plumbing & Heatingin Highland Park, Ill., makes the same point about his company’s showroom in Chicago’s northern suburbs.

“The showroom certainly helps us control what we install and what we’re responsible for,” Ariano says. “We steer people toward products that hold up and ones that we can get repair parts for. We try to steer them away from products that may cause them trouble.”

While the spaces occupied by the showrooms of both contractors are small, Drexler and Ariano say the benefits to their companies are significant.

The showroom at Ravinia Plumbing relies on product displays. Photo credit: Bob Miodonski

A tale of two showrooms

The two contractors and their showrooms share some common elements. Both Ravinia Plumbing and Tom Drexler Plumbing are family-owned businesses. Each company generates about $6 million in annual sales, primarily from service.

Tom Drexler founded his company 29 years ago. When he leased space for his business 10 years ago in a busy retail area, he had a showroom in mind but opened it just three years ago. The roots of Ravinia Plumbing go back to 1928 when Dave Ariano’s grandfather,Joe Ariano, founded the company. The showroom dates back to 1956 but has been in its current location for four years.

The showrooms of both contractors adjoin their plumbing businesses. Tom Drexler Plumbing’s showroom covers 1,200 sq. ft., which consists of six vignettes and product displays, including hardware, tile, cabinets and walk-in safety tubs. The showroom at Ravinia Plumbing occupies 850 sq. ft. with a variety of toilets and sinks on the floor; kitchen faucets and lavatory faucets are mounted in separate areas on slot-wall displays.

Both showrooms are located in older, upscale communities. That means most of their customers prefer plumbing products with traditional styles and finishes, with a smattering of contemporary designs.

“We go with relatively timeless collections rather than extremely trendy ones,” Drexler says. “We research what suits our needs, so we look for high-quality products at an affordable price.”

Ariano adds: “The products in our showroom represent a cross-section of styles and finishes that go over in this area, which is more traditional.”

He helps decide what products to display in the showroom along withRich Blanchard, who does Ravinia’s purchasing, andRon LaBarbara, office manager. All three help customers pick out products and can provide design advice for remodeling jobs. They stay on top of trends by reading bath and kitchen trade journals, talking with manufacturers reps, and attending the Kitchen & Bath Industry Show when it’s in Chicago. Ravinia belongs to the Quality Service Contractors group of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors – National Association.

At Tom Drexler Plumbing, salesmanJeremie Schneidersmanages the showroom department. Interior designerSamantha Harrisassists with showroom sales and designs bathroom remodeling projects. She’s active in the local chapter of the National Kitchen & Bath Association. The company also is a Nexstar member.

Tom Drexler stands in his showroom in Louisvile, Ky. Photo credit: Tom Drexler Plumbing

Showroom benefits

Both showrooms are open to the public Monday through Friday with shorter hours on Saturday. While the showrooms get a few walk-ins and tire-kickers, the majority of sales come from the contractors’ existing customers.

“Many of our remodeling leads come from our plumbing service company,” Drexler says. “So, most of our showroom customers are our customers already. We use the showroom to close the remodeling jobs we’re selling.

“And we use it to help customers choose the products to use in a remodeling project. It simplifies the process. It’s a one-stop shop for them. Customers can pick out their products first hand. They don’t have to go to a tile shop, cabinet shop, etc. We make a little profit on it rather than having them buy products somewhere else.”

Drexler’s company does about $1.5 million a year in remodeling and hopes to do $2 million this year. He describes the projects as turnkey jobs with the plumbing, carpentry, tile and other work provided by Tom Drexler Plumbing employees.

“Our remodeling jobs average $15,000, so most are mid-range jobs” he says. “We do a few high-end jobs but we make more profit on standard bathroom remodels. Most of our jobs are not too intricate and these are where  our showroom helps us and what we try to target.”

One particular niche is the aging-in-place market, Drexler adds.

“The average plumber may not realize how much opportunity he may have of working with people who are staying in their homes or are aging and need grab bars and other products,” he says. “It could be an easy sell when people decide to spend money on what they need to make their homes more comfortable.”

Ravinia has done five or six remodeling projects in each of the last two years. Before the recession, Ariano says, the company did six or seven times as many.

“When the economy was good, our estimator would go to the customer’s house and give a ballpark figure of what the remodeling would cost,” he says. “Then the customer would come into the showroom and we’d help them pick out faucets and other products. We’d work with a local tile center and local painter we know to complete the job.”

Today, most of the showroom leads come from Ravinia’s technicians who send in customers who need to replace a faucet, sink or toilet.

“Rather than having them buy online, we try to get them to buy from us,” Ariano says.

Competitive factors

Ravinia purchases all its showroom products from local supply houses. It used to put prices on its showroom products but found it tough to keep the prices up to date, Ariano says.

“We discount 20% to 25% off list price for our service customers, and we remain fairly competitive,” he says. “A couple years ago, we extended our warranty to two years on products that we sell and install in order to offer something better and help us to compete.”

Drexler Plumbing buys its showroom products both through distribution and direct from manufacturers. Some of the products the company gets through distribution, such as Gerber toilets, come from a vendor-managed inventory program it maintains with Barnett.

“We’re a direct dealer for cabinets and Premier faucets, and we have an acrylic line we’re a dealer for,” he says. “For us having a showroom, even though it’s small, we can get some products at a significant discount buying them direct as opposed to buying them from a distributor. For some lines, we wouldn’t be able to get the products without a showroom.”

Both contractors compete for business with the showrooms of local supply houses, the Internet and home centers, although the big-box retailers cater more toward do-it-yourself projects, Drexler says. The contractors market their showrooms through the Yellow Pages and their own websites – and

Dave Ariano and Ron LaBarbara are in the showroom at Ravinia Plumbing in Chicago’s northern suburbs. Photo credit: Bob Miodonski

Show and sell

While showrooms operated by plumbing contractors are relatively rare, Ariano and Drexler believe it’s important to show customers the products they should have installed in their homes. Ravinia Plumbing illustrates its technicians’ price books with high-quality product photos. Before opening its showroom, Tom Drexler Plumbing visited customers’ homes in a mobile showroom, which was a van outfitted with plumbing products, tile and cabinets.

“We have a little one now, just a Chevy HHR that gets 30 miles per gallon,” Drexler says. “We carry samples of tile, plumbing products, cabinets and marble, which we get from our distributors.”

Having a showroom that customers can visit is even better, both contractors agree.

“If you’re doing a lot of remodeling work, a showroom helps,” Ariano says. “Every piece or part we sell helps pay for the overhead.”

Drexler adds: “I’d recommend opening a showroom to plumbing contractors if they are involved in bath remodeling and are having a hard time controlling the process. It will help them minimize the choices their customers have. Even if it’s just a nice room without vignettes but with a lot of products on display, it would help.”

For contractors without showrooms, Drexler suggests they photograph their remodeling jobs and assemble the photos in a book to show to customers.

“You can put together a book of at least six projects to document what the products in the bathroom are and what the room looks like,” he says. “More than half the people will say, ‘Just give me that.’ You’d be surprised how many people don’t want a lot of choices and want to narrow down their selection.”