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For decades, contractors and homeowners have turned to local showrooms when working on kitchen construction and remodeling projects. While the advent of online retail may have changed the game somewhat, showrooms remain an important resource for designers, end users and contractors. There still is nothing quite like getting one’s hands on the product.
F.W. Webb is one of the largest plumbing product distributors in the Northeastern U.S., and has been in the business of helping supply the goods to build and repair homes since 1866. The company operates a number of bathroom showrooms around the region. Phc News recently caught up with Suzanne Brady, showroom sales manager at F.W. Webb in Bedford, Mass. Brady discussed bathroom trends and the role of showrooms today and in the future.
Phc: When and why did F.W. Webb get into the bathroom showroom business?
SB: F.W. Webb opened its first retail showroom, Frank Webb’s Bath Center, in the 1990s. Our purpose from the start was to serve as a resource for our wholesale contractor customers. At the time, the plumbing fixture industry was going through rapid change with more brands and options hitting the market. The days of a plumber offering their customers plain, white porcelain toilets and simple, two-handle chrome faucets were over. Plumbers needed a dependable resource, and we stepped up.
Today, there are 36 Frank Webb’s Bath Centers acting as business partners to contractors, designers and architects. We also welcome homeowners to our showrooms, and can help bring a bathroom remodel project to completion by working with them and their contractors.
Phc: What is your relationship with contractors? What do showrooms offer them?
SB: F.W. Webb Company’s residential plumbing contractors who are looking for “higher end fixtures” can use our showrooms in a variety of ways. First, they can visit the showrooms themselves, work with our experienced consultants to select bathroom fixtures and accessories for a given job, and then bring information about those selections back to their homeowner customer.
Most of the time, however, the homeowner wants to be very involved in the selection process. The contractor can visit the showroom with the homeowner, or simply refer their customer to Frank Webb’s and our sales consultants will work with them to select fixtures that meet their style, budget and project specifications. The showroom consultant can relay pertinent information to the contractor, and we can hold the goods until the contractor is ready for them to be delivered to the job site.
Phc: What are the benefits when contractors send customers directly to a showroom?
SB: There are a number of benefits to referring homeowners to our showrooms. First, it saves contractors a good deal of time and hassle. Instead of spending time in the showroom, the contractor can spend time on the job, and that translates to more repair, remodel and installation income. We also have a program that rewards contractors for referring their customers. The financial upside is meaningful. And finally, it takes pressure off the contractor to be up to date on the latest in bathroom style trends and fixture technology. Our customers who use our free services are very enthusiastic about it.
Phc: What are some interesting trends you're seeing this year and coming for 2015?
SB: In the tubs category, freestanding models continue to gain in popularity. They can add beauty and elegance to a bathroom. We’re also seeing a growing interest in air tubs that have small holes allowing a steady stream of air to be pumped into the tub creating an overall bubbling massage and luxurious therapeutic experience. Air tubs offer an alternative to more traditional whirlpool tubs, which circulate the water through built-in jets and hoses.
We’re excited about some innovations in showers, such as Bluetooth-enabled steam models that allow you to program the various features such as steam, lighting, aromatherapy from an app on your smart phone. Once inside the shower, “curbless” designs and teak seats are popular.
We are seeing the influence of the Baby Boomer generation with homeowners giving more consideration to “aging in place” products that offer both functionality and beautiful design versus the older institutional-looking models.
We’re selling more custom vanities as people treat them like bathroom furniture. Vanity mirrors with integrated nightlights and magnifying features are gaining attention. And, contemporary fixtures, such as wall-hung vanities and toilets, are hot right now.
In terms of color, grey remains very popular.
Phc: How might these trends translate into challenges and/or opportunities for contractors?
SB: Our contractor customers are meeting the installation needs of many of the new styles. The wall-hung toilets, for example, require more behind the wall support. And installing multiple outlet shower systems requires more piping. These are two examples of fixtures that require more installation time, and the extra time translates to more income on a given job.
Phc: How do you feel that showrooms have changed in the past 10 years?
SB: From a contractor standpoint, 10 years ago we had more contractors personally visiting and shopping our showrooms. Now, the majority of contractors refer their customers directly to us. What’s driving this? Aside from the time savings, contractors found that they were competing more and more with big box stores and online sellers of bathroom fixtures. Many decided that they weren’t interested in doing that.
Within the showrooms, we have many more brands and a wider selection of fixtures to showcase today. We have a broader array of accessories and other add-ons to offer, such as showerheads, washlet seats, bathroom fans, towel warmers and lighting fixtures. And at Frank Webb’s specifically, we’ve invested more in working displays so that customers can see and feel how a fixture will operate before they purchase.
Phc: How has e-commerce impacted your showrooms and your business?
SB: Our showroom business continues to grow year over year, but we know that e-commerce is taking a share of the sales. We’ve all read about “showrooming,” whereby shoppers search for merchandise they like in bricks and mortar retail stores and later purchase it online, presumably for a lower cost. We now regularly see the opposite of this, known as “reverse showrooming.” Homeowners come into our showrooms with pages they printed from online bath retailers. Through our website, www.frankwebb.com, many homeowners email us to ask if we have a particular product and inquire about the cost. Why don’t they simply purchase the product online? For many, there is reassurance in buying from a company that has been around for almost 150 years. They know that if they have a problem with their product down the road we will be here to resolve it. Purchasing bathroom, kitchen and lighting fixtures requires an investment far different than books or sneakers. For many people, our knowledgeable sales consultants, working displays, free delivery, and a rich company history outweigh potentially saving a few dollars online.
Phc: In what ways do you think contractors can better utilize the showroom resources you offer?
SB: Some contractors have walked away from the opportunity that higher-end fixture sales present because they don’t have the time or knowledge to engage in it or they don’t like the competition. They’ve adopted a “pick out what you want, have it delivered, and I’ll install it” approach. This can sometimes lead to situations where the fixtures don’t fit properly, which can then lead to delays and lost income when you show up on the job ready to install.
We’d like all our residential plumbing contractor customers to give a partnership with our showrooms a chance. Spend 30 minutes with a showroom consultant. Learn how we can be a valuable asset on a job regarding the selection of fixtures and the transfer of important information between the contractor and their customer. Find out how we can help you keep your fixture profit dollars, save you time, and increase your installation revenue.