Last November, bathroom retailer David Lees-Bell told KBBFocus that showrooms that refuse to also sell online will struggle to survive. But is Dorchester-based Bathroom Inspirations proving him wrong? Tim Wallace gets the views of owner Patrick Ackerman and daughter and co-director Dani Ackerman.
Q: Is there a future for bathroom dealers who won’t embrace e-commerce?
A: Patrick: I’ve known David for 40 years and he was high end but he’s tried to chase the internet prices and gone down market. We’ve gone the other way if anything, not deliberately but it’s what our customers demand. They want creative designs and they want supply and fit. That’s why we’re so busy. They want us to sort the whole thing out from start to finish.
Dani: The last thing we want to do is get involved with online sales. Customers feel more comfortable with us than finding a Joe Bloggs plumber. It’s fine for customers buying lower-end products but people who want to spend more don’t price match online. It doesn’t help that dad and Paul are technological dinosaurs. And our average customer is 60-plus. Do they want to shop online? Probably not.
Q: So you’d disagree that most customers will increasingly shop online and bypass showrooms?
A: Patrick: I don’t know if the days of the showroom are numbered but a lot of our competitors have gone by the wayside. We’re not the last man standing because there are lots of local plumbers' merchants, but there’s no good mid- to high-end independent showroom in our area.
Q: And your strategy is to steer away from products widely available online?
A: Dani: Yes, in the last 5 years we’ve changed our offering. We used to sell low, middle and high end but somehow we’ve crept up without realising. We started developing the showroom to be a bit more creative and design led and changed it from basic products to lots of Laufen, Armera, Dansani and Burbidge.
Patrick: You have to protect yourself. We also have brands like Lefroy Brooks, Coalbrook, Villeroy & Boch and Ca’ Pietra whose tiles you can’t buy direct. Probably 80-90% of the products in our showroom aren’t available online whereas some want us to sell it cheaper than we can buy it. What’s the point of that? And we’ve got a big showroom, it’s around 35 bays.
Q: But you still offer customers a discount?
A: Dani: Yes or we might as well shut the doors. We don’t want to contend with people going online and finding a Vado valve for 50% off so we’ve swapped out a lot of products from display. With Armera if you type in a product code the only place it comes up is their own website. So we can confidently send out a quote and know that nobody will find it cheaper anywhere else.
Patrick: The odd person will send us a spreadsheet showing how they can get it cheaper online and we tell them where to go. But if the price is right and we look after them, and give them a discount of maybe 15-20% off the products, we’ll make a decent margin and they’ll get a good price.
Q: How frustrated are you by suppliers who allow their products to be heavily discounted online?
A: Dani: It’s mostly brassware because it’s easy to shift... I know Grohe, Hansgrohe and Bristan are all on Amazon, but Vado, Laufen and even Lefroy Brooks are trying to support the showrooms. But the big players are primarily focused on contracts and big e-commerce sites and that’s fine, I guess. As long as there’s something else that we can offer our customers.
Q: What’s the background to the company and how’s business?
A: Patrick: Me and my twin brother Paul run the store and we have 8 staff, 4 permanent. It’s our 20th anniversary this year. The last financial year – June to June – was the best ever and this year will probably beat it. We turned over £2.3m in 2023. About 60% of our business is supply and fit and we’ve got a few small builders. We’re not too concerned about the market. We’ve gone through tough times and never really struggled.
Q: Are you optimistic for the year ahead?
A: Dani: Oh God yes – it’s amazing. I’ve taken 3 orders today for 5 bathrooms and took a couple yesterday and one the day before. It’s still really busy and I can’t see it slowing down. Without being disrespectful, it’s great that other local showrooms have closed down. It’s an affluent town and we’ll grab lots of business from that. We’ve got a good showroom and invest good money in updating it.
Q: Why have local competitors struggled?
A: Dani: A lot didn’t bother updating their showrooms and lost out on business. Even the week before Christmas we were finishing off new displays. People recognise that we know what we’re doing and keeping on top of the trends.
Q: What sort of margin are you looking for?
A: Patrick: We try to work on a gross margin of 36-37% which is pretty good. Net profit is around 9%.
Q: Do you see any new trends coming through?
A: Dani: The pastel colours are our strongest – also Bronze, Black and Brushed Nickel. We’ve also done a couple of displays with large-format slatted wooden tiles. Porcelanosa have a tile called Lexington and people love it. One of their displays is by the door with a VitrA smart loo that opens up the minute you walk in so customers either start screaming or laughing. It’s a good talking point!
Main image: From left to right – Patrick Ackerman, Dani Ackerman and Paul Ackerman.