You can combat the threat from online by majoring on service

Mark Cunningham (pictured left) and Royden Evans both left good careers behind them to start up their own high-end bathroom showroom Draw A Bath in Heswall. What made them do it? Chris Frankland finds out.

You’ve got to admire the guys at Draw A Bath. Mark Cunningham left a promising career as an area sales manager with Ideal Bathrooms and Royden Evans was a successful entrepreneur, having built from scratch a £25 million e-commerce bathroom business. They left all that behind to open up a high-end bathroom showroom in Heswall.

You’ve also got to admire the fact they were shortlisted for New Bathroom Showroom of the Year in the 2020 kbbreview Retail & Design Awards, despite only opening in October 2018. So it seems they knew very well what they were doing when they set up on their own. After all, with 40 years’ industry experience between them, they were no rookies.

They could see online sellers were gaining ground and Evans, as a former online trader, knew that only too well. They asked themselves: can we come up with a scalable business model that is robust enough to stand firm against the online onslaught? And would potential customers see enough value to pay a premium price for premium products and service? Their answer was a resounding ‘yes’.

They chose a high-street location in the affluent town of Heswall, in the Wirral, where a study of the local demographics had shown them they would find the right kind of customers.

Evans tells kbbreview that – pre-pandemic anyway – the high street in Heswall was thriving and at 7am there are always queues of cars outside the showroom. So Draw A Bath makes sure it always has two stunning window displays to catch the eyes of passers-by. 

But now they have got a couple of years under their belt, they are finding that referrals are growing.

The concept was a straight-forward one. The small 1,000sq ft showroom would deal with carefully selected premium brands – namely Dornbracht, Duravit, Porcelanosa, Artelinea, Imperial, Geberit, Matki and Effegibi. It would present itself more as a concept showroom, with just five complete room sets and nine individual displays.

Cunningham explains: “It was never the intention to collect as many brands as we could and display as much product as we could. We wanted to be a lot more focused. In a world where customers spend so much time looking online at the infinite amount of product, it is incredibly confusing. So, to be able to walk into our showroom and choose only from what Royd and I, with 40 years of experience, have narrowed down to what we perceive as the best product offering, is quite refreshing for customers.”

Evans left school at 16 and went straight into the plumbing and heating industry, working his way up to branch manager at City Plumbing. He left in 2007 and set up his own e-commerce business, Plumb Nation. In 2013, he was approached by Travis Perkins to sell the business to them, which by then was turning over around £25 million.

He recalls: “In 2007 when I started, margins were reasonably healthy and then more and more people entered the online arena. It was a race to the bottom. We never wanted to be the cheapest, but we always had to be. Margins got eroded, but we had volume. 

“The Travis Perkins offer was too good to walk away from. I needed to move on and get a fresh start, and I was used to working for myself.”

It was through his Plumb Nation business that he met Cunningham, who was an area sales manager for Ideal Bathrooms. He says he was impressed with Cunningham, who he recalls was really proactive and worked with him to grow Plumb Nation’s spend with Ideal Bathrooms significantly over the years. And so it was on a fateful customer rewards trip to Mauritius that they first discussed starting their own retail showroom. 

Showroom display: Left: Imperial Astoria Deco. Centre: Matki Radiance enclosure and Duravit Vero Air vanity and WC. Right: Artelinea Dama vanity

The service element

Cunningham spells out their underlying ethos:  “Online kitchen and bathroom retail over the years has continued to grow and that will never reverse. But the service element of a showroom is very difficult to replicate online. So that really is where we have made it. The showroom has so many service elements attached to it that if you take those away, you are completely exposed to online. Put them back in and you are quite well protected. If you come into our showroom, what you are actually buying is not just the product, but the service – our expertise, our design, installation. This is critical and pivotal to combating the online threat. 

“Over the past two years, we have demonstrated you can successfully combat the threat from online by majoring on service. We look after customers from end to end. You are not just buying a bathroom suite from us, you are buying everything – the tiles, spotlights, the extractor fan, etc, so the average order value is much higher.”

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Evans confides that a key element of the offering is design and adds that no two bathrooms they do are the same. He says: “Pretty much every job we do looks completely different. We tailor the products to the individual client and project and that is a huge differentiator for us. When a customer comes into our showroom, we spend a lot of time getting to know them, understanding what they want and need. There are so many trends out there that to narrow that down to one seems like an awful waste.”

He adds: “But a number of our competitors always use the same products in every project, and they buy that product in bulk. I am sure it is very profitable, but for me it is a little soulless.”

Contract sector

Draw A Bath installs around 34 to 40 bathrooms a year at between £15,000 and £60,000 each, plus some supply-only. It employs between three and five subcontracted fitting teams plus a full-time designer. 

Evans reveals that recently they have made inroads into the contract sector, targeting small developments of three to seven houses that align with their offering. He says they are currently working on a project for seven four-bedroom houses just around the corner from the showroom.

He says: “We also do the design and that is where we add value. Bathrooms seem to cause developers headaches. They haven’t got the skill set for it. So we take that over and manage it as though we were installing the project, even though we’re not.”

When asked what product areas are on the up for them, they confirm that spa and wellness products are a growing market.

“That is very much a growing market for us,” Cunningham says. “We display Dornbracht, which majors on the well-being and spa areas, and Effegibi, which makes steam and sauna products.”

Evans agrees: “We have a fully functioning steam room and encourage customers to bring their bathers and try it out. We have had good success with steam rooms, and we intend to do more. 

“I think our biggest job so far was £60,000. It was an incredible room.”

Another area they do well in is shower toilets, such as the Geberit Aquaclean. They have one in the customer toilets. Cunningham says: “Once you have used one, you usually want one.”

Then, after one year’s normal trading, this new business was hit by the pandemic. 

“Fortunately, the business was in a strong position before the first lockdown and we came out in a strong position,” he says. “We were 12 months into trading and then told to close. March, April, May and half of June were kind of lost, but enquiries continued to come through. So when we reopened the showroom in June, within a couple of weeks sales were back to where we
were before.”

Another lockdown

Showroom presentation area and Duravit Luv display

At the time of our interview, they are locked down again, but had installers going out and continuing to work. Cunningham confides: “Going through to August/September [2021], if we didn’t sell another bathroom, there is still plenty going on. We are booking installs into Q4 with a healthy pipeline of jobs. If anything, this current lockdown has given us an opportunity to take stock of where we are and put the effort into the e-commerce website that we need.”

But does running an e-commerce website fly in the face of their highly service-oriented business model?

Evans counters:“No, because our major USP online will be service. The site is being built with user experience at the fore-front in terms of ease of use. Like in the showroom, we are not collecting brands, we are being very selective in terms of products, how we display them and what information we give. We don’t want it to be confusing. Ultimately though, the area where I guess we will score pretty highly will be delivery and communication with the customer.”

He elaborates: “We are very much focusing on scheduling delivery runs with a white-glove service with two people on a van. We will take it into whatever room the customer chooses and take the packaging away, so it will very much be service-focused.”

Evans says that from day one they will do certain deliveries themselves – particularly the high-value items. “That will be our differentiator. It’s not just pile it high and sell it cheap – it’s strategically placed products and exceptional service.”

And so what is in the future for Draw A Bath?

Cunningham admits that they are planning a second showroom towards the back end of this year or early 2022. He says: “We moved into a new 5,000sq ft warehouse in September last year and so we have got the capacity to grow. We want to open new branches, but the operational side of the business needs to grow in tandem with sales.” 

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