To the uninitiated, design showrooms can be a scary place.

All those products with no guides and no road map. It’s enough to send some retail customers running for cover.

But it was just those customers that Cincinnati-based Nisbet Brower was particularly anxious to court in its new kitchen design showroom in south Dayton. To that end, the dealer came up with a new selling concept, one that focused on making customers comfortable whatever their level of design experience, and enabled the salespeople to take them through a process that helped customers formulate and articulate their design preferences.

“The store is designed to engage, inspire, and enroll,” explains showroom manager Dan Brower, who has 35 years in the kitchen and bath industry and was the driving force behind the concept.

Upon entering the showroom, customers—whom we call clients, says Brower, “because names matter”—are brought face to face with a brand wall, featuring the showroom’s logo and tag line, “designed for your life, defined by your style,” on a pumpkin-colored wall. “That [tagline] is what we try to deliver on,” Brower says. The short corridor formed by the brand wall funnels the customer to a reception desk, where the visitor is greeted by the newly minted director of first impressions (formerly receptionist).

The renaming doesn’t stop there. Salespeople are now known as design coaches. While Brower admits all this can “sound a little corny and gimmicky,” it plays a definite role in the way customers view the process and in the way the salespeople do their job.

The director of first impressions elicits enough information to do a bit of a profile, says Brower, finding out what the clients are looking for, whether they’re simply browsing for information or have a specific need, as well as their level of experience—a first-time remodeler, DIYer, or a home improvement veteran—assessing whether they need a design coach, and if so, which one would best suit them.

The 4,080-square-foot showroom has four full-size kitchens on display, and seven different types for vanities. “We are steps away from a 40,000- square-foot tile shop with lots of plumbing appliances and fixtures. That’s been a great support for us, helping us sell the bathrooms,” says Brower.

The showroom’s location in a strip mall in south Dayton, a space the dealer leases, also works to help bring in customers. That’s because the mall is host to other home product vendors, like Pella windows, and a hearth store, coupled with well-known retailers like Bed, Bath and Beyond and Earth Fare, a high-end grocery store. There also are restaurants and hair salons, services that provide a lure for the all-important female customer, Brower says. The mall sits on a major intersection, thus making it an easy destination for shoppers.

The Lifestyle Kitchen Designs showroom has a knowledge center at the back of the store with work tables and an inspiration wall to help customers pinpoint their style preferences. Coffee and water is available, and there are plenty of design magazines to peruse.

Design coaches use the inspiration wall to help them create a profile of a customer’s style. Brower likens it to a Pinterest board, albeit in three dimensions. Arranged in a modern graphic layout, the wall displays box-mounted photographs of five different types of doors, mantels, artwork, lamps, chairs, paint colors, and kitchens. Customers choose one image from each category. Design coaches use those chosen images to further investigate what it is about each that led a customer to choose it.

Says Brower: “Maybe they like the color of the door, or the hardware or the brick around the door. So you get to figure out what the client is actually saying and what they are looking for.”

It’s only once a profile begins to take shape that a design coach will bring out samples. In fact, all product samples are stored in the resource center, a room off the main showroom area, says Brower. This keeps customers from being overloaded with product choices before they have a handle on what they really want.

One thing that has emerged from the design process is that couples have their own impressions of what they want, Brower says. “We have both partners do the inspiration wall. Maybe she picked the red door and he picked the white door, and he said, ‘I hate red.’ Well, if we’d been working from her template, we might have designed a red kitchen.”

Since the showroom opened its doors in March, the accolades have been flowing in. “People say they have never seen anything like this,” says Brower, and “From folks who’ve gone through the process, it’s been really complimentary.

“They also feel very comfortable with the design coach, because they are seen as a partner, a collaborator, not a sales person. It’s more of a friendly relationship. It’s also meant to inject more fun into the process.

“This is more than cabinets and tops,” says Brower. “It’s the next generation of kitchen and bath design, and we feel like we are on the right trail.”

—Kate Tyndall