There is a lot of value that comes from working with a professional design firm. A designer with vast resources, design expertise, problem-solving skills, and a strong sense of business savvy will be a good designer for you. Not only will they bring you creative ideas, but they can handle the business side effortlessly as well, which in turn makes for a smooth process and successful outcome for your project.
I know people mean well when they say things like "it must be fun doing what you do" or "I bet you have lots of fun shopping all day", so I don't take it personally. And really, what we do is indeed fun, but it is so much more than that. An interior design business is just like every other business, except a bit more complex because we are dealing with people intimately. We are dealing with their money, their family life, their relationships, the things they value, the things they struggle with, the things that they need to change.....everything. It can get downright emotional. So you can see that designers are savvy business people who are also skilled at creating beauty in the world and solving design challenges that will allow people to live their best lives in their own homes.
It may surprise you that many people don't understand why designers need to make a good living too. Because to some, what designers do seems frivolous. They perhaps don't understand that designers do real work and solve real problems everyday. They literally do think that we spend our days shopping - spending other people's money and just having a load of fun.
Most days in my practice is spent coordinating schedules with contractors, solving design challenges, analyzing plans and the layout of a space so it will function well, designing intricate details for a room, problem-solving, dealing with vendors and placing orders, tracking orders, accounting and other administrative tasks, site visits to make sure plans are being carried out, business development, making sure that our clients are being well taken care of, welcoming patrons to our showroom and so much more.
It is just like running any other business. But we love every moment of it. We love the challenges because they allow us to think critically and creatively. We love the hiccups that happen along the way because very often they strengthen the relationships we have with our vendors and support team. We love all the good things, and when the not so good things happen occasionally, we are equipped to making them right.
So when you are looking to hire an interior designer for your next project, you want to make sure that your designer has proper systems and processes in place, and they are great at doing business. It shouldn't scare you as a consumer that your designer is business savvy. It does not mean that they are going to charge you more money than they should. It is actually the opposite. It means that the designer has a very good understanding of what will be mutually beneficial for both parties. It means that your designer has done research and know what vendors are the best vendors to introduce to your project. They are skilled at budgeting. They are skilled at setting fair prices because they understand their pricing structure and how it impacts their bottom line
This brings me to the point of today's post, the reasons why you should not expect your designer to shop for you at retail stores.
I am not saying a good designer will NEVER shop retail. But it will be a very rare thing. As a design firm, we do have local resources and vendors that we support that are not trade only. Those relationships are essential for building our business and supporting our local economy, but shopping big box and online retail for every project is a whole other story.
Here are the reasons:
1- "Shopping" is an overused word in the design industry. More often than not, we are not merely shopping for our clients; we are adding value. We are designing, curating and specifying the best finishes, materials and products to meet the needs of our clients. When we work on a design plan, the product dimensions and specifications have to be known from the very beginning in order to accurately plan the space. Most times, we are designing the furniture pieces in the exact dimensions we need for the space. We could never rely on retailers to have those products on the shelves ready to go, in exactly the same color and finish we need. What we do goes way beyond shopping. Instead we are solving a problem, and we will create what we need to in order for the space to look, feel and function at its best
2- Retailers aren't set up for the design trade. Many retailers will claim to be designer-friendly. They tout having a designer program. This usually means that they provide a small discount of 10-20% off their normal retail to gain designers loyalty. But when you scratch the surface, you quickly realize that they are not set up to handle the type of logistics we need. Retailers are accustomed to delivering products to residences, and therefore as designers, when we specify that the products need to go to a commercial warehouse, it throws them off. They feel they can show up on the weekend or at 9:00PM at night because consumers are usually ok with that - they just want their furniture. Our receiving warehouse closes at 5:00PM and does not operate on the weekends.
They also are not set up to handle damage claims. Sure, if a consumer calls them to complain that they received a damaged piece of furniture, they will perhaps have it picked up and replaced, which is a good thing. But as a design firm, we have a team of people whose only job is to handle products that come in with small, fixable dings and scratches. We are happy to do that to maintain the timeline for our clients, but we will seek to be reimbursed if the repair bill is over a certain dollar amount. This is a foreign concept to retailers and all they know to do is pick up the piece and have you wait 4 more weeks for a replacement, or find that it's on backorder till your toddler is ready for college
Their invoicing is usually a nightmare on larger orders, and try calling their billing department to get an explanation of charges. You will see duplicate charges, followed by credits that differ from the actual charges. It's enough to make your head spin!
You will tell them the sidemark till you are blue in the face, and the products will arrive at the warehouse with no sidemark listed. Sidemark is the project name or some identifying word listed on each piece for that project. It is how we track every item received at our warehouse against our master list. Retailers have no idea the importance of this seemingly insignificant detail. Without a sidemark, a piece could likely not end up on the truck come installation day
They typically don't understand that designers are procuring items on behalf of clients and there is a different level of service we expect
3- Shopping retail for every project is not a sustainable business model. I mentioned above that retailers will offer a 10-20% discount to designers to gain their loyalty and bring them more business. This is ok for one-off products on rare occasions, but a design firm will quickly go out of business if they rely on these discounts to operate. In fact, most times these discounts are available to consumers when they run their promotions, and therefore the designer cannot sell to the client above this price. Therefore the designer would have taken on the risks, liabilities, time involved to manage these products without making a profit.
In fact, there are consumers who will outright ask a designer to hand over their discount.
There is not one good business I know that buys their products for resale at the highest possible price. That is what retail really is - the highest price on a product. A good business model is to buy at the lowest possible price point and add a profit margin to sustain a business. Interior design is no different. When you hire a designer for a full service project, where the designer is specifying, procuring, managing, and installing products for you, the designer is acting in two roles. The design role, where they are designing the space and specifying the perfect products for you. And then instead of handing the task of shopping for these products on your own, the designer now becomes the retailer who conveniently brings these products right to your home; and on top of that, make the space beautiful. For a product to get from manufacturer to beautifully styled in your home, a lot of time, knowledge, expertise, relationships, investments went into it. A designer deserves to make a profit on any product they touch. It is just good business, and every business does this. No one ever questions that except in the design industry. Surely consumers want to work with a design firm who actually has a sustainable business
4- You don't get the opportunity to truly customize your furnishings with retailers. Usually they will have a few finishes, or fabrics available in a certain piece. But it is always very limited. Retailers know that they have to appeal to the masses, therefore they don't think "individuals" when they are buying products for their stores. They are thinking "what are consumers likely to buy?" Therefore they will stock the trendiest pieces in colors that they know will sell. That leaves little to no room for actual customization. We have spent years building relationships with our manufacturers and vendors, and building a vast network of resources to bring to our clients for the utmost in customization. That is a part of the value we bring
5- Retail is not less expensive. At least not if you compare apples to apples, or should I say value to value. Well it is actually both. Let's first talk about comparing prices or apples to apples. Some online retailers do in fact sell some products for less, but is it the same product? In most cases it isn't. Manufacturers will sometimes make two products that look almost identical, except that one is for the luxury market, therefore made with better quality materials and craftsmanship, and the other for the mass consumer - therefore less quality materials. They don't necessarily do it to be dishonest; they do it to allow the mass consumer market to be able to afford the look of luxury. It is fine as long as retailers tell you that. The problem is that they don't.
Another thing is that a lot of online retailers will purchase flawed fabrics or end of run from mills at a deep discount. It may look like the same fabric, but it is often material that don't make the cut for the luxury market at the mills
Another thing is that some online retailers are violating IMAP policies from the manufacturer, and therefore engaging in unfair competition. There is a code of ethics even in the world of online shopping. IMAP is Internet Minimum Advertised Price. Most manufacturers stipulate that if you sell their products online, you cannot sell it below a certain $$ minimum. This is to make things fair for all their retailers. Some retailers violate that policy to sell for less to gain more business unfairly. Here's another article I wrote about that
Now let's talk about value versus value. Most people are aware that if they purchase from an online or local retailer, they usually have to already know what dimensions they need, what colors they need, will the item fit through the doorways, will the item be left on the curb or white-glove delivered. Will it look too big or small in place. Will it work. Those are expensive questions to not have answers to. A retailer simply wants to sell you as much of their products as possible. Some may even have in-home design services, but they still just want to sell you a bunch of their stuff, and create a mini version of their showroom in your home.
Working with a designer is different. You don't ever have to worry about any of the above (unless you want to). We not only look at the space as a whole, we look at your lifestyle, and even predict they way you will want to live in the future. It is not just products, it's design unique to you
6- Quality is not as important to them. Remember where I said that a good business seeks to buy at the lowest price? Well, yes, that is a good thing. But a lot of the retailers you know and love, will compromise quality for that lowest price. And as if that isn't bad enough, they sell under a "luxury" guise and a very high profit margin and fool consumers into thinking their product is superior quality. It usually isn't. It is usually clever merchandising and marketing tricks
7- It's a waste of time. It is. If you are paying your designer hourly to procure retail items for you, you may find that it takes them a longer time than a designer who already has a go-to network of vendors with a range of products that will address the needs of their clients.
While backorders and drops are a real thing across the board, you find that happens a lot on the retail end. So a designer may specify a whole project of products and a few weeks later when everything is finally approved by the clients and they get ready to order, nothing is available. That means reselecting new items, which means more time, which you may be getting billed for
I know that in our practice, we are highly efficient at sourcing for our clients. We know our vendors and products well and we save a ton of time not getting to know retail vendors who don't really support the type of business we run.
This post is in no way saying that all big box retailers are bad. The goal is to make you aware of the reasons why your designer may hesitate to shop retail. There is a time when it makes sense to shop retail. I know when we are styling for clients we do enjoy spending some time at Home Goods and West Elm picking up a few accessories for the finishing touches. We also provide eDesign services where all items are sourced through retail vendors so the client can access and purchase the products we specify. But we also know that the ultimate success of our business is important. We want to keep doing a great job for our clients forever, and each project is a much better win/win when retail is not such a big part of it.
We are happy to answer any questions about this post or anything else you need to know about working with us. Leave a comment!
Wishing You Beauty And Inspiration!