Home decor: who’s manning the shop?

An increasing number of building supply retailers are hiring interior designers and decorators to strengthen their home decor departments. These designers and decorators are trained to assist customers with measurements and product coordination. While they are expectedly more expensive than ordinary sales associates, the added costs are offset by wider margins and add-on sales.

To further their edge in the home decor department, retailers are recruiting a new breed of associates

In the words of one home center executive, the decor department is “where the margins are.” But driving sales per square foot is more than just stocking the latest styles and offering the most special-order options.

For pacesetters in the category, the question boils down to who’s manning the shop.

A growing number of retailers are answering that question by hiring interior designers and decorators trained to help customers with measurements and product coordination in-store. These decorators are also capable of designing–and selling–in the home.

Retailers fork out a higher wage for designers, whose backgrounds make them more expensive than the average sales associate. But some say the costs are justified by attractive margins, plus add-on sales the designers bring.

The expense of house calls, which some retailers are beginning to offer free of charge, is further offset by the bigger sales ticket the service generates, they say.

Retailers are betting that their lower prices and one-stop shopping environment will eventually secure them a place as the interior design destination for the middle-income consumer.

Since Builders Square introduced its Idea Center two years ago, the company has gradually begun attracting associates with degrees as varied as architecture and interior design. These employees have specialized backgrounds in cabinets, drapery, wallpaper and floor coverings. Some have experience as contractors, says Marilyn Schultz, director, Idea Center.

When wooing job candidates, Square receives the greatest response from people with interior design degrees. Retailers provide recruits with a wider range of experience than large design firms, where designers often specialize in a single area, says Schultz. At Builders Square, they take ownership of an entire project.

“They develop the package themselves, from windows to cabinets to accessories, and then sell it to the customer,” she says.

The one-stop training experience for designers translates into a one-stop shopping experience for customers–an experience the company hopes will encourage middle-income consumers to think of Builders Square when they decorate. “We want [customers] to understand that our people can take them through a project from start to finish,” Schultz says.

Builders Square employs eight to 12 designers per store, hiring associates with a mix of backgrounds so they can cross-train each other in various specialties, she says. The object is to unleash associates ready to recommend and sell a range of related merchandise.

Idea Center designers are paid according to their education and the going market rate. They also earn incentives for sales in certain product categories, Schultz says.

HomeBase, which first tested its program last year, has also found it relatively easy to attract designers, says Mark Baker, VP-merchandising.

The company’s 200 designers typically have college or vocational school design degrees and at least two years’ experience selling with such companies as J.C. Penney. Some have worked for large office complexes or for tract builders such as Kaufman & Broad, he says.

“We’ve found that we can recruit designers quickly because we sell at a very competitive rate and we compensate them very fairly,” Baker says. Designers draw base pay plus a commission based on sales and margin.

Base salary plus comission

House calls pay off

For some retailers, the decor sales game plan is inextricably linked to home consultation, and that’s where the big-ticket sale is to be gained, says Jim Schaffer, president of Schaffer Associates, a Forest, Va. consulting firm.

house calls

Adding house calls brings the staff designer strategy a step forward, according to Schaffer. Previously, the customer bore the burden of taking measurements and bringing them to the store.

At Builders Square, which is testing a house call program, an associate may have an 80 percent closure rate in the home compared to a 50 percent rate in-store, says Schultz.

House calls are the foundation of HomeBase’s no-fee design service, Baker says. The strategy dovetails neatly with the company’s special-order program, which generates 70 percent to 80 percent of its decor sales.

HomeBase designers, from one to four per store, generally receive referrals from customers who come in to look for window treatments, carpeting and wall-paper. They make five to eight house calls per day and arrive loaded with sample books, says Baker.

Hechinger’s Home Project Centers have also begun using designers. The company recently rolled out in-home design services at its Laurel, Md. store and will send decor department associates out as far as 21 miles on calls.

“When you’re in the store, you’re dealing with perceptions,” says Ken Cort, president of Hechinger Stores. “When you’re in the home, you’re dealing with the reality of what the home is. The ability to close the sale once you get to the home is infinitely greater than your ability to do it at the store.”

Hechinger decorators, five per store, not only help with measurements and coordinating but also “give customers a sense of what they could do a year from now,” says Cort. One key to ensuring repeat business is to remember that many customers “aren’t going to be able to do everything they want to do, when they want to do it,” he says.

Using staff designers to boost sales is not the exclusive province of the big box retailer. Three-store National Lumber, a builder-oriented retailer in Mansfield, Mass., has tried the strategy with equally lucrative results.

National’s Newton, Mass. store, which caters to a 35 percent consumer, 65 percent builder customer mix, is the area’s exclusive Benjamin Moore dealer, says president Steven Kaitz.

National added window treatments and wall coverings to the paint department in 1991, repositioning the department as the Newton Design Center. A year later, the company brought on a full-time decorator. The service was a natural adjunct to the expanded product mix and a way to draw new retail customers, says Kaitz.

Decor sales have picked up dramatically since the designer, Cathy Anderson, came aboard. Sales doubled in 1993, and Kaitz expects them to double again when he hires another designer soon. The store now attracts more female and senior customers, Kaitz says.

Anderson makes house calls at no charge once she qualifies a customer. She draws a straight salary with no commission.

The center has not attracted builder customers yet, mainly because there is little new residential construction going on in Newton, Kaitz says. And it’s not something he’d add to his other two, more builder-oriented, yards. But Kaitz says he would like to explore a designer-builder relationship someday, adding that the center “has a lot of potential.”

At this stage, it’s still unclear whether staff designers will help retailers carve out a competitive niche among specialty design firms and specialty retail stores.

National goes head-to-head with local design shops by advertising its design center as a separate entity from its lumberyard, Kaitz says.

The Newton store does not match the specialty boutiques in terms of square footage or upscale inventory. But the design center is more convenient than Boston–where most of the competing services are located–and offers free consultations that customers would be hard-put to find elsewhere, he says.

It differentiates the company from Home Depot as well. Depot has a new store nearby in West Roxbury and plans to build more, Kaitz says.

The one-stop niche

HomeBase competes with Home Depot and specialty shops by offering “extremely competitive” prices and by positioning itself as a “complete host” that offers paint, plumbing and electrical in one spot.

While it caters mainly to consumers, HomeBase also works with commercial property owners. Vendor volume discounts allow further price breaks for customers who are decorating apartment complexes and condominium developments, Baker says.

Builders Square competes within the industry and with small design firms as well, even recruiting from them on occasion. Schultz says she’s reaching a niche that’s still wide-open for the taking.

“Middle-of-the-road consumers can’t afford an interior designer,” she says. “They feel comfortable going into a home improvement center, where they get the same high-quality product and they can do everything in one place. It saves them driving and shopping time.

“We can decorate any room in your house. This is the future, and this is where we’ll fit in.”