Showrooms prove profitable and satisfying additions to upholstery businesses.
By Andrea Swensson
As with any business, there comes a point in the lifespan of an upholstery shop when the inevitable question arises: What can we do to grow our business? For many upholsterers, expanding their workshop to include a showroom is a seemingly obvious next step. But along with the hope of higher revenue, implementing a showroom can raise a whole other series of questions. How much is this going to cost? What kind of time commitment will this require? And what on earth have we gotten ourselves into?
Luckily, there are already many businesses across the country that have had good luck with their showroom spaces, and those curious about expanding their shop can follow these upholsterers’ steps for success. At the right pace and with the right resources, setting up a showroom for your upholstery business can be a safe and reliable way to expand revenue and reach a broader base of customers, usually with a relatively low overhead cost.
While it would be nice to drop several thousand dollars on a new showroom space, most shop owners don’t have that kind of revenue at their fingertips. The biggest piece of advice we heard from shop owners was to move at a pace that is comfortable for your business.
“Slow and steady is my motto,” says Mark Weller, owner of Sterling Custom Upholstery in Moscow, Pa. “Just starting with a fresh coat of paint can be a great start. I made sure I did something every week. Simple things, new trim around windows and doors, paint the floor. Things like that can go a long way in upgrading your appearance.”
Weller says the most important part of creating a showroom is making your shop appealing and inviting to customers. Often times, doing some light remodeling or cleaning can be a great first step toward setting up an area for customers to view products. Owners of larger-sized shops may be able to set up a showroom in their existing space, making the addition of a showroom a relatively seamless transition.
“Over the course of six months, we were able to locate a good location for our showroom, get it set up and have it pay for itself,” say Amanda Brown and Lizzie Joyce, owners of Spruce Furniture Redesign Studio in Austin, Texas. “As upholsterers are pretty handy, we were able to finish out and create the furniture pieces for our showroom without much monetary cost. It was mainly a large time commitment.”
Other businesses may need to consider renting additional space or creating a working relationship with another store in town. Weller says he got his start by tracking down a local business owner who worked in a complementary trade and asking to show a few items in their store.
“I approached the folks at the Art and Frame gallery with an offer to put a few pieces in their store as display items,” he says. “It really dressed up their shop and enhanced the look of their accessories. Instead of display shelves and racks, they now had beautiful furniture. That lead to a few more pieces, ottomans, small Victorian ladies chairs, pedestals and small library tables. When something sold, I also gave them a small percentage. I made sure everything I put in was perfectly restored, refinished and upholstered. What I discovered is everything became connected.”
Weller says that creating a working relationship with another business in town has been beneficial for both parties, and it gave him the chance to experiment with how to most effectively display his work. “With the retail part of the business, folks not only purchased pieces but it also became an incredible advertising tool for our reupholstering and restoration services. My work was on display and now folks knew where they could get quality work done.”
Maintaining your showroom
Whether you decide to expand your existing shop to include a showroom or rent out a separate space, one of the biggest keys for success is keeping the inventory fresh and the space inviting for customers.
“It does require a large commitment,” say Brown and Joyce. “The showroom must be staffed, kept clean and organized, and must be a good representation of your work. The staff must also be knowledgeable about the business and its products and communicate effectively with walk-in business. Because of its advertising benefits, it also comes at a higher price.”
The Spruce owners say that one of the biggest challenges that they have faced with their showroom is balancing walk-in traffic with their normal upholstery work. “Because the showroom is public and clients are able to walk in without an appointment, our work is often interrupted and hard to complete efficiently. It’s best to have at least one person dedicated to customer service and walk-ins.”
Another challenge is maintaining the most up-to-date fabric samples and stock from vendors. “Showroom maintenance is an ongoing process,” says Brad Bonney, owner of Guy’s Upholstery in Mesa, Ariz. “Most fabric companies will send a rep to service their lines. They will pull outdated stock. New books and samples are shipped from the vendors and are priced and placed in the showroom by our staff.”
When the vendors fall behind on maintenance of their products, however, it’s up to the shop owners to keep the showroom fresh. “Some vendors do not check stock, and books and samples start to accumulate,” Bonney says. “It is up to our staff to update and discard their discontinued items. Also, keeping this area clean and organized is critical to the image of our business.”
Justin McAllister of Fortner Inc. in Columbus, Ohio, says that rotating the showroom furniture is crucial. “With our new furniture, we try to keep things on the floor no longer than a year, and use the money when we sell/clearance the existing floor items to restock,” he says.
All of the owners agree that cleanliness is imperative, both in the showroom and the workspaces. “We are constantly cleaning floors because of our scrap and debris from our work, just like the barber cleans the floor after every haircut,” Weller says. “You never know when you will have clients through, and your appearance says a lot. A messy shop sends the wrong message.”
Weller says that he gives customers tours of his workshop so that they can get a first-hand look at the upholstery process. “Customers love walking through the work area and warehouse. We let them look at the work being done in all stages. This way they see our workmanship, the quality and level of expertise in the finished product.”
McAllister says that adding retail furniture to his showroom has helped to expand his business and to accommodate many different kinds of customers. “Our goal is to offer a seamless transition of offerings in upholstered furniture,” he says. “From reupholstering to retail furniture to custom built furniture.”
According to McAllister, offering new furniture in his retail space made it easier to balance his books. “One of the advantages is that there is a fixed cost to the new furniture, you know what your margins are,” he says. “We began the showroom gradually as an added resource for our customers and found it, and the fabric sale, to be an essential part of our profit margin.”
“For this type of business, it seems essential to have an area separate from your workroom and your office to meet with clients,” agrees Bonney. “It is important for clients to see samples of our work, and it also helps us to communicate with clients regarding upholstery details. Our showroom provides a resource for the design trade to meet with their clients, as well as research fabrics for projects.”
In a line of work that relies heavily on returning customers and word-of-mouth recommendations, owners say that offering customers a showroom makes them more likely to come back. While it is still important to advertise your business—owners say they rely on tools like Google ads, local newspapers and websites like Etsy.com to get the word out—the most important form of marketing for a shop is presenting the work to the public in an appealing way.
“The showroom has given us credibility in the upholstery market of our area,” say Brown and Joyce, whose shop is located near other vintage and resale stores in North Central Austin. “People view public-facing storefronts as more established and reputable. Having the showroom has been greatly influential in cultivating business and a client base.”
Whether you decide to start small by gradually converting part of your existing space into a showroom, or go all out by renting or purchasing a new spot, a retail showroom can do wonders for any upholstery business. By working at your own pace, keeping your space inviting to customers and working with existing vendors and local businesses to find the system that is right for your unique business, a showroom can be an attainable goal for an upholstery shop of any size.