Jeff MacDowell is the Executive Director of Luxury Products Group, a buying group and multi-faceted business-improvement resource for independent bath, kitchen and lighting-products showrooms. A 30-year veteran of wholesale plumbing and heating products (he sold plumbing products in college and has, apparently, never looked back), today MacDowell helms an organization that helps independent retailers–often second or third-generation owners–to become more profitable by leveraging buying power so they can compete with large national chains and eCommerce sites, as well as offering a comprehensive training platform and suite of marketing tools.
Luxury Products Group
Micah Solomon, Senior Contributor, Forbes; Customer Experience Consultant, Speaker, and Author, Ignore Your Customers (and They’ll Go Away): What are your members noticing out there these days in the retail landscape?
Jeff MacDowell, Executive Director, Luxury Products Group:
The retail landscape, especially now, is demanding a comprehensive in-store experience for decorative showrooms, augmented, today, with eCommerce. The need to have one spot where the consumer can select lighting, bath and kitchen plumbing products, and tile is becoming a necessity. Before, specialty shops could require consumers to visit separate locations for each product group, but that doesn’t fly as well today; there is the need for a single place for designers and end users to package their selections.
Solomon: And what’s coming next?
MacDowell: Certainly, think the pandemic has even further accelerated the attractiveness of eCommerce for luxury showrooms. While many customers still want to touch, feel, and experience the better products our showrooms sell, there needs to be a stepped-up effort on the parts of all showrooms to offer comprehensive e-commerce capabilities that include online functionality such as virtual tours and an accurate representation of what the showroom looks and feels like online. For the customer who will ultimately visit one of our showrooms, while they’re still online they want to know exactly what to expect when they get there, to allow them to have a more focused and intentional shopping trip when visiting one of our locations.
Luxury Products Group
Also, our showrooms will eventually all need to provide white-glove service, from delivery to installation, informed by a very high level of customer service throughout that journey, as we are luxury retailers.
Solomon: Virtual tours–online–of what a customer can expect to find in the showroom has been a success in many industries, including yours. Going in a bit of a different direction, there had been a lot of excitement about AR and VR (augmented reality and virtual reality) for visitors to a showroom, so they could “see” the products in imagined settings and such. How has that panned out?
MacDowell: A few years ago, I was convinced that AR/VR were the answer for showrooms, but as I started working with building out that technology, and saw the obstacles, I realize it isn’t the answer. Most consumers just aren’t into putting on goggles in a showroom–and they will even be less excited about doing that with the new concerns about contamination. There are also challenges, from the enormous cost of the technology to the resistance of manufacturers to turn over product file data.
I’ve come back around to feeling that the bottom line is that while the customer’s journey will likely start online and be augmented online, the actual showroom experience cannot be improved upon that of having a great showroom salesperson help you build the home of your dreams: anticipating what you need, giving you ideas beyond what you’ve seen on HGTV or Pinterest, and guiding you with a confidence that no technology can simulate.
Solomon: Of course, this is tricky right now.
MacDowell: Absolutely. And during this unique era, our showrooms are also doing most of the consultation phase virtually, with Zoom meetings or similar, leaving only a few things to be handled in person.
Solomon: Once customers come out in force to start shopping again, what are ways that retailers can come out of the current slump most successfully?
MacDowell: It’s essential to be crystal-clear in marketing communications to let customers know they will be safe while shopping in-person. Our members are speaking openly about limiting guests, insisting on masks, and protecting our employees first and foremost, as well as our customers. Keep in mind a bath or kitchen remodel is a complex process, with lots of choices to make, so this is a difficult world we are in now. Most consumers have a false expectation of simplicity from watching too much HGTV, and it is up to our teams to reduce friction and make it feel easy to the customer.
Solomon: Any upsides in your business now, or that you expect soon? For my hospitality clients and others who want the best in COVID-19 safety for their washrooms, I see touch-free products and self-sanitization as quickly expanding areas of interest.
Jeff: Yes! Lots of interest in touch-free options and self-sanitizing options. And high velocity hand dryers are looking less attractive now, since some studies show they spread germs as they work.
Solomon: And hand-towels are really the best for thorough hand cleaning, due to the friction they provide.
Jeff: Especially if it’s a hands-free dispenser, of course.
Solomon: Is the Great Toilet Paper Scare making bidets and bidet-toilets hot items?
Jeff: Those items were already very much on the upswing, and, yes, because of the run on toilet paper, I think now they have a curious kind of “self-sufficiency” appeal that they didn’t before. Beyond that,
I think even once travel begins to open up, it will be limited; people will be traveling less and making sure their homes are not only safe, but a sanctuary for wellness and health. I expect business to take off with not just bidet toilets but with other in-house items like steam rooms, saunas, and touch-free products for the home.
Solomon: Can you, with your experience, walk into a showroom and know immediately if it’s a winner?
MacDowell: A lot of it can in fact be seen instantly. The success of a showroom depends on the ownership and their commitment to creating a memorable shopping experience–and you can sense that right away: where the ownership obsesses over every process, and every step, and every possible stumbling block a customer may have, and resolve all of that obsessively and successfully. On the other hand, I can walk into showrooms with giant posters with return policies on the wall, and other very customer-unfriendly aspects–sometimes even hours from 9-5 only, like this were 1972–and know that they’re really leaving money on the table. One thing Luxury Products Group is good at is identifying and communicating where friction exists, and helping our member showrooms remove friction and grow sales.