Open House : High-End Showrooms That Once Were Exclusive 'to the Trade' Now Let Anyone Join the Party : DESIGN CENTER SOUTH

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County's designer furnishings center, Design Center South in Laguna Niguel, is beginning to welcome the public into formerly off-limits showrooms.

While the idea that anyone should be able to walk in off the street and buy something seems a given to most shoppers, it has been a revolutionary concept in the high-end home furnishings industry.

There has been "a lot of gasping" along the way, says one Orange County showroom manager, but here and across the country, design centers are changing the way they do business.

Design centers are clusters of wholesale showrooms specializing in pricey furniture and accessories. Five grand for a sofa and pillows at $100 a pop are standard fare.

The centers have traditionally been open only "to the trade"--meaning interior designers and others who buy furnishings on behalf of their clients.

The appeal of the centers has been the exclusivity and high quality of their merchandise, typically custom ordered from the manufacturer. In return for patronizing the showrooms, designers receive discounted prices.

It is a system that worked well in boom times but one that centers--including Design Center South and the mega-Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles--have found increasingly restrictive. A third Southern California design center--in San Diego--went out of business in '93 after a short and troubled run.

Design Center South is under new ownership and management. The new owner, Laguna Designs Realty Inc., last month hired the Bay West Group from San Francisco to run the approximately 200,000-square-foot center.

The reality the centers are grappling with is that there are fewer big-time jobs and big-budget clients to keep interior designers shopping. To stay in business, many showrooms have had to expand their idea of who is a customer.

Most people in the market for high-end furnishings continue to rely on the expertise of a professional designer, but the option is now there for the non-professional to buy top-of-the-line merchandise.

Consumers have more choices. And, say the showrooms that have made the change, they have more customers.

Randy Apel, an interior designer and owner of a showroom at Design Center South that carries his name, is among those who welcome the new attitude.

Apel's showroom, like a number of others at the center, recently began opening on Saturdays and sells directly to the public. He estimates that about 20% of his business is now from walk-ins.

"There is a flow of people," Apel says. "They look and come back and often ask for design help. It's good to have people thinking two ways."

He sees two-tiered pricing systems as the way to keep professional clients happy as well as attracting the public. In his showroom, the public gets 10% to 20% off the list price and the trade gets a 40% to 50% discount.

His showroom is in the south end of the center, where the bulk of shops with open policies and Saturday hours are located. It is also where the center's equivalent of a bargain basement--the Clearance Corner--was recently moved.

The Kreiss Collection showroom--which sells furniture and accessories--was something of a pioneer in going public at the center. It opened its doors to everyone three years ago, and now the public makes up the majority of its customers.

Aga John Oriental rugs went public last summer. Everything in the showroom is marked full price, but retail customers get a 40% discount; the trade gets a greater one.

Showroom manager Lynn Burrows said that business has improved since the change and that retail now accounts for as much as 20% of sales. In general, Burrows says, she feels the economy is picking up and senses a more optimistic attitude among customers.

"People have to feel pretty good about their financial future to buy an Oriental rug," Burrows adds.

Design Center South opened 10 years ago in a very active design market. Construction was booming, and in an optimistic move, the center decided to double its original 100,000 square feet. But the boom was about to end, and, after a high of about 60 showrooms, the center now houses 43.

Whereas Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood has decided to make all of its 200-plus showrooms accessible to the public to one degree or another, the approach at Design Center South is less sweeping.

"What works in L.A. may not be what's necessary in Laguna Niguel," says Russell Hafferkamp of Bay West Group, the new management firm.

Hafferkamp is president of Showplace Square Group in San Francisco, where its 150-tenant design center is managed by Bay West. The firm also manages a design center in Seattle.

At Design Center South, sales policies will be set by the individual showrooms rather than the center management, he said.

But what those policies are will be made clearer to customers.

"We're going to ask showrooms to commit to their admittance policies, to standardize language and signs," he said.

Once management brings people to the center, it is up to each showroom how it handles what Hafferkamp calls "the moment of truth"--the decision to buy.

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While some showrooms have embraced the change, others remain loyal to the traditional approach, which is often tied to corporate policy and to the policies of the manufacturers whose lines they carry.

In particular, the showrooms that sell fabrics maintain that the expertise of a designer is needed in the transaction.

Among those firm in the decision to sell to the trade only is F. Schumacher & Co., which sells textiles, trimmings, and wall and floor coverings. What Schumacher sells "is not a finished product. And, once you buy it, you have to do something with it. You need a workroom or an installer," said showroom manager Janelle Johannesen.

Richard Pickett, showroom manager at deBenedictis/Witter, which remains open to the trade only, sees the decision to be open or closed as part of a "a real transitional time" for the design industry that extends to how designers work and bill their clients.

"We don't know what the future will be," Pickett says. "There is a wait-and-see attitude all the way up to the manufacturer's level."

Meanwhile, more and more designers are beginning to simplify their billing policies, marketing themselves as providers of professional services and less as purchasing agents, he said. That has meant a shift away from commission-based billing toward fee-based billing.

Whatever the particulars, designers provide a valuable and legitimate service that clients continue to recognize, he said.

"If you don't know how to put it together," Pickett says, "there's no savings."

Although his showroom is to the trade only, the public is welcome to browse. Few are serious shoppers, though, he said. Most are there out of curiosity and tend to be put off by the steep retail price tags. If someone is interested in buying, "we ask if they are working with a designer. If not, we can recommend someone."

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Despite the shift toward more open policies, Design Center South will remain "primarily a working trade facility," says Hafferkamp. "Off-the-floor sales are not what we're all about."

But the "unwelcome mat" is being put away.

Creating interest in quality design among consumers and making Design Center South a hub for design includes making the center more accessible on all levels.

"We are trying to position the center as a destination for anybody interested in fine home furnishings. That means the trade, the public, manufacturers," says Hafferkamp.

"Hopefully, we will be more user-friendly for everyone."

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Design Center South

What: Collection of 43 designer showrooms displaying high-end home furnishings in south Orange County.

Where: 11 Aliso Creek Road, Laguna Niguel. (On Aliso Creek Road between Alicia Parkway and La Paz Road.)

Who: Facility is open to the public, but not all showrooms are. Signs on doors will indicate if it's to the trade only.

When: Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. A number of showrooms are open on Saturdays, primarily to accommodate public shoppers. Saturday hours are 10 a.m to 4 p.m.

Purchases: Each showroom sets its own pricing and sales policies. Those that sell to the public generally do so at a discount from the manufacturer's suggested price. Look for discounts of 10% to 20%, and in some cases, as much as 40%. Professional designers who buy the same merchandise receive a greater discount.

Parking: Free, on site.

Phone: (714) 643-2929.

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