Except for a few years in the early 2000s, Brady has been with General Plumbing Supply since 1995, working at the Walnut Creek location before moving on to DJ Bath Plus in 2016. She was 2014-2015 president of the Decorative Plumbing and Hardware Association and currently serves on the board of the Luxury Products Group buying group.
She has seen the decorative plumbing and hardware world go through many changes during her time in the field and put that experience to use when General Plumbing Supply opened its first showroom in 18 years.
The company had been eyeing the San Francisco market for some time; the Walnut Creek flagship is 25 miles away and a showroom in the city was a logical move. Unfortunately, there were limited options in a city where little new construction is available and the real estate market is highly competitive.
The opportunity for a San Francisco showroom appeared in 2015 when DJ Mehler decided to close her kitchen and bath showroom after 25 years in business. As Brady explains it, General Plumbing had been looking to move into the San Francisco market for some time and saw the opportunity to take over some of Mehler’s clientele and displays as a catalyst to getting GPS into a more upscale market.
The company moved into the 6,000-sq.-ft. location in September 2017 after completing a brand-new build-out in a 100-year-old building. Brady says the site is the perfect combination of location, size and price; the perfect place for the traditionally wholesale-based operation to head in a new direction.
“All our other showrooms are attached to our wholesale houses, so they tend to be influenced by that,” Brady explains. “This is the first showroom not attached to a wholesale house. It gave us an opportunity to go into the higher-end part of the industry.”
The family-run distributor has been in California since 1965, boasting showrooms in Walnut Creek, Napa Valley, Auburn, Brentwood and Sonora, as well as a distribution center in Livermore with one of the largest inventories of bath fixtures, furniture, faucets, accessories and kitchen water appliances in the Bay Area.
“We know we come from wholesale roots and we’re not trying to get away from it; we’re proud of it,” she says. “This showroom has been an opportunity to push out of our comfort zone and into the high end.”
While the new showroom does see visits from the end-user, that is not its focus. There are several other showrooms in the immediate area focused on retail and DJ Bath Plus wanted to offer solutions for what they see as an important market segment: designers.
Showroom sales are split 80/20 between industry pros and direct-to-consumer, Brady notes. The showroom is still in its early days and that proportion could shift. To attract designers, DJ Bath Plus offers CEU classes and curates the merchandise to include mostly high-end products.
Still, because it also is dealing with other industry professionals, DJ Bath Plus carries a wide range of brands and products. It offers training to plumbers on new products and installation specs. “We’re keeping them in the loop of the showroom, even though we don’t necessarily have them coming in every day to buy stuff,” Brady explains. “They’re sending their clientele in.”
Meeting the needs of professionals whether they are designing a luxury bathroom or something more modest was important for GPS. The size of the showroom, along with the company’s decades-long product knowledge and an understanding of the plumbing industry, allows DJ Bath Plus to meet these needs and provide a complete solution for their clients.
Before leaving the business, Mehler told Brady one of the issues she frequently came up against was she would always get the master bathroom and powder room, spaces that usually get the bulk of the bathroom renovation budget.
“We don’t want to be that; we want to give you the master bath, the powder room, the kids bath and the guest house,” Brady says. “I think one reason we are able to do it is because we are originally a wholesaler, so we have understandings and connections with the plumber. And we have those brands.”
A Design with Purpose
Brady handled the showroom’s transformation from the very beginning, determined to develop a showroom that would meet specific goals and business objectives. Part of the strategy was to make sure the showroom stands out, proving to potential and existing clients it would provide them with a unique experience in a highly competitive market.
As a veteran of the industry, Brady knew what she wanted in the new space but, more importantly, she knew what she didn’t want. It was essential that the space look clean and contemporary but not sterile. Brady did not want clients walking in and feeling as if they were in any showroom, so she went into the design phase with a desire to inject a lot of character into the space. She also wanted to ensure the showroom did not look out of place in the century-old building housing it.
“I have been in a lot of showrooms and I did look at a couple of local showrooms, but I did it more because I did not want to end up looking like them,” she explains. “I wanted to be different. I did look at a lot of generic showrooms online to be aware of colors and a general sense of things.”
The project came together as Brady began to pull partners on board. First up was DXV, which had a large display already planned for the DJ Bath Plus showroom. General Plumbing Supply and American Standard have been partners for half a century, so the collaboration was a natural one.
As Brady and DXV began to discuss the display, Brady met Stephan Roy of SH Design-Build, a company that designs, fabricates and installs showrooms across North America. She discovered that SH Design-Build was developing displays for DXV and realized it made sense for SH to work on the whole space.
The three partners sat down at the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show in 2017 to discuss the concept. Not long after, Brady started working with SH’s design team to get a real plan in place. She sent the designer the initial architectural drawings for the building and received a preliminary layout of what the showroom could look like.
“Then I began the process of taking the layout, integrating it into our space and into the kinds of products I knew we would display and the flow of work I wanted,” Brady explains. “It was a give and take on both sides. We worked back and forth to polish it to our specific needs and desires.”
The strategic floor plan and the overall layout gets good reviews from the sales staff, who find the showroom well-laid-out and can lead clients through the space in a way that ensures no product is missed during the walk-through. Staff finds it easier to locate products thanks to the organization of the showroom, something Brady says is a challenge in some of GPS’ busier locations.
Thanks to cameras located around the showroom, Brady can watch the floor from her office and she sees firsthand how the layout contributes to how staff and clients go with the flow. “I watch people move through the space and it seems to make a lot of sense,” she notes. “I see people come in the front door and they always turn to the left; it’s amusing to watch.”
Brady, who has some experience in merchandising, adds that she understands how hard it is to keep a customer engaged if they feel as if they are in somebody’s way or if they have people walking behind them throughout the visit. The strategic design helped eliminate those high-traffic areas that can make clients feel uncomfortable. As a showroom manager, she has confronted the constant challenge every showroom faces: How to put in as many products as possible without overcrowding the space.
“I wanted to make sure there was enough physical space for people to move around the showroom and be comfortable,” she says. “Also, that there are not so many displays packed into the space that the visuals become overwhelming. Then people don’t really see. I’ve had to say no to certain displays because of that reason.”
Working with SH designers, Brady developed a full layout incorporating the displays in a way that would not crowd the space. The showroom includes vignettes, faucet walls, sink and tub displays, as well as a large kitchen area and hardware displays — yet manages not to overwhelm the visitor, an important aspect to Brady, especially in a space dedicated to designers.
The displays themselves are a carefully selected mix of vendor displays and display fixtures custom-built for DJ Bath Plus by SH Design-Build. SH also built the showroom’s DXV displays for American Standard.
“I’m really happy with the displays and they work well,” Brady says. “It’s nice that [SH Design-Build] had things they’d already built and used and tried. It was really helpful; we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
Once the design was complete, the displays were fabricated and installed. Then the real work began: getting clients into the showroom and making sure they receive the experience they want and expect.
Brady and her team are applying a balanced approach to encouraging clients to come into the showroom with a mix of technology and good old-fashioned customer service. This is especially important in San Francisco.
In such a major tech-hub, showrooms have to keep up with the latest digital advances. Many companies have added an e-commerce component to their businesses, allowing customers to research online and buy in the showroom or vice versa. DJ Bath Plus does not have an e-commerce platform, though clients can view many of the products online. This allows clients to build wish lists and so far, this has worked well. Brady says she has done an entire house without once meeting the customer.
She fully understands the competition plumbing showrooms face from Internet retailers. Any business selling physical products is going to lose out to online shopping occasionally. Clients can find almost anything online and for what they often believe is a better price. Brady has seen clients at the sales desk using the store’s free Wi-Fi to look up prices while the sales associate is quoting them.
Brady has seen many changes come to the showroom world and the Internet is just one more thing for the industry to adapt to. She saw how people flocked to Internet shopping because it was easy and cheap, but eventually realized there was information that could not be found online.
DJ Bath Plus focuses instead on providing the things one simply cannot find online: the service, safety and backup their clients need. Combined with the website, its clients get the best of both worlds. They have an actual human being at the showroom to guide them through the project with the convenience of the website so they can easily browse and create a wish list.
“We do occasionally lose an order to those things but you’d be amazed how often we don’t lose an order,” Brady says. “What we’re offering to the client is not the product but the safety of somebody who can make sure they’re getting what they need and want. You have to have tech as one of the elements, but an online store — we don’t believe we need it at this point.”
While an e-commerce component is not in DJ Bath Plus’s immediate future, the showroom itself incorporates technology into its sales strategy. It has tablets and computers, of course, and video monitors available for sales associates. One in the kitchen area is often used by staff to show clients product options not currently available in the showroom. This is helpful for designers, who appreciate seeing all available options while working on a space.
Brady notes that with all the tech companies in the area, the average client, designer or not, is almost certainly going to be tech-savvy and expects businesses to keep up with the latest advances.
One of those tech advances, virtual reality, is making its way into the showroom world right now. The technology has practical uses that will be appreciated even after the novelty has worn off; VR and augmented reality have wide applications in the design world. With a catalog at your virtual fingertips, it may also mean less clutter in the showroom and more options for clients to consider.
Brady believes VR and AR technology might be useful one day but for now the examples she has seen do not work for showrooms.
“I think it will get there at some point,” she explains. “They’re interesting but I question whether they’re realistic for using with a client every day, for your average client. There’s a curiosity but I’m not quite convinced they’re where they need to be for us to use them every day.”
For example, it is one thing to use VR design software with generic products to lay out a kitchen or bathroom but when it gets down to details, Brady says it is difficult to get the right images. The manufacturers have to provide the information, which will take time.
“If you have a client and you’re showing them three different faucets [but] you only have two in the VR, it doesn’t help,” she says.
A Future for Showrooms
The DJ Bath Plus showroom has only been open for a few months, so it is too early to tell if the new design has contributed to higher traffic or better exposure. Comparisons to other stores in the General Plumbing Supply family do not provide much information, as DJ Bath Plus does things so differently from the other locations.
Overall, however, Brady is confident the showroom will be successful. Every decision was calculated to attract the target clientele of designers and the new showroom is backed up by General Plumbing Supply’s authority in the industry.
So far, the feedback has been positive. Brady says visitors have been surprised by how good it looks and even more so by the size of the space.
By limiting overcrowding, being strategic about the layout and incorporating the right types of technology into the showroom, DJ Bath Plus focuses on a future in which showrooms are relevant and essential partners in the home design and renovation market.
“Showrooms have evolved so much in different directions,” Brady notes. “We [have been] talking about how people don’t come into the showroom like they used to; they want to come in once or twice and have a physical experience with the product. [Clients are] not happy having it all online. That’s why we still have showrooms.”