If you wanted to create a new kitchen and bath showroom today, you most likely would be challenged to have cabinet displays or a complete kitchen. Supply chain shortcomings have forced a large percentage of cabinet manufacturers to place a hold on display purchases. And, if you wanted to include appliances in your new showroom, you might have to wait a year or longer before they arrive. Imagine a kitchen and bath showroom that did not show complete cabinets? Is that an impossibility or a harbinger of the future?
The temporary moratorium on cabinet displays for kitchen and bath showrooms puts cabinets, vignettes and working kitchens – considered showroom essentials – into a new light. Owners have had to re-evaluate a showroom’s purpose.
A CHANGING PURPOSE
Why do customers come to a showroom? The obvious answer is to see, touch and experience products in person. But, while the primary reason that customers leave the comfort of their couches to visit a physical brick and mortar showroom may be to experience products firsthand, it is by no means the only reason.
According to Frank Morris, Jr., a principal at Granite State Cabinetry in Bedford, NH, “Customers come to our showroom to determine what we are like as a company. We use our showroom to accomplish several goals. We want to wow them with our processes and provide expertise and inspiration.” Morris recently renovated his 6,000-sq.-ft. showroom; it features several vignettes and a working kitchen that is used primarily to draw in potential customers who are not necessarily looking to renovate in the immediate future. “We use the working kitchen to promote our brand. We sponsor dinners prepared by celebrity chefs and invite local groups to host events in our showroom,” Morris shares. “Our efforts tell the community who we are and what we do, and it helps us to engage with a broad range of potential customers who otherwise would have never considered entering our showroom.”
When Morris remodeled his showroom, he had a long-term plan. He realized the limitations of vignettes. “When we first started in business, we believed that a vignette would make the purchasing decision easier. A customer would see a completely outfitted kitchen and say, ‘that’s what I want.’” That was a realistic expectation at a time, as Morris notes, when “there were four stain colors, two door styles and one white thermafoil raised panel door.” Times have changed.
Recently remodeled showrooms and the showroom of the future are being designed not necessarily to showcase products. Instead, new showroom approaches mirror the customer journey to make it easier and less stressful for customers to buy. It’s not uncommon for homeowners to spend six months or longer researching, exploring, imagining and dreaming about their new kitchen before visiting a showroom.
“Almost always, despite all of their prep work, most homeowners enter our showrooms without a clue of where to begin, and they have more questions than answers. They don’t have a firm grasp of where and how to begin the process of creating the space they want,” claims Rob Stepp of Creative Kitchens, which has three showrooms in West Virginia.
Stepp recently renovated two of his showrooms. Those spaces are now designed to help his customers navigate their purchasing journey. Instead of expanding the number of vignettes, he opted to create design centers that he describes as collections of colors, textures, styles and themes.
“We eliminated the need or desire for customers to look through 400 tile boards and hundreds of stone samples,” he explains. “Instead, we created real-time mood boards that feature a cabinet door, floor tile, backsplash mosaic and countertop stone so that the client can quickly identify a package that meets and speaks to their needs, desires and budget. We want to be the driving force, making it easier and less stressful for our clients.”
The designers in Creative Kitchens showrooms are encouraged to create new mood boards for the showroom’s selection center based on recently completed projects that bring a new application or aesthetic to what currently exists.
Stepp claims the use of mood boards in a selection center is less time consuming and painful. “We are trying to eliminate the stress that is typically associated with product selection. Most customers come to a showroom for affirmation. They want to be assured that the products they select are the right products for their projects. We have been amazed by the results. Our customers get it.”
Creative Kitchens’ approach is to meet with potential customers in their homes to get a feel for the space, style and potential budget. The information gathered from conversations with customers at the home visit enables Creative Kitchen designers to preselect finishes and products that will appeal to their clients and provide a design and a price estimate after the initial full design presentation. This approach has enabled the company to reduce the number of customer appointments on a typical job from five to just two or three. “More importantly, we have found that our customers are not shopping their jobs. We believe this is the result of making the customer journey easier.”
Presenting customers with an easy button was also at the core of Justin Leatherman’s thinking when he renovated his showroom in Goshen, IN. “Our goal was to feature our best-selling products that reflect our demographic and customer base,” he stated. Leatherman Supply is a relative newcomer to the kitchen showroom business, having served for many years as a resource for windows and doors. The new showroom was designed to tell the marketplace that the company is now a resource for building materials that includes kitchens and baths, Leatherman reported.
Similar to the approach taken by Creative Kitchens, Leatherman Supply’s new showroom features smaller displays, offering a combination of what is currently trending, e.g. blue and green tones, and what is timeless, e.g. stained wood. The showroom also features the use of cabinetry outside of the kitchen for wet bars, home offices, pet stations, laundry rooms and mudrooms.
A NEW TECHNOLOGICAL APPROACH
All three of these new showrooms feature a closing area, where designers can project their proposed designs on large screens. Because the projected images showcase what a new kitchen will actually look like it, the need and importance of complete kitchen displays is further diminished.
Virtual reality, alternative reality and the Metaverse are making introductory roads into retail operations that, over time, will likely transform showrooms from the brick and mortar, industrial form of a physical store to an environment where customers can experience their new kitchen in an alternative reality. There are current first-generation virtual reality offerings that allow showrooms to project three-dimensional images of their designs and change surfaces and color schemes with the click of a mouse. The current offerings are limited, as are most new technologies when they first hit the marketplace. The first mobile phones were introduced in 1973 and weighed more than four pounds. The 2022 version of the iPhone weighs 8 ounces and has 100,000 times more computing power than the Apollo 11 spacecraft, notes the Retail Prophet Doug Stephens.
Several retailers such as Nike, IKEA and Ralph Lauren have taken a deep dive into alternative and virtual reality to create new customer experiences for their brands. At Nike stores, customers can scan items to view information on how they are made, materials used, color options, etc., and they are given the opportunity to virtually enter Nike’s supply chain to better understand where and how products are manufactured.
IKEA’s augmented reality Place Application features realistically rendered, true-to-scale, three-dimensional products that automatically size items based on room dimensions. Customers can scan the expanse of a room with their iPhone camera and then select from among 2,000 IKEA products and drag them into the space.
Ralph Lauren entered virtual economics by introducing a digital clothing line on the South Korean virtual platform Zepeto. This virtual world, also known as the Metaverse, combines video conferencing, gaming, social media and e-commerce and allows consumers to experience products and spaces through an avatar. Four months after launching the virtual line, the company welcomed 1.5 million unique visitors and sold nearly 150,000 products, reported Fortune magazine.
The Metaverse eliminates physical world constraints. What will that mean for the kitchen and showroom of the future? Not only will showrooms be able to project a three-dimensional rendering of a new kitchen design, customers will be able to walk through their new virtual kitchen and open doors, drawers and cabinets; prepare meals; store groceries in pantries; load the dishwasher; use the sink, and enjoy a meal with family and friends. The ability to experience a new kitchen in a virtual world cannot help but change the showroom in the future.
Will there be a need for a physical display of a new kitchen? That’s the question.
What’s not likely to change is the need for design expertise, inspiration and creativity. Showrooms will continue to help their customers specify and source the right products and install or oversee the installation of their rooms. Just as the technology behind the iPhone and hundreds of other products evolved at faster and more effective paces than most could imagine, a showroom’s ability to use alternative and virtual reality to better serve their customers will come sooner than most expect. ▪
Tom Cohn serves as the exec. v.p. of the Bath & Kitchen Business Group, the largest shareholder-owned group-purchasing organization in North America. He also is the founder and president of Cohn Communications, a multidisciplinary marketing agency headquartered in Washington, DC.