Home building and remodeling are currently enjoying a boom in Charleston, S.C., and The Muhler Co., headquartered there, is well positioned to cash in on it. The company, which generates a quarter of its sales from residential window installation and the remainder from commercial glass and home building, operates two 5,000-square-foot showrooms, one in Charleston and the other in Myrtle Beach, S.C. These draw customers “from all walks of life,” says vice president of operations Mark Dziedzic, including architects, builders, homeowners, and installers.

Muhler's showrooms could soon be playing a bigger role in generating business. By this fall, the company expects to relocate its Charleston showroom to a 12,000-square-foot building with more space to display sunrooms, doors, windows, hurricane shutters, and cabinets. There will also be more conference areas where Muhler salespeople can meet with customers. In addition, the company expects to open a third showroom in Hilton Head, S.C., in early 2006.

Dziedzic joined Muhler in late 2004 from Pace Window & Door, which operates three showrooms in upstate New York. Like many in the home improvement industry, he views the showroom as an extension of brand and a symbol of company credibility. “Customers can come in and see that we're a going concern,” says Jeff Kaliner, owner of Power Windows and Siding in Brookhaven, Pa., which in April took its first modest step toward a showroom when it opened a 300-square-foot display area for windows, siding, and gutter systems inside the building where it has its 17,000-square-foot head-quarters. Kaliner sees this primarily as a way to accommodate homeowners who have nontraditional work schedules that make it difficult for them to meet with Power Windows' salespeople in their homes. The area also doubles as a sales training center and an educational center for clients.

Different Strokes Although showrooms serve different purposes for different contractors, their success usually depends on three factors: where they are located, how aggressively they are marketed, and how snugly they fit into the company's business model. Some home improvement companies have made showrooms the centerpiece of their operation. For instance, one-fifth of the $11 million in revenue annually generated by Champion Window in Toledo, Ohio, results from homeowner visits to the company's two-year-old, 10,000-square-foot showroom, owner Toby Tokes says. His showroom turns 60% of its walk-ins into in-home appointments, he says, which compares to an overall 45% to 50% company conversion rate. Wolts Window & Door, a Marvin Window affiliate, gets four or five walk-ins a day at its 2,500-square-foot showroom in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., and its three field salespeople regularly invite homeowners to the showroom “so they can visualize how products will look when they're installed,” Wolts' general manager Ed Ellison says.

Contractors concede that deals rarely get closed in their showrooms, which makes their value intangible. In this respect, showrooms resemble Web sites. Both provide customers with basic information about the company and its products and services, without specifying price. Power Windows recently launched a “virtual showroom” on the Internet that, Kaliner says, “will answer [customers'] questions about options and colors.” Web sites and showrooms are similar, too, in that their effectiveness depends on driving customers to them through advertising, promotions, and, in the case of showrooms, open houses. Muhler, for example, strives to hold open houses once each quarter. “We don't get a lot of business from [these events], but they let people know that there's always something going on at our company,” Dziedzic says.

Double-Edged Sword This lack of direct business, however, is why some contractors still keep their distance from showrooms, which they also believe give homeowners too much control over the selling process. “Showrooms can be a double-edged sword,” says Steve Bruno, marketing director for Atlanta-based Dixie Home-Crafters, which employs 200 salespeople but operates no showrooms. “Customers can come in and look around to see what you have. But if they don't see the color they want or they get too much information — or the wrong information — they'll walk out before you can sit down to discuss their problem and how you can help solve it.”

Mark Curry, president of Appleby Systems, which operates four sales offices and fields 40 salespeople from its headquarters in York, Pa., observes that showrooms typically draw customers who have already made up their minds about what they want and how much they want to spend, whereas he prefers dealing with “more nebulous” leads. “We look at our salespeople as the guys who create the market,” explains Curry, whose company boasts an 80% demo rate and closes 28% of its window leads and 18% of its patio room leads. “I want to get that prospect before he ripens, when his interest may be just a 2 or a 2½ [on a scale of 1 to 5] and before he ends up going to a big box.”

Even fervent advocates of showroom selling make no claims that they could ever replace a salesperson who can make a compelling pitch to a homeowner in his or her living room. In fact, many principals of home improvement companies agree that the showroom exists to generate or qualify leads, not to pitch the project.

Moreover, what passes for a showroom at some companies barely rises above the level of storage space. However, proponents insist that stylish showrooms with well-displayed products reassure customers that their businesses are genuine. That reinforcement is important in markets like Chicago, where “home improvement,” as a class of business, ranks third on the Better Business Bureau's list of consumer complaints, says Steve Piwowar, owner of Champion Window & Siding in Elmhurst, Ill. Champion's 3,000-square-foot showroom is attached to a 7,000-square-foot warehouse and “is a visible manifestation of reliability and stability,” observes David Yoho Jr., president of the Louisville-based consulting firm Professional Educators. “There are lots of products we sell in this industry — like windows — that people don't want to buy but have to. A showroom is one way to make a good first impression.”