Kohl Building Products president Tom Kearse had one stipulation when he approved plans for a new showroom at the nine-unit specialty distributor's Mechanicsburg, Pa., location: “I want to be wowed, but I want to stay within a budget,” he told Kohl vice president of marketing Deb Ritter and business development manager Keith Ritter, who spearheaded the planning and development of the 6,000-square-foot ProSolution Center showroom the company officially launched on May 20. Based in Reading, Pa., and serving custom home builders, remodelers, and production builders, Kohl's overall showroom sales philosophy mirrors Kearse's directive: to provide a facility where builders and remodelers can send in or accompany their homeowner clients to discover new products, receive design services and advice, and create one-of-a-kind construction plans that fit within their own project budgets.
Featuring one of south-central Pennsylvania's largest Andersen Windows showrooms, 22 separate kitchen and bath displays, pre-finished and pre-stained Therma-Tru doors, a 50-seat training and conference room, and a 3,000-square-foot collection of 3-D building façades showcasing the latest and greatest in roofing, siding, trim, windows, and interior and exterior doors, the ProSolution Center definitely has delivered the “wow” factor that Kearse sought. And more importantly, contractors have responded. Although the grand opening was staged in May, the ProSolution Center has been open for business since March, and has been largely responsible for driving the Mechanicsburg branch from No. 4 in sales among Kohl's nine locations in 2003 to already tracking the No. 1 spot for 2004.
“I think at the present time they don't know which way to turn,” says Jim Mumper, president of J.W. Mumper Construction, a Mechanicsburg custom home builder that has relied on Kohl as a supplier for the past 20 years. “I don't think they ever imagined how much this would increase their sales.” Mumper says the ProSolution Center was an instant success among area builders and remodelers looking to ease the difficulty of product research and selection for their customers, and he anticipates that the showroom will continue to be a hot spot for some time. “I think Kohl might even be looking forward to a slight slowdown so they can catch their breath,” he says. “But I don't think they are going to get it.”
Bigger Is Better Kohl, of course, embraces the immediate inundation of contractors. Serving mostly rural and bedroom communities sandwiched between Washington, D.C., and Harrisburg, Pa., the specialty distributor has long been challenged with introducing the full spectrum of available products to its custom home and remodeling customers, a situation that has done a 180-degree turn since the showroom opened. “I don't care how many newsletters you send out every month and how many fliers and open houses and breakfast meetings you have, you cannot get to everybody about all of the great products that are out there,” says Deb Ritter. “Even with dozens of salesmen on the road, you only get a few minutes of [the contractor's] time, and they want to talk [specifically] about their order, and it is not like we have half an hour of their attention to pitch them on new [specialty] products.”
According to Kearse, the opportunity to present the entire breadth and depth of available products, particularly to smaller contractors and their customers, has been a driving force in showroom development at Kohl since 2001, when the company acquired single-unit Johnstown, Pa.–based Jones & Brown, which had been selling kitchens and baths in addition to Kohl's traditional lines of roofing, siding, trim, doors, and windows. “We looked at the success they had and the revenue that they were generating from the kitchen showroom business and decided to import that expertise to a couple more of our stores,” Kearse explains of the initial move to open smaller, primarily kitchen and bath showrooms at Kohl's Stroudsburg and Reading, Pa., locations.
The experiment was a success, albeit with space restrictions that the company still desired to overcome. “While both of the initial showrooms were on a very small scale, they showed us that there was indeed a need in the market for our pro customers to bring the consumer in and meet with our experts and design their own special projects,” Kearse says. Moreover, discussions with Kohl vendors—including several roundtable talks with Alcoa president Gary Acinapura—supported a super-size showroom strategy. “Our older showrooms were tight and loud,” says Keith Ritter. “We wanted to show as much product as possible, but in a [superior] environment without the small-showroom clutter.”
Kearse says the success of suppliers with large showrooms in similar custom home– and remodeling-dominated markets—including Florence Corp.'s showroom in Huntington, N.Y.—helped bolster the confidence of Kohl management to take their showroom business to the next level, exploiting a cavernous space attached to their Mechanicsburg location to display virtually entire lines from their vendors. “We wanted to make it bigger, and we wanted to show much more of our product line,” Kearse says. “We wanted the consumer to be able to come in, either with their pro or referred by their pro, and know that they can have a selection of the latest products and the latest accessories that are available to them.”
Kohl had been leasing the large store-fronted/warehouse space, previously owned by a furniture outlet, since 2000, but primarily used the square-footage for product storage. Doors, windows, and roofing were inventoried on the carpeted floors and mirrored walls left over from the previous tenant. When the decision was made in January 2002 to totally impress company employees and customers alike with the next-generation ProSolution Center, Kohl exercised an option to buy on the Mechanicsburg space and began remodeling the facility, including fireproofing walls, adding handicapped access, and replacing or revamping entry-ways, floors, ceilings, and walls.
One-of-a-Kind Designs As designing commenced, Keith Ritter assembled a think tank team of Kohl executives, managers, and Mechanicsburg employees to brainstorm a wish list of construction ideas and showroom features. “Most of our employees have a lot of longevity with the company, so they were aware of both our growing pains and our future needs,” he explains. “For example, the only showroom space we had before was in a small area, [but as a result of the planning group] it has since been remodeled to serve as conference and training facilities for employees and customers alike.” Indeed, many of the final design elements of the showroom are intended to incorporate showroom space and atmosphere into employee office and utility areas. After reviewing half-dozen plans incorporating their ideas, the Kohl management team selected a general contractor and major construction began in January 2003.
As the showroom began to take shape over the course of 2003, the Kohl team continued to investigate new ideas and determine best practices and unique design functions. “Between Keith and myself and Tom Kearse, we visited as many showrooms across the Northeast as we could,” says Deb Ritter. “We're also part of distributor council meetings with Alcoa [and other vendors] where we get together with other wholesalers, and several of those contacts e-mailed us photos of showrooms that they had put together.”