Shopping the Showrooms: The Do's and Dont's of Browsing and Buying at Design Centers

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The do's and don'ts of browsing and buying at design centers

Those magic words "I can get it for you wholesale" - do they apply to design centers? In one more word, no. The industry is changing, and design centers that turned up their noses at the public a few years ago now welcome us.

But that doesn't mean we can walk in and buy at the same wholesale prices designers do. Nor are furniture showrooms anything like retail stores. Though you can enter and browse through many showrooms, you usually can't buy directly from them (sometimes you might be lucky enough to purchase a sample product from a particular showroom, but that's usually an exception rather than the rule). Design centers have various policies, but it helps to know the basic shopping etiquette.

Don't be offended if you are not immediately acknowledged, or perhaps are downright ignored, when you enter a showroom. Showroom employees are often busy, checking on products for their clients or dealing with a designer, and questions from browsers may be dismissed brusquely. That's because "it's the designer's role to act as the salesperson," explains Dion Sanchez of the Denver Design Center. All design centers have referral services that will link you to a designer, but you will have to pay for this person's service - usually an hourly fee.

Don't expect to find price tags on everything you see. Professional designers, including those in referral or buying services, have individual systems of markups - flat fee, hourly rate, commission (or markup) on sales, or a combination - so price depends on the designer. It's imperative that you find out what your designer's fees will' be before launching into a project.

What you see is not what you get. "Everything is custom," explains Jennifer Murr of the San Francisco Design Center. "Even a lamp may come in 16 different finishes and 20 lampshade options."

With this wide range of choices comes room for mistakes. The designer's role goes beyond questions of style. "The designer is there to help you with all the decisions that will have to be made, many of which you're not even aware of," says the Pacific Design Center's Bret Parsons. He or she will make sure that the couch will fit through your front door, that the fabric won't fade in the sun, that your order is filled out correctly, and that the merchandise arrives safely at your home (usually six to eight weeks later; designers have special relationships with specific showrooms and can sometimes expedite orders). You'll end up with furniture that's unique and specially suited to your room.

That designer markup need not be feared - remember that the designer marks up the wholesale price, not the retail price, typically 15 to 35 percent. And most designers these days practice full disclosure, so don't be embarrassed to ask how they charge. They expect you to ask them, and a bonus for you is that you'll certainly get what you pay for.

Whether you decide to browse alone or work with a designer, keep in mind the following tips:

* Dress professionally, but wear comfortable shoes.

* Go once just to look around. Get a directory and study the floor plan so you don't miss anything. When you're ready to shop seriously, you'll feel more confident. …