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Showroom showdown

Fabricators weigh in on what’s better: Online, on-site or both?

Feature | January 1, 2022 | By: Michelle Miron

When Oyster Creek Canvas owner Greg Keeler renovated the building, he replaced the windows with replicas of the originals to maintain the vintage character of the showroom. Photo: Oyster Creek Canvas Co.

Whether it’s online or brick and mortar, a well-conceived product showroom can make a substantial difference in how customers perceive your company and its offerings. Strategic improvements in both can help your clients better understand their choices and smooth your way toward easier, more profitable orders. 

Location, location, location

When Greg Keeler first rented downtown space for his marine fabrication business, Oyster Creek Canvas Co. in Bellingham, Wash., he didn’t foresee that the location would be so perfect for a
customer showroom.

Twenty-one years later, the harborside spot has proven ideal for attracting locals, tourists and clients. Oyster Creek has become so well-recognized that it does a brisk trade in scrap-fabric hoodies, shirts and tote bags featuring the company logo with the town name. 

Keeler, who now owns the building, has upgraded his showroom with new windows, new displays and other features that make it a welcoming spot to visit. 

“It’s not like people don’t make special trips here to choose boat materials, but we’re also in the heart of a vibrant downtown area where people see the shop as unique,” Keeler explains.

Where to invest time and money? 

Visible location or not, these days fabricators may be uncertain about how many resources they should devote to their brick-and-mortar customer showrooms, given pandemic concerns and that material choices can technically be made online. 

When well-designed and filled with both photos and helpful information, online showrooms can be enormously helpful for showing customers your capabilities and range of products. Further, with the ongoing uncertainty of COVID, many consumers appreciate the general safety and convenience of remote shopping. 

That said, a website may be a poor substitute for a comfortable, service-oriented space that encourages customers to be hands-on in comparing fabrics, colors, shapes and designs before making their final investments. On-site showrooms can also help customers understand how
materials will look and feel in real life. 

While every fabricator uses a different strategy, we interviewed three who find value in offering both a comprehensive, user-friendly online showroom along with a welcoming on-site showroom so customers can narrow down their choices before making their final selections in person. 

Here are their suggestions for establishing and maintaining robust showrooms in both categories. 

At MarineRennavators LLC, Belfast, Maine, owners Kelsey and Tov Renna keep their work space tidy as they routinely invite clients into their workroom to view production.

Brick-and-mortar brilliance

Make customers feel involved. Oyster Creek was specifically designed with an open floor plan so customers can see into the work space at any given time, separated only by a counter. “We want them to walk into a welcome spot, not someplace that’s sterile,” Keeler explains. “It should be different than internet shopping.” 

Keep it authentic. At two-year-old MarineRennavators LLC, a two-person shop out of Belfast, Maine, Kelsey Renna and her husband, Tov, routinely invite clients into their workroom to view production and often ask them to their adjacent home to share a meal. “As long as you stay genuine and honest as to what you’re capable of and what you cannot do, you can’t go wrong,” Renna says of the couple’s philosophy. 

Design decor thoughtfully. At Oyster Creek, Keeler maintained the vintage character of his building by replacing the windows with large, multi-paneled versions and using them to showcase antique sewing machines—the machines that started his business. 

Create a warm, comfortable environment. Two decades ago, 80-year-old SugarHouse Industries designed and built a new, larger showroom with taller ceilings, high-end tile and bigger windows that let in more natural light. “We wanted something more open, with a less industrial feel, that conveys the kind of high-end image we’re going for,” says Mike Peterson, president of the Salt Lake City, Utah, company. 

Tov and Kelsey Renna use their home, which is next to their Maine-based business, to display the quality of an awning they designed.

Keep improving based on customer response. “Sometimes it’s easy to put it up one way, set it and forget it, and never improve it,” Peterson notes. “But watch customer interactions, paying attention to what kinds of questions still come up and what you still struggle to convey to customers. Have a continual improvement mind-set.” 

Staff up with knowledgeable salespeople. SugarHouse employs four full-time trained retail sales associates to answer phones, greet walk-ins and manage in-person sales. “We want to instill confidence that we know what we’re doing and can make quality covers that are going to solve customers’ problems and meet their needs,” Peterson says. “A lot of that comes from their interactions with our consultants.” 

Provide plenty of product visuals. Several years ago, SugarHouse commissioned the building of a 13-foot scale-model boat as a showroom display piece. “It shows as many products as we can fit on it, and it helps customers visualize what they’re buying,” Peterson explains. “It has upholstery, half a cockpit cover, half a tie-down storage cover, shade tops and different styles of enclosures. Before we had it, we were pointing at photos in albums or using a lot of hand gestures, like playing charades, trying to mimic what a bimini cover was and how tall it would be where the cover attached to the boat. 

“This has been a great thing for our salespeople and consultants, and our customers love it as well. Being able to set clear expectations with customers is so important.”

Renna creates her own sample books and Keeler works through the digital photo printing service Snapfish ( to create custom photo books for customers. Keeler also relies heavily on posters. “I want customers to be able to look around and see what’s possible,” he says. “People come in and say they want the thing that has the thing … and we can point to a poster and say, ‘You’re talking about a bimini top with a slant back.’”  

Kelsey Renna and her husband Tov, owners of MarineRennavators, look over a project in the showroom of their business. Photos: MarineRennavators LLC.

Be tactile. All three fabricators stress the importance of providing examples of fabrics, foams and other materials for clients to compare. “It’s really important for people to actually feel the textures, weights, strengths and densities, to really have it in their hands,” says Keeler. “Often people have ideas in their heads of what they want; then they come in and see other possibilities and change their minds.” 

“Customers want to be able to feel the quality and value in these expensive higher-end fabrics,” Peterson agrees. “And sample and swatch books help them see the colors pictures don’t always portray.” 

Take advantage of cross-selling opportunities. “A lot of customers come in for one product, and thanks to displays, buy something else,” Peterson says. “They’ll say ‘I didn’t know you offered that.’ It can happen on the website as well of course, but it’s an added benefit of having products out and displayed so they can see, touch, feel, operate and play with them.” 

Edit the options. Keeler says many customers get overwhelmed when presented with too many options in the showroom, which is why he doesn’t show them every material and color in the universe. Instead, he presents high-performance materials that will be easy to work with. “I’ve had to decide: Am I a fabric distributor or a fabricator?” he explains. “Keep it simple and direct. If you have too many options, you end up wasting everyone’s time. Generally, if you have a few lines of fabric, someone’s going to find something that works for them.” 

Renna agrees. “From past experience I know that if you give people too many choices, it takes them way too long to decide. It’s a lot like walking into a department store.” 

Consider alternative lighting. Renna says her showroom offers different lighting colors (bright white, blue and soft) so customers can see more accurately how materials will look on their own boats. 

Offer refreshments. “It’s kind of a small, silly thing, but we have a mini fridge and snack basket in our showroom that’s surprisingly helpful,” says Peterson. “I think our customers enjoy helping themselves, especially when they bring kids in.”  

Stay organized. Showrooms need to be tidy even when they double as work spaces, Renna advises. “Customers can see where everything is,” she says of MarineRennavators. “There are a lot of bins and labeling, and everything stays in its place.”

To promote cross-selling and set appropriate customer expectations, SugarHouse Industries maintains a large showroom with many different products for customers to view. The boat is a custom-built 13-foot scale model used as a display piece that helps customers visualize what they’re buying.

Online showrooms are on point

Whether it’s created to provide support for a brick-and-mortar showroom or to generate sales on its own, an energetic and thoughtfully constructed online showroom can also be vital to a marine fabricator’s success. 

Greg Keeler 

“Pictures speak so much for someone who’s shopping around. Pictures and testimonials are really valuable to have online, and it’s OK to have something simple where customers can just look at some of your work. We include links to vendors and their samples under the heading ‘Products We Love.’” 

Mike Peterson 

SugarHouse employees Ben Christensen and Courtney McBride are full-time sales associates who answer phones, greet walk-ins and manage in-person sales in the company’s showroom. Photos: SugarHouse Industries.

“We’ve always had a robust website, but we’ve been adding to it, redesigning it and streamlining it to make it easier to navigate and more mobile friendly. We have many years of photos on there; some are snapshots from employees and some are professional marketing photos that add to the high-end brand we’re trying to portray. You don’t want dark, cruddy, blurry photos to represent the quality work you’re doing. 

“For samples, we mostly just link to the manufacturers’ websites and they keep their colors updated. That reduces our workload as far as keeping everything updated and accurate.”

Kelsey Renna

“We did everything ourselves. When we started, I think we stayed up all night for about four nights going through all the photos we have, since we’ve saved every picture of every project we’ve ever been involved in. We had to take into consideration the different region we’re working in now. Advice? Less is always more; just be precise about how you describe yourself.” 

Michelle Miron is a Minnesota-based freelance writer with a 30-year background in journalism and marketing content.

SIDEBAR: Online and on-site showrooms work together

Fabricators find that online and on-site showrooms perform different functions that support each other.

  • “People find us online through search and can request an estimate. Then when they call, the online showroom is used for examples of what they want. But we encourage people to come by for two reasons: to see our operations and where their products are being made, and to sit down with the materials and actually have them in their hands. Almost all our clients do come in unless they’re far out of town.” Greg Keeler, Oyster Creek Canvas Co.
  • Clients of SugarHouse Industries are encouraged to peruse the online showroom and discuss preferences, prices and lead times by phone before making appointments to come in for final selections. “After COVID, we looked at our sales model and realized we didn’t try very hard to help customers over the phone; we just steered them in,” he says. “That’s been part of our motivation to be more helpful remotely before they actually come in. But a pretty small percentage buy online … they almost always want to be here in the shop. A lot of customers would be uncomfortable spending thousands of dollars, sight unseen.”
    Mike Peterson, SugarHouse Industries
  • “We don’t really have anyone who buys online. We start with a tour of their boat and a tour of what they’re thinking, then send drawings and samples. Then we basically invite people to see their work in progress as frequently as they want to at our house.” Kelsey Renna, MarineRennavators LLC

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