business advice | Feb 27, 2018 |
Are shopping trips a good sales tool, or a total time-waster?

Dear Sean,

What is your approach to shopping trips? I find that I often befriend my clients, and it can become difficult to bill for time spent shopping with a “friend.” What does the ideal shopping trip look like? Are they outdated or a good sales tool?

Signed,
Shopping Buddy


Dear Shopping Buddy,

Shopping trips are a fascinating aspect of the designer’s ever-shifting value proposition today. The very short answer to your question is that shopping trips only matter if discovering and uncovering design with your client is how you like to work. Otherwise, they create more confusion, frustration and marginalization than anything else.

To go deeper, let’s take a tour of where we are today versus 20 years ago. Twenty years ago, designers had more knowledge and more access to available product than all but the most intrepid clients. So the value of a designer—not only to reveal the inventory but also to share in her market power (i.e., trade discount)—really mattered. There was not much worry that a client would shop a designer’s selections or that the vendor would ever consider dealing directly with the client.

Are shopping trips a good sales tool, or a total time-waster?Shopping trips only matter if discovering and uncovering design with your client is how you like to work. Otherwise, they create more confusion, frustration and marginalization than anything else.

Fast-forward to today, and we can safely say that client and designer have equal access and possibly equal knowledge about available inventory. Sure, there are exceptions, but unless we are talking about completely custom work, clients can source what designers do, fairly effectively. With this in mind, shopping trips must have an entirely different meaning than what they did—but I am not sure that many designers effectively communicate the difference to their clients.

In order to be very clear as to what the shopping trip represents for the design process, we have to agree that there is a difference between collaboration and design. Collaboration is when a designer explores possibilities with a client without asking for a specific decision. For some designers, this phase is very short; for others, it’s much longer. Those who use shopping trips as part of their design process fall into the latter category.

Eventually, though, the collaboration process has to translate into tangible design. My shorthand definition for design is: Design equals decision and/or money. Design does not ask for an opinion, it asks for yes or no. Design is the designer saying, “This is what I think. Do you approve?” For those designers deeply invested in presentation, without any shopping trips, this is an easy concept to embrace and is probably already implemented.

For shoppers, the distinction is fuzzy. If there is an energy of “We are only collaborators,” then there is almost never a moment for the transition to design. It does not mean shopping trips cannot work for the design process, just that they have to be very specific. Are we just discovering with each other? Are we deciding on purchases? And if we are deciding on purchases, in what order? The order has to be up to the designer, not the client.

What can never get lost is the designer’s vision. You get paid for your opinion first and foremost. If you are committed to being paid for your opinion specifically, shopping can be a wonderful tool. However, if you do not do the work of saying to what end shopping, you will inevitably never get to the value of your opinion and will find yourself lost in the “friend zone”—not a place any designer wants or needs to be.

Sean Low is the founder and president of the consulting firm The Business of Being Creative. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Find more of his EAL Business Advice columns here.

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