I'm going off-topic today. Instead of writing about design, I'm writing about the design business. It feels topical these days: I've been worrying about whether, in this economic climate, the money I invest in doing a show house will pay off. At the same time, I've been getting dozens of resumes from recent design school graduates looking for jobs. And to top it off, at the Boston Design Center yesterday, two very established showroom owners cornered me to discuss at length the future of our business.
It's very evident that the traditional business model of trade-only designer showrooms is in flux. For years, the Boston Design Center, where I shop, has had the Designer on Call program to allow the public access to the Design Center's offerings by engaging the "Designer on Call." It recently added the Plush program which enables people to buy directly from participating showrooms simply by paying an annual membership fee. I've been concerned that flash sale sites, like One Kings Lane and Gilt Home, take business away from designers by selling exclusive designer furnishings at a price not that far off from designers' net. And finally, I've had considerable offers from dealers promising to sell me the same exclusive furnishings sold through design centers at less than trade net pricing. These dealers don't have showrooms so their overhead is less and they pass those savings on to designers.
For sure, online and mail order retailing has changed the brick and mortar model of selling. It's one thing to order shoes online, anticipate their arrival and know that if you change your mind, you can send them back, either at no cost or for a small fee. But you can't really do that when you order a sofa or a 9x12 rug. Would you buy a new model car without seeing it in the showroom first? Of course not. So how could you buy a sofa without seeing it, to know that its proportions suit your space, or without sitting on it, to know that it feels comfortable?
There's an equilibrium you immediately sense from a professionally designed space. Everything works. Everything is in harmony. You can't replicate that by buying a suite of furniture from a "lifestyle" mail-order retailer with the hopes that your home will look like the catalog. Don't be fooled by those images (which, by the way, are professionally styled). Nor can you buy from the famous designer's collection on a flash sale site and trust that your home will look like that designer styled it.
There's a place for designers and trade showrooms. We just have to do a better job of educating and distinguishing how we enhance the shopping and nesting experience.