Will customers try Kohler showers before they buy?

Photo: Kohler
May 31, 2017
Matthew Stern

Letting customers try out products is proving to be a key element in maintaining physical retail’s appeal in a digital world. And one kitchen and bath brand’s new experiential outlet gives customers an opportunity to do full demonstrations of products that one doesn’t often get the chance to test in a store.

Kitchen and bath product brand Kohler has opened its first Experience Center in Manhattan, according to The Wholesaler. Opened in conjunction with distributor Best Plumbing Supply, the experiential retail outlet offers customers the opportunity to demo a range of kitchen and bath appliances — and even the brand’s “intelligent toilets.” The store features a “private bathing space,” for which customers can make appointments to try out high-tech shower and bath additions like sonic bathtub massagers and showers meant to mimic natural environments.

Showers, sinks, toilets and the bathroom remodeling that comes along with them are big investments. And if a customer installs something they’re not happy with in their home that can lead to stress and increased costs. But whether customers would do a full demo of a next-gen shower in an otherwise public environment may depend on everything from showroom layout to the individual’s comfort level.

Kohler is not the only home goods brand examining creative ways to let potential customers try out products.

Last year Williams Sonoma-owned furniture brand West Elm, for instance, announced it will open a line of boutique hotels where the company’s furniture and furnishings, such as bedsheets, will be available for purchase. The hotels are slated to begin opening in late 2018.

Kohler may also be taking cues from a high-end retailer that has been known to stock and demo some of its products. Last year, upscale home appliance retailer PIRCH opened an experiential flagship store in lower Manhattan offering live demonstrations. In terms of shower and bath offerings, the PIRCH concept gives shoppers the opportunity to test 38 different showerheads and book a steam shower in an “experiential home spa” called Sanctuary.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What is your take on the value of experiential retail stores covered in this article? Do you expect that large numbers of customers will take part in these experiences? What is the likelihood that the test experiences will lead to better sale conversions?

"Experiential retail is becoming more and more important when it comes to big, expensive, infrequent purchases for the home..."
"Sometimes stepping in the shower, sitting in the tub or on the toilet tells you this product is or is not for you..."
"Not only is this unique, it associates a product with a feeling."

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18 Comments on "Will customers try Kohler showers before they buy?"

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Charles Dimov

Brilliant! Brick-and-mortar retail needs to find ways to create customer experiences. This is an experience. No doubt customers are going to tell their friends and family about going into a Kohler store and taking a shower to test it out. Not only is this unique, it associates a product with a feeling.

Max Goldberg

Experiential retail stores offer consumers a unique opportunity to try before they buy. If the stores are properly maintained and invitingly designed, they could increase sales by calming consumer anxiety over purchases such as kitchen appliances and showers. This store also provides great upselling opportunities for retailers, as they allow consumers to directly experience the benefits of getting something more than their initial purchase decision.

Adrian Weidmann

While PIRCH is a great example of experiential shopping, it strikes me that this shopping experience caters to the 1% — affluent (i.e. rich) shoppers in a few select U.S. markets. While this may be an effective design and approach for PIRCH (and Kohler) this is not a concept that plays across the country. I wonder if Menards would implement this design for Moen?

I like the thought process and the commitment to place the shopper at the center of the experience. PIRCH has made a commitment to their target market segment and it is paying dividends. Every brand should reflect on who they are and who their true audience actually should be — then design an experience that resonates with that audience.

Steve Montgomery
Staying in a hotel that is furnished by one company’s line of products may gain some customer acceptance. It is an interesting approach in that West Elm in essence wants you to pay for the right to test their furniture. In most aspects, it is really no different than staying in any hotel. It does however allow the guest to spend more time trying the furniture, etc. but other than sleeping in the bed it is not much different than going to a furniture store. Will enough people try it to make it worthwhile and will it lead to more sales? I honestly don’t know. For me the approach Kohler and PIRCH are taking is a far more of a stretch. I am sure there are people who are willing to take a shower in their store but I am not one of them. The toilet and other bathroom fixtures could simply be used in the showroom’s rest rooms rather than a formal testing space. I do believe the concept will work because people will… Read more »
Cathy Hotka

The Kohler example takes the concept of experiential to a whole new level, but perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising in the era of try-it-for-60-days mattresses. If we needed an example of customers being in the driver’s seat, this is it.

Art Suriano

I see this as a great idea and one that will have real value. Bathroom fixtures have evolved through the years with many more features. Allowing customers to experience bathroom fixtures before making a purchase is smart. Not all customers will take advantage of scheduling bath time, but the word-of-mouth advertising from those who do will help lead to more sales and, like today’s article, more press, which then leads to more consumer curiosity. How long-term this is and if it will one day become the norm for everyone to test bathroom fixtures before purchase, I don’t know — but I do think it makes sense.

Bob Amster

I just visited the store in the Flatiron District. The store is very nice and the assortment is plentiful. While the fact that one can shower in the store to try out a shower head may be appealing to those customers seeking hands-on experiences, I bet that more than 60 percent of people walking into the store will not take advantage of the “experience.” PIRCH has done the same thing in about five stores — one in SoHo. It’s also beautiful. These stores will entice people to buy but not necessarily to try the shower heads.

Tom Erskine
7 months 22 days ago

When I referred to these experiences as “immersive” I didn’t realize that Kohler would make it such a literal reference. Experiential retail is a critical part of the customer journey, but as part of driving awareness — not necessarily conversion.

If I’ve never used a smart toilet, I don’t understand why I would need/want one and I won’t consider one when I’m next renovating my bathroom. These experiences give Kohler the opportunity to change that and give me the opportunity to use new products so that I understand the value they deliver and become comfortable adopting them. Then, when I’m ready to renovate, I’ll put a smart toilet on my list.

This project is a great way to deploy retail space, but if it’s measured based on conversion it will fail. This isn’t about conversion, it’s about awareness and lead generation.

JJ Kallergis

Agree with your point about measuring conversion, Tom. While I think that the experiential retail concept will increase conversion, this cannot be the only goal as the ROI may likely not pay off. But, I will add one more thing this is about — an emotional connection to the brand. We get this emotional connection with a car during the test drive and car purchasing process, but not typically buying a toilet or shower. This concept will help Kohler bridge this gap.

With all that being said, it is still a little strange and creepy to consider taking a shower/bath or using a toilet in a fancy showroom. If they took the West Elm approach instead and created a chain of experiential Kohler day spas, it might be a more natural experiential retail experience.

Zel Bianco

I like the idea. We are considering updating a shower in our apartment and would certainly take advantage of this. Once it’s installed, it’s done. No returns on this baby. Also I think Kohler will do this justice. If you’ve never been to their showroom in Wisconsin, check it out. It is one of the most elaborate and gorgeous showrooms I’ve ever seen. It is an experience in itself. I think this and other manufacturers/retailers that allow you have an experience will experience an increase in sales.

Kai Clarke

There is a line that should not be crossed in “try before you buy” sampling and using an in-store shower has certainly crossed this. Going to a strange store to take a shower in a strange bathroom is certainly not my idea of comfort or developing an enhanced experience or a better sense of what something is like before buying it. This has clearly pushed the envelope too far. I am just fine with a small display in a store showing me the shower mist, adjustability and other features.

Joan Treistman

One of the greatest advantages of Kohler’s initiative is that it overcomes a sales staff problem. If you can see for yourself, you don’t have to rely on a sales person who offers no concrete help as you try to determine if this particular item is for you. Seeing is believing, but “using” adds an infinite amount of credibility. Sometimes stepping in the shower, sitting in the tub or on the toilet tells you this product is or is not for you, i.e., it does or does not fit your personal needs and wants. I think it’s a great idea to know the answer before buying and installing — after which it is too late to do anything about a bad decision. I think this is an important experience, just like test driving a car.

Dick Seesel

I live about 45 minutes south of Kohler, Wisconsin — home of the Kohler Company, of course, and a couple of world-class golf courses. There is a large design center where most of the company’s products are displayed and available for sale — but the “shower while you shop” idea is a novel one. The design center itself is a very effective selling tool, but the adjacent American Club resort (owned by Kohler) is equally impressive as a way to demonstrate the products. So Kohler has been onto something about experiential retail for a long time, even though the New York store takes it to another level.

Cate Trotter

I’m a big advocate of physical and experiential retail so I think this is a really interesting offering! I imagine that there may only be a small percentage of customers who want to try out a shower in-store, but given the cost of buying a bathroom/kitchen that could still equate to some good sales figures. I’d be really interested to know what difference this makes to customers who are on the edge of making a purchase but are unsure — would getting to test the shower in the store tip them over the edge?

I think experiential retail is becoming more and more important when it comes to big, expensive, infrequent purchases for the home — customers want to feel they made the right choice as they may have to live with it for some time!

Lee Kent

All I can add is, if you haven’t visited a PIRCH, you should! The brand, the culture, the experience, the story, everything about it is all about the customer. And it’s paying off! For my 2 cents.

Ricardo Belmar

There is no doubt that experiential retail is more than just a passing trend, and this is one example that elevates the concept to a new level. Brick and mortar retail will continue transforming into a more immersive, experiential approach that generates a true emotional response from the shopper. That creates a memorable experience that not only will lead to truly valued purchases, but will also be talked about with friends and family in a completely new, social, way. At the same time, we are seeing a divide being created in retail — the immersive experiential approach to the store, and a more “no-frills” pure discount driven “experience.” The many retailers caught in the middle of this divide are the ones to worry about, and we see this in the number of store closings being reported.

Marge Laney
7 months 21 days ago

This is so smart! These are big ticket items that need to be experienced to make a buying decision. Currently, people must use a high-end product in someone’s home or an upscale hotel in order to fall in love with it and want it in their home. Just like buying apparel, you need to try before you buy.

You don’t have to have an intelligent toilet, a sonic bathtub massage, or a high-tech shower. If you never experience one you will have your need satisfied in the mundane alternative and be perfectly happy.

The current buzz is that all of these products can be “experienced” through AR online. I don’t agree. You may be able to virtually experience sitting, standing, or laying on an item, but you can’t feel what it’s like to use the product. Associating a product with a positive feeling at the point of purchase will sell more with no discount required.

Christopher P. Ramey

It’s not always wise to take a term too literally. Retail may be theater, but that doesn’t mean you sing your pitch. You have to execute inside the psyche of the customer.

To wit: “experiential.” Your affluent and best prospects aren’t going to take a shower in the showroom regardless of how private it may be. They’re wise enough to observe and find what they like without the hassle of taking off their clothes, risking germs or trusting their towels are clean. On the other hand, those who are least likely to be your prospects may take a free shower because they need one (a service to all in NYC).

It would be easy to add this to the category, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” But Kohler is way ahead of us on this initiative. What we see (and are discussing) is not why they’re investing in the Experience Center. The lessons they learn and research they do will make their investment worthwhile.

"Experiential retail is becoming more and more important when it comes to big, expensive, infrequent purchases for the home..."
"Sometimes stepping in the shower, sitting in the tub or on the toilet tells you this product is or is not for you..."
"Not only is this unique, it associates a product with a feeling."

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