Talking shop with Tom Dixon

To coincide with the launch of Liquid, his first ever bathroom range in partnership with VitrA, drawing on his own experience as a studio owner, designer Tom Dixon offers his thoughts on retailing in a post-Covid world and why retailers must adapt their showrooms and challenge the norm to remain relevant in a rapidly changing environment.

Q: You’ve just launched Liquid, in collaboration with VitrA. How did that come about? 

A:  As a design company we’ve done a lot of work in commercial hotels, bars, and restaurants where we have specified bathrooms. In that context, it struck me how compli-cated putting a bathroom together is. The tiles tend to come from one place, then the brassware, the furniture, the sanitaryware and the accessories come from other suppliers. To offer a simpler solution, I wanted to work with a company where we could design and manufacture all of the required elements and that’s where VitrA came in. 

Q: As an experienced retailer yourself, what’s your impression of KBB showrooms? 

A: Any retailer operating in a specialist area like kitchens and bathrooms will undoubtedly end up having to display a certain amount of similar product from different brands. Let’s face it, it’s difficult to distinguish one range from another. You see it in hi-fi shops and bicycle shops, for instance. It’s hard to take something out of its natural habitat, as it were, and make it seem different. 

If anything, I’d like to see products displayed in a more abstract interior design way but, on the other hand, I know there’s a reason why KBB retailers display product like they do. They have to appeal to their target audience at the end of the day, so there are restrictions there and the industry is structured in a certain way and it’s difficult to swim against that tide, as I found out. 

Q: What are the most important things to remember when designing a showroom?

A: I’m a firm believer of displaying product against a variety of backdrops as it helps differentiate one range or display from the other. Especially in an environment, like a bathroom studio, where the predominant colour is white, anything that creates a division between displays is key. If I put myself in the consumer’s shoes, as for someone that’s not clued up on KBB products, some showrooms – with lots of similar displays – could possibly look overwhelming. So, isolating different ranges is key and remember, sometimes less is more. 

Q: It’s obviously been a challenging couple of years. How did the Tom Dixon studio fare during the pandemic? 

A: We’ve had a double punch in the face, from Brexit and Covid. They’ve each created different obstacles. It’s been a bit like a game of snakes and ladders at times, hasn’t it? The design side of the business and the retail store have been pretty consistent throughout. Obviously, we went through the same closures and stops and starts of the pandemic, which did have an impact on sales, but the interiors industry, as you know, has seen pent-up consumer demand and our sales are now back to sensible levels. Like everyone, as a retail business, we’ve had to become much more digitally savvy and more elastic in terms of adapting to what’s going on outside of the business. It’s been incredibly complicated and it’s not over, I mean right now the challenge is managing the price rises we’re seeing coming through in everything from raw materials and packaging to shipping.

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Q: What are the key lessons you learned from the pandemic? 

A: We’ve seen an acceleration of what was going to happen anyway, which is effectively that the nature of retail is mutating much faster than before. So what does that mean for KBB retailers? It means that your showroom must mutate as well. It must become a hub for service and experience. To do that, you need to think differently. You’re no longer purely selling product; you’re selling something aspirational and desirable. When you’re engaging with consumers, don’t just talk about product benefits or features, talk about how they will benefit them and their lifestyle. 

There’s a massive shift going on in retail now and retailers must be creative about what works for them and their business. One size doesn’t fit all. The idea, I think, is to challenge the norm to ensure you stand out, otherwise there’s a risk you could fade away into the background. Like-minded retailers do tend to cluster in obvious spaces as well –  is now the time to consider moving to somewhere a bit different? Further out of town – where you could have more space or further into town – to be closer to customers. 

Q: Considering the pandemic sent a lot more people to shop online, do you still see a place for physical KBB showrooms?

A: I definitely see a place for KBB showrooms in the future. Buying a big-ticket item like a kitchen or a bathroom is a huge commitment, and I strongly believe people will always want to be able to go to a showroom to talk to the experts and see products for themselves before they buy. But one of the biggest lessons I think we all learned from the pandemic is that you must think more digitally these days. So, moving forward, we’ll see an increased need for omni-channel retailing – offering a combination of the digital and physical showroom experiences is essential.

Q: What about your time at Habitat, what nuggets of retailing wisdom can you pass on to retailers in the KBB industry?

A: You must constantly question whether your showroom is fresh and interesting enough. The difficulty for KBB retailers is that it’s a purchase people generally only make once or twice in their lifetime, so it’s a different retail set-up from Habitat. However, something that is universal for retail is that training your sales force to be able to guide your clients through the process is essential. 

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