Dear Design Client: You’re Fired

People do it all the time. They shop in retail stores for furnishings, lighting, etc, get lots of help and information from store employees, figure out exactly what they want, then buy the merchandise. Online. From a different company – one with no storefront that offers lower prices.  Why shouldn’t they? The prices are better, right?
What’s the big deal? If you aren’t an interior decorator or stager, you may not have the perspective I have on this. And that is why I am writing this post. I want you to understand exactly what the big deal is.

 

Here’s the scenario: Mrs. X hires Decorator Y to design and execute a plan for a room or rooms in her home. Mrs. X admits that interior decorating is not her thing and she’s been unable to do so on her own. She loves Decorator Y’s ideas and they schedule a shopping day(s) where they use the plan to pick out furnishings and decor for Mrs. X’s space. This is an almost magical day for her – not only has Decorator Y prepared and planned out where she needs to go to find exactly what is needed WITHIN THE BUDGET, but she also scheduled appointments with the specific stores’ salespeople with whom she’s built a good relationship over the years (this is key, and often undervalued). She lets them know ahead of time exactly what she is looking for Mrs. X, and the salespeople have a good idea on how to direct them both when they arrive, saving time and money for Mrs. X.

Mrs. X and Decorator Y spend the day together, carefully and painstakingly choosing each piece. It’s not as easy as it may seem – every decision is dependent on the prior decision – working from most important (and costly) to least important. If one item in that chain is altered, every decision following that altered item has to be reconsidered. In the end, they have a *perfect* plan that meets the desires and the budget of Mrs. X, and everyone is excited to see it come together. The salesperson prepares price lists, sends photos and answers questions after the visit – spending hours helping Decorator Y and her client.

But then. Decorator Y gets a message from Mrs. X. She informs her that, with the information they attained from the retailers/salespeople, Mrs. X (and Mr. X) have searched online and found the items decided on with Decorator Y and ordered them. Well, some of the items weren’t exactly the same, but similar enough to what they chose. And they got the items at a lower price. Decorator Y is dismayed. Why should she care? What difference does it make?

 

 

There are three issues here:

 

1) The damage to the local vendor.
News alert: it’s expensive to operate a retail store. The online company isn’t paying for a storefront and doesn’t have the employees or overhead costs of owning a building. Or the rent, utilities, management, employees, inventory, and a beautifully staged store for customers to peruse. A place where you can sit on the sofa, touch the fabrics, better understand the scale of a piece. Of course they mark up product – they have to make a living and pay their overhead and employees. Sure, you saved a few bucks by not paying the mark-up the store would have charged – after you used the store’s costly resources to find the items. You used their store as a way to see the merchandise outside of photos, which you never could have done online. In fact, you would have never purchased all that online if you hadn’t been able to use their storefront and gather all that info from the store experience and the help from the salespeople.  So, the $500 you saved? You actually stole it in labor hours and rent from the local retailer.

 

2) The damage to designer/decorator’s relationship with that vendor.
As a design professional, the relationships you build up with quality vendors over time are valuable. Retail stores provide extra service for the clients I bring in – extra time and attention, creating spreadsheets with pricing to make it easy for my client and myself. They don’t do that for people walking in off the street – it’s part of the relationship they have with me as a designer. These people often spend 3-5 hours working with us, helping us find exactly what we need within our budget.

 

Bringing in clients that make these kind of choices damages the trust and relationship I have with the vendor. Some vendors suck, and I don’t work with them! I work with quality vendors with quality personnel. I doubt they would want to continue to bend over backwards for me and my clients if they realized I was bringing in clients who use their storefronts to facilitate purchases online through other companies. Plus, salespeople are paid on commission – the hours they spent working for us could have been spent with other customers who actually purchase product in their store. In essence, we used their expertise and time for free. Don’t they deserve to be paid?

 

3) The damage to the design outcome.
It’s highly unlikely you are going to be able to find every item online exactly like they found in the stores. Low quality, underscaled knock-offs are all over the internet, and most of it is being made in sweatshops in China. If you are sharp enough to figure out quality, scale, value from looking at photos and researching manufacturers, more power to you. But let me tell you – I can’t even do that. I can’t possibly make anywhere near as good of choices if I had tried to do this completely online, with the actual products sight unseen. Sure, I have enough experience with mainstream online retailers like Ballard Design, Pottery Barn, West Elm, etc. to know what value to expect from their products, but you aren’t going to find deep discounts there. You have to dig deeper into the web to get those closer-to-wholesale prices, but you can’t be sure of quality, service, or good return policies. An online source can’t offer the hands-on experience that enables you to make a wise and informed decision about what you are buying. You get screwed on one piece and you have to eat the cost of that item, virtually eliminating that small percentage of money you thought you were saving overall. And are you considering shipping costs for large items? Most of the supposed discount pricing is irrelevant if you have to pay for shipping. And the final result? Not the quality, professional results you were hoping for when you hired a design professional.

 

 

 

I have experienced this scenario a couple of times over the last year, and I’ve had to “fire” a few clients over it. I understand that people want to save money, and I try to help them do that (really, I do)! I know they don’t really think they are hurting anyone, but they are. I decided it’s not in anyone’s best interests to continue working with clients like that. It frustrates me to no end, and it makes me feel like I am enabling folks to continue doing this unethical thing if I continue to work with them.

 

Look, I’m not saying you shouldn’t shop online. If you want to shop solely online and pay less, you should totally go for it. That’s fine, of course! What ISN’T fine is when you use retail stores to do the real shopping, then buy the merchandise elsewhere online. And you should probably forego hiring a design professional if you intend on going this route – just be your own decorator, if you prefer.

 

Just because you can have your cake and eat it, too, doesn’t mean you should.

 

Get my special report "Child and Pet Proof Decorating"
Free when you subscribe to my email updates!


Share this Post

70
Leave a Reply

avatar

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  Subscribe  
newest oldest
Notify of
Elizabeth Scruggs
Guest

IN ALL CAPS BECAUSE I’M SHOUTING YES, YES, YES!!!!! Such truth in this and only you could pen it so eloquently- well done my friend!

Daniel Tomlinson
Guest

Wow. What an appropriate and timely articles. When I sold rugs and fabric years ago on 3rd Avenue South at The Salvage Store I would help designers like yourself help their clients. This was way before you could buy stuff online. Those designers did take care of us, and I thank them to this day. Thank you Kristie for addressing this.

Amy White
Guest
Amy White

All I can say is HALLELUJAH! Excellent synopsis of the damage done to traditional retailers. As an independent designer I value every source, and just am going through this exact scenario. Some people are so money driven they have no sense of true value. Thank you for bringing this ugly behavior out in the open.

Paula Gaull
Guest

Well said! And provides a valuable framework (and the perfect language!) for us to have the conversation ahead of time with clients to avoid this kind of situation, or derail it if it feels like it’s headed there!

Molly Hendricks
Guest
Molly Hendricks

Kristie, wow, well said. I have fortunately had the latitude in my last couple of jobs to choose not to work with clients who just “didn’t get it”…whatever the “it” was in each case. And now with having my own business, it’s especially important to give myself the permission to trust the gut feel and walk away from (a/k/a “fire”) a client who is disrespectful/unethical in the ways you described (among others). Thank you for this very-well-written read and timely reminder!

Gina
Guest

You’re right on, Kristie!! Thank you for articulating this scenario so clearly. I had it happen once and have managed to steer clear of it a few times, too. I explain to the client that I don’t feel right taking up salespeople’s time or space in their store if the ultimate goal is to go on-line to save a few buck. NO thanks!

Sandy
Guest

Great post, and I hope people remember this goes for book stores and electronics stores too (so tempting to browse the aisles of the book store, have a cup of coffee and read their magazines, then go order your books on amazon — but that is the road to no more book stores!)

Joanne
Guest
Joanne

Excellent points, Kristie! With reference to on-line shopping being (possibly) less expensive, I had an interesting experience with a nicer “chain” store that sold furniture, rugs, accessories, etc.. I found a rug I liked in their retail store and had a question about stock and delivery. They didn’t stock the item and the salesperson told me look on their on-line store! I did, and the rug was less than the marked price in the store! In the end, I found a rug somewhere else, but this advice from within the store puzzled me. Ever heard of this?

Elizabeth
Guest
Elizabeth

I’m sorry you’ve had to experience this but it makes me think that’s it’s always been happening, from the dawn of the industrial revolution to the big box stores and now with internet shopping.

Molly
Guest
Molly

What a rotten thing for someone to do. How terribly self-centered a person must be to use others like that and have no regard for the store staff or even the decorator they hired. Then there’s the damage to local businesses who are facing all kinds of problems from online competition. Sure, you might get a nice free shipping deal if you spend enough, but that lovely little store downtown with the friendly and knowledgeable staff may have to close its doors because everyone is going online instead of buying from them. It’s sad and unfair. I think I’ll go… Read more »

Paula VanHoogen
Guest

Wow, I just had something happen after a staging that made me want to send that ” You’re fired !” letter too! We staged a sweet little “memory point” with a love seat, a handsome marble topped little table, some little appertif glasses and a tiny bottle of Frangelica. The set was facing a gorgeous view and it was a wall that was really tough to figure. The homeowner came over and took the little table to her new home, put the whole little vinyette on the nearest kitchen counter & when her husband said, ” Don’t you think you… Read more »

Paula VanHoogen
Guest

PS: I am now going to put a line in my new contract that will say something about not removing ANY of the staged items until the closing.

Paula VanHoogen
Guest

Including the items owned by the homeowner themselves…..

Saida Melendez-Swift
Guest
Saida Melendez-Swift

I’m not a designer but I was just thinking that perhaps this “help” should be paid for by the clients and the charge applied to their purchase once they make that decision. This will avoid unethical practices that they’re unwittingly making.

Sheri
Guest

Great post Kristie! Timely for me as well as I have a couple of clients who I’ll be sending this link too.

Kathi
Guest
Kathi

This was a very important message for all of us, Kristie- One of my best friend is a designer and I learned a lot of what not to do from her- she spent a lot of time helping a very wealthy “Doctors wife” pick out new furnishings and on shopping day, the wife cancelled and then 6 months later, when she stopped by, all of the new items were there- she didn’t want to pay the designer to go shopping with her , as they had planned for a whole day and my friend had set aside the whole day,… Read more »

Lisa
Guest
Lisa

Great essay. People who focus solely on “cost” don’t understand “value”. I suppose you could put some sort of language in your contract or statement of work that explains this, but those folks would probably try to wiggle their way out of that as well. Perhaps decorators need to have their own system for rating clients, just like some of the new technologies do (e.g., Uber). That way if a homeowner shops around from designer to designer and tried to pull this multiple times, they would be found out.

Teresa
Guest

Thank you for writing this Kristie! It helps all of us, stagers, designers, retailers and most of all – the client when they get the perfect design, not the kinda close but a few dollars less look!

Kay
Guest
Kay

We are living in a time when people think about what is legal instead of what is ethical. You did a great job of explaining how it is really a form of stealing to use other people’s time and expertise without compensating them. Just because doing so is not illegal doesn’t make it right.

Laurel Bern
Guest

Hi Kristie, I love this so much! It needs to be said and often! It would be one thing if all they wanted you to do was put together a design scheme for them, but that would not include wasting a store vendor’s time. In my practice, I rarely took a client shopping because I felt I could do much better going straight to the vendor as much as possible. But I also stated up front in a casual conversation and in my LOA that it’s understood that the clients are purchasing the products through my business. Of course, I… Read more »

Francie
Guest
Francie

This is a great post, Kristie! As others have noted, this advice applies to retail well beyond places designers shop. I’m very conscious of shopping locally for locally-branded stores but admit I wasn’t always as diligent for national chains. I recently was in Restoration Hardware looking at some window hardware. They have samples in the store, but you have to order the products. I wasn’t ready to make a final decision that day so thought I would order online later. The salesperson nicely said that if we want to have a local showroom to go look at merchandise, we need… Read more »

Pamela
Guest
Pamela

I am neither a blogger, designer, decorator or client. But what a wonderful post! I rarely buy online unless it’s from one of the chains you mention because I have in the past received inferior products to originals from stores. But I hardily support brick and mortar stores and by doing so I keep my community humming and thriving. The same clients that would save a buck at another’s expense will be the first to complain about empty storefronts and declining property values! Shame on you.

sandy
Guest
sandy

Wow! Blame the client! Maybe you should make clear what your fees cover, your expectations and learn how to set limits. You can Fire Me from your blog.

Lisa
Guest
Lisa

Yes! Support your local business owners! I’m a Realtor. I could write a similar post about “clients” who spend hours and hours in a realtor’s car looking at properties and then have another agent who has done NO up-front work write an offer (and get paid the commission.) It happens all the time. It’s important to educate people so they can make better choices. I don’t believe they think about the ramifications of their actions much of the time.

Susan
Member
Susan

I do think it’s unethical for a client to source things independently after you’ve worked with them. I don’t blame you a bit for firing a client for doing this (I am not a designer, just like reading your blog). However, if your vendors’ pricing is that much higher than what is found on the internet, there’s going to be a constant issue with clients wanting to shop around. I worked with one decorator in the past that just charged me by the hour, and I bought the things on my own. Now I’m working through flooring and lighting suppliers… Read more »

Judy
Guest
Judy

Hi, Kristie. I’ve followed you for a long time and love your blog dearly. I appreciate that you say several times that you truly believe most people who do this don’t “get” what they’re doing, and they really don’t understand the ramifications of their decision. So then, why be mad at them? If I unknowingly made a huge faux pas and really cheesed someone off, I would be absolutely devastated! Please educate the client ahead of time (great idea to refer them to your blog post, and then later make sure they are in agreement.) If they balk, you both… Read more »

Michelle Burke
Guest
Michelle Burke

Unfortunately, similar scenarios are impacting other industries as well. As a publisher, I appreciate it when a brick-and-mortar bookstore displays one of my books, merchandises it properly, and takes the time to recommend it to browsing customers. But when those customers then just order the book off Amazon (often while still standing in the bookstore) they are hurting bookstores, risking jobs, and contributing to a future where bookstores might no longer exist. Thank you for the reminder that expertise and service are valuable.

Laura White
Guest
Laura White

Thank you, Kristie.

Robin
Guest
Robin

Hi Kristie. You are SPOT ON. I am a store designer/decorator for a family owned furniture store (American made solid hardwood furniture) which also sells beautiful home furnishings. We set up our store and stage each room with our small product. We design our bedrooms with themes. We do large, seasonal displays. You get the point. Yes. We are more costly than a large chain or an online company but we will offer you the visual and the touch and feel experience that cannot happen when purchasing online. The store is well known and people come from miles around to… Read more »

Jil Sonia Interiors
Guest

Kristie, this is soooo very important. Thank you for having the guts to show people how much this hurts the design industry, and the clients aren’t left with a gorgeous home. The room truly isn’t finished. Clients get so close but, as you know it’s all in the details and the knock offs just aren’t the look and quality that the clients deserve.
Much love and big hugs!

Helen Houston
Guest
Helen Houston

Don’t forget the tax implications. On my sales, I collect from my clients and pay taxes. Those funds are ultimately used to make our communities better for our residents — so that even incudes those who shop online and don’t contribute by paying taxes. In reflection, it’s the local buyers and local sellers whom shoulder that responsibility. SHOP LOCAL

John
Guest
John

I own a small furniture store, and we see this type of behavior frequently. I see it as a sales process problem. We changed our sales process, to “close as we go”. If the spouse isn’t part of these decisions, they’ll often make their contribution to the project later on by saying “look, I found it cheaper on the web”. This is mainly because they don’t have a relationship with the designer. We wont do a formal presentation unless both decion makers are present and have their checkbook handy, and they understand the design presentation is the final step to… Read more »

Jenny B.
Guest
Jenny B.

Kristie, this is all food for thought, and I applaud you for speaking your mind and reminding us know how important it is to honor business relationships, making sure that our dollars go to those who have earned them. John, your comment makes me want to stay far away from your store. “We wont do a formal presentation unless both decion makers are present and have their checkbook handy [sic]…” This sounds like how things were when I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s and salesmen wouldn’t let “the wife” make a big purchase without her husband there.… Read more »

loroy
Guest
loroy

I’m sorry, but REALLY?! How can people not understand that doing this type of thing is unethical? Any responsible adult understands that TIME IS MONEY!! It all comes down to ignorance or arrogance… neither is a good excuse. Many years ago I had a small business sewing and installing custom curtains. It was back-breaking work (I still have back problems to this day). One client who had the most amazing home I’ve ever seen in person balked when she saw my estimate (trust me, I was very reasonable). She had the gall to tell me she was a sewer and… Read more »

Kim in WI
Guest
Kim in WI

Great post. I’m not a designer, I’m the consumer here but no matter where my husband and I shop, we ALWAYS ask the salesperson if they work on commission because if they do we will specifically request them when we come back. It’s rude to let them to do all the legwork and then give someone else all the credit. I just shopped for wallpaper recently and the store rep helped me peruse for HOURS through books. She actually found “the one” for my master bedroom. I did price the wallpaper online and found it cheaper but I also asked… Read more »

Lisa W
Guest
Lisa W

Kristie I read this the day you posted it, and it has been on my mind ever since. I’ve been asking myself “Is she talking about me? Do I do this?” I definitely am NOT someone who would take up an actual person’s extensive time and advisory services and then buy the same thing online. And I do believe in buying local as much as I can. But I certainly DO price shop the internet and then go look at the item in the live store if I feel the need to before buying. Sometimes I end up buying online,… Read more »

Barb
Guest

Kristie, Thank You so much for this. It is timely and true. I used to work in a higher end retail furniture and i built a nice book of business with my designers. I considering myself (still do)as their unofficial assistant. My question to you is, with so many a great Brands that are in Showrooms, please don’t forget we are here and ready to serve. I love it when a client buys fro m our showroom, their clients gets quality and products that are not sitting in every retail store across the country. All avail at several price points… Read more »

Hollie @ Stuck on Hue
Guest

There are e-designers for those who want some decor guidance but want to purchase all the items on their own. Unfortunately with e-design, the client isn’t guaranteed the quality, size, color, comfort, etc. will be as expected once the item is received. I’m a big online shopper but I’ve been burned more than once on larger home decor items (headboard, chairs) that arrived and were not the scale I expected from the online photos. Yes, dimensions are provided, but still it can be hard for most people to visualize exactly. In-person shopping is certainly best, when one has good retailers… Read more »