Watch the animated couples wandering through a Home Depot Expo Design Center or Great Indoors on a Saturday morning. They're comparing tiles, perusing paint charts, fiddling with faucets, and yes, taking off their shoes to climb into whirlpool tubs and give them a sit test.

There's no doubt about it: Consumers love showrooms.

Poll a group of remodelers on the value of showrooms, though, and the feelings are decidedly mixed, with reactions ranging from unabashed enthusiasm to no, never, not for me. The naysayers tick off a list of drawbacks: the difficulty of finding the right location, the headache of hiring qualified staff, the expense generated by the need for constant updating.

Those who operate successful showrooms point to business generated by walk-in traffic, brand awareness created by manufacturer advertising that pre-sells your showroom product, and the convenience for clients of having all their product choices in one location.

The expansive Airoom showroom features a half-dozen differently styled kitchens, and the same number of baths. Clients can also see a master bedroom, mudroom, family room, and an exterior setting showing off windows, roofing, and decking.
The expansive Airoom showroom features a half-dozen differently styled kitchens, and the same number of baths. Clients can also see a master bedroom, mudroom, family room, and an exterior setting showing off windows, roofing, and decking.

Eyes On the Competition Bev Gilbert is a passionate proponent of showrooms. She and her husband Bruce own Regarding Kitchens, a 7-year-old kitchen and bath design and installation firm in Lenexa, Kan., in the greater Kansas City area. She has a 15-year career as a designer; he spent two decades as a plumbing rep. They've just closed two smaller showrooms and opened a 15,000-square-foot space that, along with model living rooms, kitchens, and baths, features a demonstration kitchen with seating for 30 people. The 10-year-old commercial building that they gutted and remade to their specifications has an attractive bonus: huge east-facing windows that allow products to be viewed in natural light.

“It was always our dream to have the largest showroom in the area without losing the cozy feeling that people connect to kitchens,” Gilbert says. “We have that here. People comment on it.”

One kitchen, for example, has a seating area with a working fireplace surrounded by bookcases. The model living room has comfortable furnishings, along with a bar and entertainment unit. Clients and designers can use these display rooms to discuss projects, or move to the designers' offices, each outfitted with a different type of cabinetry and decorated in a residential, rather than a corporate, style.

“We've worked to create a home-like atmosphere,” Gilbert says. “We have 9- and 10-foot ceilings in our rooms. No matter how hard they try, the chains can't get away from the big box feeling. You look up at those 30-foot ceilings and you know you're in a warehouse.”

Gilbert is especially pleased with the location of the new showroom. There's no foot traffic here, but this southwest corner of the metro area has become a hub of home-improvement-related businesses, including a granite warehouse, tile showrooms, and appliance stores. “You know what they say,” she adds with a laugh, “If you're going to do it better than your competition, move in across the street from them.”

All About Location If priority one is finding a location where walk-in traffic is likely, opening a showroom next door to a Starbucks would seem to be a particularly savvy strategy. Jim Stenger, owner of Remodeling Specialties, has done just that in Northfield, a North Shore Chicago suburb. After working as a remodeler for 20 years without a showroom, Stenger purchased an existing storefront shop in February 2004 and hired designer Erin Bear to manage the 1,200-square-foot enterprise.

“Jim does a lot of kitchen and bath remodeling,” Bear says, “and he's always done well with word-of-mouth. But he wants his clients to be able to see product.”

The new Remodeling Specialties showroom is still a work in progress, with only a kitchen vignette featuring birch cabinetry fully in place. Walker Zanger tiles, Sonoma Cast Stone, Doverra fireplaces, and Emtek hardware are among the featured mid- to higher-end lines to be incorporated in planned vignettes that include another kitchen and two bathroom vanities with tile backsplashes. Tile design is a specialty of the firm, Bear says, and she's struggling to schedule tile setters, busy with clients' projects, to work on completing showroom displays.

“We haven't officially opened the showroom yet,” Bear says, “but people want to see product and they're coming in already. It's really exciting for us.”

All About Space William and Joseph Schafer — brothers who paired their carpentry and painting skills to form Schafer Builders in 1990 — are in the midst of setting up a new showroom, too. They've just moved from a 4,500-square-foot space to an expansive 17,000-square-foot building in Crystal Lake, Ill. Like a family regretfully leaving a modest but much-loved home for larger lodgings, the staff has mixed emotions about their recent move.

“We're excited because we took over the old school administration building and quadrupled the size of our facility,” says marketing manager Faith Watson, “but our last building was an old home in the historic district, and everybody loved that place.”

The residential quality of the old site helped clients envision what could be done to rehab their own homes. There was a working kitchen that served as a showcase for new ideas and a bathroom made over with the firm's featured one-day bath remodeling system, Rebath. The downtown location meant there was plenty of foot traffic, but showroom, office, and warehouse space was limited.

International Market Square, a converted industrial complex near downtown Minneapolis, houses more than 80 showrooms representing 1,400 manufacturers. Many of Bob Flynn's clients find their way there, says the owner of Flynn Construction.
International Market Square, a converted industrial complex near downtown Minneapolis, houses more than 80 showrooms representing 1,400 manufacturers. Many of Bob Flynn's clients find their way there, says the owner of Flynn Construction.

The new facility, on a highway away from the center of town, gives up the greater visibility of a downtown location for the possibilities offered by a huge increase in usable space. The move has expanded the firm's ability to highlight exterior as well as interior remodeling products and styles with walls of various types of siding, roof overhangs, and operable windows. And, says Watson, “There are separate quiet areas with lots of samples where people can sit down and really take their time making decisions.” There is also space devoted to products appropriate to accessible design — a specialty of the firm — and a warehouse with room to stage jobs.

The showroom, Watson says, is a practical response to their clients' needs. Dual-income families with busy work and personal lives want the convenience of finding everything in a single showroom.

“‘Building Clients for Life' is our slogan,” Watson points out, “and I think having a showroom visibly demonstrates that. You should be able to see what your exterior or interior will look like. It makes it easier to get ideas; it establishes a working relationship, and it's a way to demonstrate your capability.”