About 15 years ago plumbing wholesalers began opening plumbing showrooms as way to fight back against the new big box stores that threatened to siphon off that business. Plumbing contractors greeted this initiative with suspicion, in some cases accusing the wholesaler of going into competition with them. Things have come a long way since then.
Today, the plumbing contractor forms a lucrative partnership with his wholesale plumbing showroom along with the architects and bath/kitchen designers in his local community.
"Today, any plumbing contractor that forms a good partnership with a plumbing wholesaler that has a showroom is more efficient in his work," remarked Claude Des Rosiers, vice president and general manager of Boone Plumbing & Heating Supply Inc., Ottawa, a division of Groupe Deschenes, Montreal. The company operates two Mondeau showrooms in the Ottawa area and one in Gatineau, Que.
"You really have to partner with the right people from a showroom perspective and try to be part of the community that does this type of work... You have to know the builders, you have to know the designers, you have to know the architects, and you have to know a lot of people... It's a very complex business and it's a very demanding business."
Today's showrooms feature open viewing areas with products grouped by category, rather than suites.
With the plethora of faucets, showers, fixtures and accessories available today and the constant change to products and design, it's too much for the typical plumbing contractor to keep track of. It's not easy for the wholesaler either and was one of the key reasons that they quickly realized they needed specialized showroom staff. "When you look at the products that were available just 15 years ago compared to what's available today, it's just mind boggling," remarked Des Rosiers.
"When you run showrooms you have a responsibility to make sure that you pre-select products to make sure they are products you can stand behind and believe in. You have to become much more interested in products than on the wholesale side. Plus, as you get excited about products you look at them from a design perspective, you look at them from an installation perspective and you look at them for style, features and benefits."
Electronics play a major role in showrooms today, both in the products - electronic shower control systems, for example - and in the displays. Manufacturer's videos shown on screens throughout the showroom provide visitors with a wealth of ideas. Today's showrooms group products together in operating displays. They are moving away from suites, which had to be completely changed out on a regular basis.
Boone's Mondeau showroom in Kanata features an Innovation Centre, a space that is reserved for architects, designers and contractors to host their own events with their customers.
"When you have to facilitate the community that comes together to do this type of work, those are the types of things you need to move forward with," said Des Rosiers.
At the same time the market is changing. More people are living in condominiums, whether it's young people starting out with their first home or older people who want to downsize and simplify their lives.
Condo projects can be a real challenge for a contractor. "It's a different market with a different type of customer than the traditional housing market," said Des Rosiers. A solid partnership with a plumbing wholesale showroom can ease the process.
"We do condo jobs and when you handle 85 different customers in that building you really have to be equipped to be efficient and know your products," says Des Rosiers. Many condo buyers want to upgrade their plumbing products. Small spaces mean they tend to design to a higher level - they can spend more on the one bathroom because they are not trying to outfit three or four - and they are also looking for space-saving products like wall-mounted toilets. "But they will spend more money on faucets and mirrors and accessories, etc. to make it look good in a small space," says Des Rosiers.
Another challenge that contractors face in the condo market is that it's not easy to make changes to the plumbing, he added. Piping and drains often can't be moved. "It's a cement slab ... you have to be careful not to affect the balance of the plumbing in the rest of the building."
A meeting area like this one in Boone's Kanata showroom allows contractors, architects and designers to sit down with customers.
More open space allows easier viewing.
There's a big difference between installing a $100 faucet versus a $1,500 faucet, which will likely come wrapped like a piece of jewelry. "It's a very high quality and precision product," noted Des Rosiers.
It can be difficult for the contractor to estimate the right number of hours. And with today's plumbing products coming from all over the world, in many cases the installation is very different from North American practice. In many European toilets, for example, the bolts are concealed which means the plumber must be very precise in where he makes the holes through the tile floor.
Many showrooms provide product training. Contractors need to be open minded about learning new installation methods, says Des Rosiers. It usually takes a few installations to get over the initial frustrations.
Working closely with the customer, designer and/or architect can lead to challenges and frustration too, he added.
"You need to have collaboration between all the parties. If the end customer sees conflict, he may think he's in the wrong place. Work together. You have to really listen. If a person is using a designer to make their choices, you have to respect that... The end user has to be happy and if they're not, we make things right."
Showrooms a tough go for wholesalers
Operating plumbing showrooms hasn't bean easy for Canada's plumbing wholesalers.
"If you try to manage the showroom like you manage the rest of the wholesale operation, you're in for a big culture shock. It's very, very different," remarked Boone Plumbing Supply's Claude Des Rosiers.
Wholesalers built showrooms to fight back against the big box stores, he added. "We didn't want to lose and we didn't want the plumber to lose part of the fixture market to the big box stores... Many other wholesalers also revamped their approach to showrooms," said Des Rosiers, who recently marked 39 years in wholesale.
But showrooms proved a very different business. "As we moved forward we discovered it's a community of architects, of kitchen and bath designers and installers... We had to see the market not only as catering to the contractor and end user. We had to keep in mind the entire community."
"Wholesalers had to put a retail hat on. It takes a lot of dedication. Some wholesalers tried and just couldn't hack all the minor details in keeping all these contacts going and in marketing. It takes a lot of staff. It takes a lot of training. It takes a lot of effort to be able to do it properly."
Boone opened its first showroom 25 years ago and launched a separate name for it - Mondeau - 15 years ago. The name differentiated the showroom from Boone Plumbing & Heating Supplies and appealed to architects, designers and consumers. It means a ‘world of water' in French and is easy to pronounce and remember in English as well.
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