There’s a certain charm that surrounds traveling salespeople—perhaps it’s the nostalgia of a more innocent American consumer, or of a simpler, more personal type of instant gratification. In recent years, traveling sales haven’t exactly fallen out of practice, but brands are increasingly relying on digital sales conversions to instantly meet buyers when they want. That said, a number of home brands are now turning to mobile showrooms as a way to connect with designers and clients alike, transforming vans and trucks and taking to the road.
The phenomenon isn’t COVID-specific (despite what the 2020 dearth of Airstreams might suggest). In 2018, West Sussex, England–based Maker&Son made their unofficial maiden voyage when co-founder Felix Conran put one of their sofas in the back of a car and drove it to an interested buyer. “The original office was the kitchen table, and it was like, Would it be totally mad to put the armchair in the back of the car and drive it to this person’s house?” he says. “That’s exactly what we did. We drove to this person’s family home, and we got to meet her, her dog, her husband and kids, and it was amazing.” The experience prompted Maker&Son to run with the idea, purchasing a van to transport their upholstered products from client to client, adapting their direct-to-consumer, digital-first model to one that was a bit higher touch. And now, three years later, the company fleet is spread across Scotland, Ireland, England, Australia and New Zealand, with its American regional markets scheduled to be up and running by the fall.
For Maker&Son, choosing vans as opposed to brick-and-mortar showrooms helped to minimize overhead costs, which saves a few dollars on the price of their product. Similarly, for Britt Forrister of The Lot, a van-based multiline showroom that operates out of Nashville, Tennessee, her mobile model was driven by financial factors, along with its relatively fast launch time in comparison to a traditional store. “When I was getting ready to start the business, the mobile showroom was a necessity because I couldn’t afford a shingle,” says Forrister. “That will happen at some point, and we’ll do both, but the focus will always be road representation, because the vendors I work with see the value in someone who is willing to go to the designers and show them what’s fresh and new.”
Both Maker&Son and The Lot were largely able to continue their businesses through the pandemic because their model allowed for open-air, socially distant meetings with their clientele. Stephane Silverman, owner of textile brand Castel, attests to the opportunities afforded by his own vehicular showroom, a restored 1969 Volkswagen Bus that he can bring from town to town in the New York tri-state area.
“It started out with a personal dream,” says Silverman. “The bus was such an iconic vehicle that represented the road, discovery—a more relaxed, fun life. Pre-COVID, I thought, We’re at this time in life where experiential connections and community connections and getting to follow a company or people or a brand is more important than the product—at the end of the day, clients need products for a project. The product’s either going to be available or not, fit the project or not. I thought, What if we meet our clients differently?” And so he began driving his bus to destinations across Long Island, New York City and Connecticut, hosting events with the goal of connecting with people and planting a seed of interest while inviting visitors to meet in the courtyard of a perfectly restored VW Bus.
Now another trade brand has caught the wave: Boulder, Colorado–based furniture company Saltwolf. The company recently invested in a truck showroom that will be touring the U.S. this summer, having started with an event in Southern California just last week. Co-founder Jordan Williams touted the success of the mobile showroom’s debut, measured by the quality of the interactions with designers as opposed to the quantity of recent sales.
There’s a lot to gain from the mobile showroom model, from the low cost of overhead to a creative and personal approach to trade sales. Of course, it’s not without its challenges—flat tires, heavy lifting and parking issues come to mind—but the overall effect is one that combines the sociability of trade shows with a lower interface volume, resulting in fewer, richer conversations and brand experiences for clients. “It’s a way to totally break the digital barrier for this mix of physical and digital,” says Conran, whose business model serves as a proof of concept for the mobile showroom, so much so that Williams admits that part of his company’s enthusiasm for the pivot came from the confidence instilled by the British furniture brand. In order to appeal to designers, the road warriors all invested time and design into their vehicles—whether it’s the Perennials awning on the Castel bus, the wooden shingles inside Maker&Son’s van, the custom curtains in The Lot’s rig or the sconces and living room decor of Saltwolf’s truck.
Life on the road is not for everyone, and the fatigue from long hours of driving can be a very real limiting factor, in Forrister’s experience. But ultimately, beyond the numbers, the resounding cry from all four brands is the sincere and treasured connections that result from these face-to-face interactions. “The overall experience is loved by us as a company—it’s great for our sales teams because they’re able to build that rapport with their customers and actually make friends, and it’s great for customers because they get this amazing quality of service and interaction that is, I think, something that will be expected before too long,” says Conran. “It’s so sort of above and beyond. It’s fantastic.”
Homepage image: Maker&Son’s mobile showrooms | Courtesy of Maker&Son