Rethinking Your Showroom
November 1st, 2004

November-December 2004

Are specifiers or end users the most common visitors to your showroom? Can you afford to refresh your showroom every 18-months? Have you color corrected the lighting in your showroom? How many square feet of showroom space do you have? Who are your customers? What’s your business goal for your showroom?

If you’re familiar with these questions and others like them—and especially if you can rattle off the answers—then you are already paying attention to your showroom. If not, perhaps it’s time you started to rethink that space.

“Too many people think the showroom is ancillary to their business,” says Janet Carter, ASID, who really did write the book, called the Showroom Management Manual. But she points out, “The showroom should have a separate business plan. It should earn its keep.” If the showroom is not profitable, she says, “It’s just overhead.”

Behind every great showroom, is a knowledgeable plan

Before you start rearranging racks and ordering new signage, it’s important to realize that a wealth of expertise in your customer demographics and competition, design basics such as color and lighting, product knowledge, and—yes—even a plan for you next showroom updates are behind every great showroom. Every designer TileDealer talked to started with the same premise: Know your customer. Know your business.

Until you know the demographics of your business, you can’t design a space to meet his or her needs. Showrooms, as Carter points out, need to solve the customer’s problem. Once you know what they need to accomplish—tile a residential kitchen floor or a restaurant, match existing materials or set the stage for a whole new design palette, you can help them select the tile. But the showroom needs to get them to that point. Racks of sample tiles cannot do this.

By its very nature, tile offers some showroom challenges. Tile is not only a fashion product—which drives the requirement for everchanging display—but it’s also small and potentially busy. Crystal Billings, showroom manager for Lexco Tile in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, points out that the showroom can get busy, even visually overwhelming. Sue Ramsey, president of Witty and Associates in Raleigh, North Carolina, says tile is hard to deal with flexibly and one of the most challenging products to display. Good showroom design needs to counter these challenges.

Like putting your best face forward, your showroom says a lot about your business—are you current with design trends or selling the same old tile?

Plan the space

The bones behind a great showroom include a basic but flexible floorplan that draws customers through the space and at the same time allows you to highlight products in easily refreshed vignettes. Lighting and vignettes can drive the visual focus to specific areas rather than to overwhelming racks of tiles. A professional lighting plan (Yes, we said professional) accommodates general lighting and highlighting and includes color-corrected fixtures so the products are viewed in the correct color.

Carter believes that showrooms need to be refreshed at least every 18 months. Therefore she does not recommend taking on more showroom space than you can afford to refurbish in that time frame. Ramsey defines space requirements in terms of who your showroom visitors are most likely to be. If you are selling mostly to specifiers and designers who are already practiced at visualization, then space for various installation vignettes is not as necessary as it is for end users who often have a much harder time picturing a potential installation based on just a few tiles.

If you’re sampling specific programs and colors apart from vignettes, Ramsey recommends 4 or 5 tiles together. The issue, of course, is visualization. The showroom solution could be as simple as pull-out tray that holds a 4- or 5-tile sample. Save the latter, she says, for a quiet location where the customer can make final product choices after he or she has already made the broader design decisions.

If you have the luxury of some space, what do you do with it? Carter and Ramsey both like vignettes, and Billings says Lexco is expanding to add more niches for flexible design and a separate area for racks of samples. As Carter points out, most customers need help visualizing how something will look. A few tiles on a sample board do not accomplish this.

Vignettes don’t have to be a complete kitchen or bathroom, but they can suggest the setting with the addition of cabinetry and appropriate accessories and fittings. Carter suggests making friends with a cabinet dealer so you can swap samples. Then, get to work designing flexible vignettes based on the sales goals you have identified in your plan.

Although you may have invested in a kitchen or bath set-up to showcase your offerings, you can refresh these vignettes according to your pre-set plan by repainting walls or trim, replacing hardware, and changing accessories. Move from a summertime bathroom scene with flip-flops, beach towels and shells to an autumn feel with colorful floral accents and candles, then to a holiday look with seasonal greenery, etc. You don’t have to start from the ground up, but you do want your customers to see something new and different whenever they come into the showroom. You may change some tiles and leave others, but each “refresh” shows off another side of your business.

Tom Morbitzer, Design Director at Cowan and Associates, Columbus, Ohio, says the use of vignettes can be part of “creating a meaningful traffic flow.” The idea, of course, is to draw clients into and through the showroom so they see all you offer. “It’s important to create feature areas or focal points,” he says, for you to highlight certain merchandise. Besides using vignettes, Morbitzer says you can do this with signage, graphics, lighting and even the use of bold accent colors against a subtle background to draw the customer to various points throughout the showroom.

Leveraging lighting

If you only think of lighting in general terms for illumination and in design terms to highlight certain showroom areas, you need to realize that the quantity and quality of light are also important. Morbitzer cautions that some codes limit the amount of wattage allowable in a retail setting. In those cases, he suggests selecting general lighting with the most efficient source, then adding warmer halogen or incandescent light to it. He also points out, “Lighting has the potential to be the largest cost in a store. It goes in last, so it’s tempting to cut [lighting] to cut costs.” But, Mobitzer says, lighting can make or break a space.

Tile is especially sensitive to light agrees Steve Speicher, Customer Service Service Manager at Lexco. Adding natural light via skylights or by opening the showroom to the street is a real advantage, though not always possible. Color-correcting light bulbs can make a real difference in whether a “red” tile looks cerise, geranium, cherry, vermilion and so on. Customers who view the tile as one color in the showroom and another in their own home are destined to be unhappy no matter what they pick. The rule is simple: Make sure your lighting plan shows your product in the truest light possible.

Highlighting in addition to general lighting allows you to focus attention on a particular area. If you are able to install flexible highlights that you can adjust to light different areas, so much the better. This makes refreshing the showroom that much easier. One of Ramsey’s favorite lighting installations uses ledges along the wall to hold tile samples and movable spotlights above to highlight various products. The combination of ledges and lighting allow for a lot of showroom flexibility.

A few words about racks

No amount of creative planning is going to eliminate racks of sample tiles. Nor would you want to. Your customer—whether end user or specifier—wants to see your offerings in his or her select categories. There are, however, some rules about racks that you should heed. First, racks more than 5-feet, 5-inches tall need to be against a wall. Otherwise they block the shoppers line of sight. If they are shorter than that, they can stand free on the showroom floor.

The ability to reconfigure racks is one way to achieve some flexibility in your showroom layout. Some of the newer racks available are attachable in a variety of ways and capable of configurations in L-, U- and triangular-shapes, meeting Janet Carter’s requirements for refreshing the space.

Staffing the showroom

The best showroom falls short if the staff can’t match the design with expertise. Sue Ramsey cautions that your showroom staff must always stay current with trends, what’s selling, and what’s new AND how to install and care for it. Designers and consumers are depending on them for this information. Only degreed designers with extensive product knowledge staff Lexco’s showroom.

So, how does your showroom stack up against some of these suggestions? TileDealer has posted a new poll at to learn more about your showroom.

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