business advice | Mar 22, 2022 |
I want to focus on my shop, but everyone wants me for design. Help!

Dear Sean,

I have had an upscale home store for the past two decades in a small region in Oregon. People come in, love the store, then want help with interior design. I am at a point where I am scaling way back, taking on only the best projects for myself and my firm. I have three designers who work for me, and at the moment we are so booked that we are not taking on any more projects.

That’s the good news. But here’s my question: How can I inspire people to just buy off the floor? This is what I have been trying to manifest, but it’s only doing OK. I have invested heavily in inventory, so I have beautiful, neutral, custom pieces in the shop. It’s about 5,000 square feet of showroom space, and I don't want to have discount sales and lose margin. Any advice on shifting from design to sales would be greatly appreciated.

The Reluctant Designer

Dear Reluctant,

The timing of your question could not be better. As BOH reported last week, The Expert just raised $12 million specifically to develop a retail component of their business, where designers would receive a commission for sales. They’ve also hired a crack team to make it happen.

The reason The Expert and its expansion is so relevant is that the tie between those who see (designers) and those who want to be shown (clients) has never been stronger. It is also plain that clients care less and less about the product, as beautiful and special as it may be, but more about the meaning of the product and why it belongs in their home.

So you have a choice: Go all in on retail and serve the walk-in customer, or figure out how to leverage design (and possibly support for other designers) to inspire sales. The pickle you have is that you are the big fish in the area, and clients and designers alike probably do not know you are scaling way back. For them, it’s business as usual with your design services at the ready, no matter the size of the project.

If you choose to go all in with retail sales, there are far better consultants than I to tell you how to improve your sell-through. The time is right for home retailers (note William-Sonoma’s record earnings in 2021), and you can certainly succeed in that direction. However, I strongly encourage you to also consider leveraging your design superpowers by creating two very distinct offerings. First, take a page from The Expert and provide hourly advice for those looking for only a few pieces. The other offering would be the very high-end projects you are looking to scale back to now. These could be fee driven and require a minimum spend in the six figures. Oh, and truly nothing in between.

For the top clients, your current team might suffice. For more entry-level clients, you can use your team or simply outsource to other designers by offering them services that will help them—everything from design tools to back-end logistics and storage information that I am guessing you do better than any designer in your market.

The entire point is that what has gotten you here—providing design that drives the value of the store—needs to be reframed. Rather than focusing on product, why not instead focus on how to serve designers and those seeking designers? I am sure you use tools and have a depth of knowledge gained over your 20 years that can help designers you would like to purchase your product. The point is to go further than just providing great products. Leveraging what you know will make designers’ businesses—and your own—better.

Homepage image: AdobeStock | ©murattellioglu


Sean Low is the go-to business coach for interior designers. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Low earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and as founder-president of The Business of Being Creative, he has long consulted for design businesses. In his Business Advice column for BOH, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Send us an email—and don’t worry, we can keep your details anonymous.

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