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We first met Dale Benjamin more than 15 years when we traveled to his Wisconsin showroom. At the time, Benjamin ran a plumbing showroom at the family business, Benjamin Plumbing in Fitchburg, right next door to Madison, that we figured was just right for a contractor-run showroom. Not too big. Not too small. Not too upscale. Not too plain.
At 5,000 square foot, it certainly was large, if it was “too” anything, making it one of the largest such spaces we’d seen, at least when it came to a contractor-run showroom.
“I'm not a salesman,” Benjamin told us in 2005. “I don't sell anything, but I am an educator. If consumers trust us, we can definitely help them make better decisions.”
The guiding principle of the showroom: whittle down the choices consumers need to make. If price is no object, the consumer might spend weeks mulling over endless possibilities. And if price is an object, the consumer might think all toilets cost $100 based on one trip to a home center and make a careless purchase.
“It does come down to choosing between one of two choices,” Benjamin said then. “But we have to be prepared to show an assortment of product, and, more importantly, also be able to take the anxiety away from making the final choice.”
All these years later, there was something about Benjamin and the company showroom that we remembered well. It helped matters that we routinely saw the “Benjamin Plumbing” sign anytime we drove north through Madison. With about 60,000 cars whizzing by daily near the town’s busiest intersection, it was hard to miss.
So when we were thinking again about the subject of “contractor-run showrooms” toward the end of last year, we were glad Benjamin took us up on the offer to pay him another call.
We knew, however, that the old showroom location, in fact, the street address of Benjamin Plumbing was in a different spot due to highway construction – the kind that stretches on about eight years and costs hundreds of millions to complete.
If the old sign was hard to miss, than it was even harder to notice it missing.
“We didn’t want to move,” Dale told us upon our return last December. “But then the Department of Transportation came knocking. You can’t stop progress and there’s no sense in complaining about it. The new off ramp goes straight through where the warehouse used to be.”
While the construction was in progress, Benjamin Plumbing set up shop in its new building four years ago in an office park just a few blocks away and off a main road.
“A plumbing contractor shouldn’t live in prime real estate, anyway,” he says. “Back when my dad built the old place about three decades ago, it certainly wasn’t like what it became.”
The business, founded by Ralph Benjamin in 1962, had a modest beginning, starting out of a converted grocery truck parked alongside a barn on property owned by a local homebuilder, and one Ralph’s first major customers.
The new building is around 30,000 square foot about 20,000 square smaller than the old place.
But smaller means efficient these days.
“We learned a lot at the old building,” Benjamin explains. “Back at a certain point we were buying semi loads of toilets when we were building a lot of new homes. But that was then. Nowadays, we can buy a skid of toilets for the same price per unit as a semi load.”
While the new site’s office space stayed about the same, the showroom definitely got cut down in size with the displays of toilets, showerheads and decorative accessories now thoughtfully placed within about 600 square feet.
“When we planned the move we had to consider that we were no longer going to be seen by all those cars,” he adds. “That was great visibility for us, but now we get 50 cars a day driving by. Maybe.”
Pros and cons
Benjamin drew up a list of pros and cons for the new showroom and deliberated about a final decision.
“It’s a tall order and a huge expense for a contractor to run its own showroom,” Benjamin explains. “I mean here we are running a showroom essentially as an exclusive space for ourselves whereas home centers and other wholesalers can do this for everybody in town.”
Still the need was there for the company of 26 employees with some 16 techs in the field, with revenue evenly split among commercial work; residential remodeling and service and repair. And as the name suggests, Benjamin focuses strictly on plumbing – although they dabble in radiant, too.
“I was concerned that if we didn’t have the display space, we would lose support for our service department,” Benjamin explains. “I certainly didn’t want customers to just go to a home center, buy what they needed and then have us put it in. That happens, anyway, but I certainly didn’t want to encourage it.”
And so, Benjamin’s right-sized showroom serves a couple of purposes:
The practical showroom is primarily designed to help customers that might call for a repair, but find out that their toilet or faucet is a goner after all.
“We have toilets, sinks, grab bars, faucets, even water heaters and softeners that a tech can typically install in under two hours,” Benjamin explains. “That way our techs can our customers to come here to look if they need to. That’s much better than telling customers to go to a home center and get lost in the menagerie.”
“We don’t advertise the space and those customers who walk in, we will take care of them,” Benjamin adds. “But if somebody calls up about wanting to plan a full bath or kitchen remodel, then we refer them to a couple of showrooms run by wholesalers, and we work with them to coordinate.”
For that, Benjamin mainly works with Ferguson and First Supply’s Gerhard’s Kitchen & Bath Store brand.
Back with the old showroom, Benjamin figured they had enough on display to handle the lion’s share of any remodeling project. The company also staffed accordingly with a showroom attendant and estimators that would drive to the customer’s home.
But that was then. Today, the company still has the know-how to properly install any kind of plumbing needed for remodeling.
“When it comes to plumbing,” the company’s web site states, “the bathroom depends on it the most. You use the bathroom to use the toilet, wash your hands, take a shower, and more. That’s why when you’re considering a bathroom remodel it’s important you have an expert working on your bathroom plumbing.”
And to get the job done from the start, Benjamin now gladly hands off the shopping chores to another plumbing wholesaler partner.
“Technically, the general contractor has always been my main customer when it comes to remodeling,” Benjamin explains. “Every so often, we might get a consumer who wants to be their own GC, but I think they watched too much TV. We’ll help them though the process, but it is not the ideal way of completing these types of jobs.”
That said, Benjamin says it’s important to make sure the consumer is taken care off through the process.
“These are difficult days when everybody is selling to the consumer,” he explains.
Home centers are certainly glad to do just that. When the area first got a home center, Benjamin says the old showroom did take a hit.
“But I think when they first open these stores,” he adds, “they tend to bring their A Team. However, after a while that goes away and they become just another competitor.”
Nowadays, Benjamin says the internet and the seemingly unstoppable trend toward digital purchases is a larger force than the home centers ever were – and also one more reason to run his showroom with a much smaller footprint.
“We are at the point where even the plumbing manufacturer will advertise to the consumer that they can get most anything for 25 percent off,” he says. “That’s tough when manufacturers are competing against you, but the cat’s out of the bag.”
Working with showrooms run by local wholesalers, however, gives Benjamin a better means to control the process.
“We need the wholesaler and the wholesaler needs us for a lot more than decorative plumbing products on display at a showroom,” he explains. “We still get trucks of piping and PVF delivered here once a day. And before the pandemic, the deliveries were often more than once a day.”
Still, there are challenges that come with handing off a consumer to someone else.
“There’s a relationship that needs to be maintained and the complexity can sometimes get lost,” Benjamin says. “For everyone involved, this has to be a pleasant experience. But there are bound to be some misunderstandings. Maybe, there’s a problem with product availability and the consumer has to go back and reselect a product. Then, the consumer mentions it to the GC and then the GC calls us.”
It can all become a game of Chinese telephone.
“This is a people business so problems are bound to come up, but they can be taken care of,” Benjamin says. “Nobody wants it, but it does happen. Relationships have to be worked on. It’s what’s good for the customer. Let’s no forget that.”
While the new place for Benjamin Plumbing may have less space than before, the showroom – then and now – enhances the company’s brand name.
“I think it adds to the overall experience of the consumer and increases our overall professionalism and image that we want to portray,” Benjamin says. “We’ve always kept clean trucks, a clean warehouse and clean uniforms. We’ve always been fanatical about stuff like that. So the showroom was just an extension of providing extra service to our customers.”