The process by which designers obtain product information has changed drastically over the years. Trade shows, print catalogs, swatch books, visits from manufacturer’s reps, and industry publications have been the primary sources of information for decades. As the commercial furnishings industry has matured, so have those traditional methods.
Various industry trade shows have been held since the late 1960s in major markets, such as Designer’s Saturday in New York, DesignFest in Florida, WestWeek in Los Angeles, and NeoCon® in Chicago. Today, only NeoCon®, NeoCon® East, and IIDEX/NeoCon® Canada remain as the main venues for commercial office and institutional furniture. The years have also witnessed the demise of several long standing magazines with only the strongest having survived.
The first attempt to digitize the interiors library and streamline the information process was by Showroom Online in 1984, a short lived division of information giant IHS, Inc. While the concept drew considerable attention, it was ahead of its time, especially in consideration of the technical limits of early PCs. A more significant obstacle, however, was getting interior designers to use computer technology. CAD was not yet popular and nearly all designers preferred their library, pulling catalogs and having print literature as their reference point.
How things have changed with the Internet and the near universal adoption of personal computing! As opposed to relying on tear sheets, designers now download product photography and information directly from the manufacturer’s Web site, and communication is as easy as clicking the “contact us” option.
Even with this access to information and the utilization of technology, the world of the designer remains a combination of art and science. While CAD has replaced the time-consuming process of drawing layouts by hand, the art of the profession remains one of conceiving and synthesizing design, color, and texture to create a workable, livable, and enjoyable environment. A project that reflects the client’s technical and aesthetic goals can occur only as a human endeavor. It is a tactile, visual profession and one that technology cannot fully address.
There has remained one constant during these transitional years that has helped the industry navigate the changes by filling in what technology cannot—and that constant is the independent manufacturer’s rep. These self-employed salespeople serve as the liaison between their manufacturers and the A&D, dealer, and end-user communities. As in the past, it remains the local rep who is responsible for bringing new product information to the market’s attention.
We recently had the opportunity to conduct a research survey of the top designers in a major Midwestern market, soliciting their opinions and thoughts regarding the importance of local showrooms, print literature, Web sites, and independent reps. Most felt that a local showroom was a nice benefit, although the majority stated they rarely had time to leave the office. A good Web site was considered more important than either a showroom or print literature, as they used the content for presentations or simply forwarded it directly to their clients. It was the rep, however, that made the process complete by delivering samples, answering technical questions, being available for presentations, and solving problems.
It was not uncommon for designers to rely on reps as part of the overall design process, often welcoming their input and suggestions. A good rep is not only knowledgeable about their own products, but industry trends and solutions, such as sustainability and green issues. Consistency and longevity with a product line was also appreciated as one designer cited increased confidence and reliance of both the rep and manufacturer when there is minimal turnover. Perhaps the greatest testament was when some designers indicated that they “follow” their rep, not the line. It is the rep’s integrity and service that secures the relationship, not the furniture brand.
According to BIFMA, approximately 60 percent of the industry’s annual sales are by the “Big Six,” with the rest of the sales spread among more than 400 sources. Approximately 1,000 independent rep firms—some comprising only one person, others being multi-person organizations—work to bring these alternative brands to the market. Not all products qualify for A&D consideration, and not all reps are equipped to service the A&D market. In all cases, however, the manufacturer’s rep is an important part of the industry’s make-up, reflecting the same entrepreneurship as the owners and principals of design firms, furniture dealerships, and manufacturers. Without them, hundreds of manufacturers, including those who routinely offer some of the most exciting and cutting edge products, would have few opportunities to reach the professional design community, resulting in far less choice and creative possibilities.