At the summer Las Vegas Market, a panel of renowned interior designers shared their advice on how showrooms can stand out in a crowded field.

Jamie Bernal of Jonathons Coastal Living and Shay Geyer of IBB Fine Furnishings
While websites such as Houzz and Pinterest have given consumers more exposure to creatively designed interiors, it has also made the retail environment more difficult in the age of online shopping. Bradley Priest and Jonathan Tuff of Garber’s Interior Design in Elkhart, Ind.; Jamie Bernal of Jonathons Coastal Living in Fountain Valley, Calif.; and Shay Geyer of IBB Fine Furnishings in Frisco, Texas revealed some of the practices and ideas that have led to their design showrooms’ success.

“I think the state of retail is extremely challenging,” explained Jamie Bernal. “We’re competing to grab consumer attention with companies [Wayfair, Amazon, etc.] that are better-funded. Being ‘good’ these days is not enough; you have to be excellent in what you do. Consumers have always had a lot of choice, but we have to realize that we’re up against players who weren’t here 10 or 12 years ago. Don’t be fearful of change. Instead, look for opportunity.”

Bernal believes one of her showroom’s strengths is going the extra mile in ways chain stores cannot. I try to create customer experiences that can’t be done in a larger store,” she said. “For example, I instruct my staff that when they have a sale of a certain monetary amount, let me know and I’ll cut a gift certificate right away, put it in a padded mailing envelope with a note – signed by me – thanking the customer for their business, and mail it to them.” She told the audience not to worry over the cost of giving away gift certificates for $50, $100, or more since the money is only applied toward a future purchase. Instead, the gift certificates create a greater likelihood that those customers will return to buy additional furnishings.

Give a Reason to Come In

These designers agree that giving people an enticement to visit is important for growing both a client base and sales. Bernal suggested holding a simply themed event, such as “How to Style Your Shelves,” and hiring a designer to provide tips that homeowners can apply right away.

“We have events called The Girls at Garber’s where members of the community can hold their book club meetings or garden group gatherings at the store,” Tuff explained. “We put out hors d’oeuvres and refreshments for them.” Before and after the meeting, guests inevitably explore the showroom and typically find something intriguing to buy on impulse or come back later to purchase. “We have people fighting for the slots available to hold a Girl’s Night Out at our store,” Priest added.

“We grew up with mothers who loved to shop,” Priest said of his and Tuff’s backgrounds. As a result, these business partners embrace the old-fashioned shopping experience of white glove-type customer service offered at upscale stores of years past. They also value the power of exclusivity. “We don’t buy multiples of things; we buy ones and twos — and we don’t reorder. We’ve been scolded for that sometimes by customers who saw something they love at the home of a friend [who bought from us] and come in saying, “I want that, too!’ We reassure them, ‘No you don’t want what everyone else has. You want something unique to you!” Therefore, Garber’s customers quickly learn to buy an item that catches their eye immediately when they see it, or risk not having it available when they come back.

Creative thinking – a trait that’s instinctive to interior designers and many retailers – can go a long way in devising a successful and memorable event. “Before Valentine’s Day, I ran a report of our top 25 spenders – those customers who have either come in frequently or made a sizable purchase – and sent them an email that stated the month of February is all about love, thanked them for their business and loyalty, and signed the email from my husband and myself,” Bernal explained, noting, “Anything you can do in a grassroots way is [especially memorable].”

Being ‘good’ these days is not enough; you have to be excellent in what you do.” Jamie Bernal

Jonathons Coastal Living

Stay in Touch Regularly

Regular communication that is helpful, rather than a sales reminder, is another practice that has worked well for these panelists. “My salespeople all have work cell phones and they have even made sales via text,” Bernal commented. A salesperson might snap a photo of a new vase and text the image to a customer with the message, “Hey I know you were wanting to update your living room and thought of you when this came in.”

Tuff is a firm believer in using his cell phone to contact clients. “It might look like I’m just playing on my phone, but I’m really texting a client about some new drapery that came in or about an upcoming event,” he said. “It literally takes two seconds to contact your clients this way and it doesn’t cost you anything.”

Geyer hosts a highly anticipated, all-day event in her showroom called “Day of Design,” which highlights the work of her 36 designers and typically draws 400 to 500 people. “I hold a Meet the Designers Open House, complete with designers giving relevant seminars. I also have eight of our designers take over the vignettes and style them using items we have in stock,” she recounted. The creative vignettes often inspire purchases as well as design projects.

With such a sizable business, Geyer is able to deliver another source of design inspiration to customers. Her firm produces an 88-page quarterly magazine from scratch. “I put our design projects out there [for customers to see] plus I partner with vendors to showcase their products,” she shared. “I shoot on a white background for the style stories and have our designers writing the captions because they’re the ones who know [the project or products] best. Our subscription list is from all over the country, not just our local area. Yes, it does cost us [a lot] to print, but it really impresses clients to see their designers’ work and, of course, they want their own homes to be in the magazine.”

Keeping showrooms fresh is another proven method for bringing customers in regularly. Geyer changes out the paint colors in her showroom every three to four months and she has arranged collaborations with paint companies Sherwin-Williams and Benjamin Moore in exchange for promotion during events.

Priest and Tuff rely on their social media presence to bolster their business’ visibility. “We started with Facebook and then segued to Instagram,” Priest noted. “We went from posting photos and writing captions to doing videos. We do a Facebook Live broadcast from the showroom called, ‘Two Minutes With the Garber Boys.’ It’s very raw and silly, complete with the phone ringing and our dog barking in the background; it’s authentic. We show product and we also give a keyword of the week. If customers say that keyword to us when they come in, they’ll get 25 percent off their purchase. It’s a good way to make sure they’re paying attention to the broadcast!”
Tuff and Priest also emphasized consistency. Do your videos and posts on specific days and at the same time on those days so that viewers will know when to tune in. “Give your [social media audience] a heads up roughly 10 minutes prior to the video airing,” Tuff said.

Geyer recently changed the content of her social media posts. “It’s not always about pretty pictures anymore,” she shared. “They want to see the behind-the-scenes activities, where we’re schlepping [things] around and we’re not always dressed cute. My desk always looks like a bomb went off, and it was hard for me to share that with people. Our analytics are higher on those behind-the-scene posts than any others. People want to see the process.”

Bernal agreed that curated, picture-perfect stylized shots are so plentiful on Instagram that it’s become harder to stand out. “My customers love our live videos, although I was very self-conscious [at first]. One of the more popular types of videos are what we call our ‘Unboxing’ videos, where we film us opening up boxes of merchandise that have just been delivered. It’s especially fun since we don’t always know what’s in the boxes,” she remarked. “Also, when we do a Before and After of a one-day installation, that video will get a lot of viewer traffic.”

Don’t Ignore Online Selling

The panelists all have websites outlining their design services, but some also offer items for sale. Geyer sells rugs, botanicals, and mirrors on IBB’s site, but added, “We only sell accessories that are proprietary, under my name. We did it to get our feet in the game, but [online selling] is a whole other ballgame.”

Botanicals is familiar territory for Jonathons Coastal Living as well. “We make permanent botanicals ourselves in-house,” Bernal stated. In May, she taught a Coastal Succulents Workshop at the showroom, guiding participants step-by-step on how to make their own faux succulent arrangement pictured on the website (the $60 workshop fee included a 7.5″ x 4.5″ glass container adorned with tied jute, faux succulents, shells, and moss).

Another unique aspect of Jonathons Coastal Living website is its “Design Kollective” section, which is a curated selection of decorative accessories offered by local boutiques (who pay a monthly fee to participate) nationwide that do not have an online presence of their own. The Design Kollective is a way for smaller, artisan-run boutiques to sell their accessories to a broader audience. “I wanted to have something for my customers to look at [online] when they are at home,” Bernal explained. “We’ve had customers who have seen the [Kollective] items online on our website or Instagram and they’ve come in to pick up their orders. It has also exposed our store to more people from the local area.”

Try New Business Tools

When panelists were asked what they are doing today that they hadn’t done before, Bernal replied that Jonathons has established in-house financing. As a higher-end showroom, she felt unspoken pressure to compete with the purchasing opportunities offered to consumers by larger companies such as Restoration Hardware for mid-to-high end merchandise. An offer such as “60 or 90 days same as cash” could persuade a consumer to make a larger purchase upfront instead of waiting to make subsequent visits months later.
For Priest and Tuff, text messaging has been a welcome addition to their design arsenal. “We recently designed a fireplace mantel for a client in Colorado by text message,” Priest said. “They texted a photo of what the mantel looked like, and we sent back suggestions [of products] that would work.”

“The consumer is so savvy now,” Geyer stated. “We do carry the major brands, but we try to put our own spin on our [merchandise] mix. We let customers know that we can design something personal just for them, or we can get them the [brand] they want. We’re a one-stop-shop.” Geyer has even designed custom chandeliers for clients. “And if we have a product line that is exclusive to our showroom, we always highlight that fact,” she added.

Trends of the Future

What will customers be asking for in five years? These panelists believe there is no longer a “Hot/Not” type of list to go by. “The notion of what’s in and what’s out is going away,” Priest stated. “I think the pervasive idea is to buy what you love, sort of like buying clothes that suit your body type. Now you see a lot of layering in colors plus mixing metals and mixing woods. I think we’ll continue to see [design] mixing the high and the lower end.”

For me, I see trends in technology influencing design,” Geyer remarked. “Our orchids [in our permanent botanicals] are 3D printed and you can’t tell the difference. We found out one client’s housekeeper was actually watering them!” She also pointed to the increasing popularity of American-made goods as well as the growing consumer desire for customization.

“As independent retailers, a lot of us are competing on price for the same brands,” Bernal said. “I think we will see a lot more direct-to-consumer companies, and that will be the next challenge. This is why we need to focus on customer service. It’s more about engagement and telling clients, ‘This is why we bought this.’ I believe there will be more personal interaction [at retail]. Explain the difference between value and price,” she continued. “I tell people, ‘I’m not the cheapest, but I will give you the best value for your money.’ Competition is nothing new; it’s just being delivered differently. To succeed, it’s about differentiating who you are and what you do differently from what’s out there.”