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The birth of the modern showroom

There was, and is, an interest in buying decorative plumbing items in person. In the days of catalogues there were showroom, and in the days of internet retail there are showrooms.

Showrooms, as we mentioned in previous blogs, have been around for over a century. Even in the days of catalogue, consumers have been encouraged to visit the showroom to see the products before committing to a purchase.

But did people take advantage of them? As we can see from retail history, a certain evolution took place, both in terms of customer habits and showroom selling tactics.

For so many years, plumbing items for both kitchen and bathroom could be found at hardware stores and at big-box stores, which took off in popularity in the early 1960s. Consumers enjoyed getting items at a discount, and the variety of goods in one place was clearly appealing. Big box stores were a destination; close-to-home options for plumbing items were the local hardware store. During these decades, plumbing showrooms were not on the average consumer’s mind when they were making changes to homes.

Even up into the mid-1980s, the average consumer did not have a clear idea of what a plumbing showroom could offer them, especially in an era where the showroom was

shifting to a new retail model. Take a look at this quotation from a mid-80s newspaper clipping:

“Visit bathroom showrooms. This does not mean boutiques where they specialize in towels and other soft goods. These showrooms usually will be those of the kitchen and bath professional remodelers who show several kitchen and bathroom displays. They are the only ones who really know the products available.”

Seeing this sort of advice in a suburban newspaper tells an interesting story. It’s pretty clear that most homeowners didn’t automatically think of visiting a plumbing showroom when it came time to redo a kitchen or bathroom. To these readers, a bathroom showroom conjures up images of a place to buy decorating accessories.

It is likely that the other image they had in their head was of a plumbing wholesale house, which were oriented towards contractors and plumbers. Plumbing showrooms had a certain look and feel to them- they were geared more to the contractor than the end-user. Sinks and faucets still in boxes, toilets lined up on the floor. Yes, the prices were good, but the aesthetic was definitely not. These spaces were not designed to be accessible to the casual consumer.

Moving towards an organized space, but the showroom is still cluttered and overwhelming.

In the 1980s and 90s, pressure from department stores and big-box retailers pushed plumbing showrooms to evolve into places that would attract a certain type of homeowner. These homeowners were interested in design and were taking more of an interest in creating spaces that they could be proud of. These consumers did not want to wade through cluttered wholesale spaces.

Some of these homeowners hired designers, which meant that showrooms had to accommodate knowledgeable professionals. For those that did the design work themselves, the showroom had to make the process easy and accessible; staff with design experience and product knowledge became increasingly important.

The showroom begins to get customer-centric in the 1980s and 90s.

Of course, people could still get their plumbing items at big-box or hardware stores, but plumbing distributors and wholesalers had an advantage. They could get better prices on expensive items and could offer a much wider variety of price points and merchandise. Seeing that consumers were interested in a different renovation experience, wholesalers and distributors set up showrooms that would attract consumers as well as the contractors who were their usual clients.

The evolution continued as kitchen and bathrooms became places of pride for homeowners. Some can afford to shell out $20,000 or more on a renovation, while others are frugal; no matter how much they investment in a new kitchen or bathroom, a homeowner wants their new space to make them feel good.

Modern decorative plumbing showroom with vignettes and hardware display towers
A sleek and organized contemporary showroom.

As a result, decorative plumbing showrooms have become a destination where consumers can be guided though a renovation experience, and where they can find items at many different price points. Decorative plumbing showrooms are specialty retail spaces that have evolved with the needs of their clients. It is one of the reasons these showrooms have become trusted partners for designers and homeowners.

Before showrooms, how did people shop for decorative plumbing items?

Mail-order bathrooms and catalogue shopping:

Life before the showroom


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