Building a Relationship with Your Local Design Center

Updated: May 12


I'm super excited to share a resource that has changed the game for my business! Whether you’re a newbie designer or a solo designer, this could be a GAME CHANGER for you, too!

What is it?! I'll tell you:

a solid relationship with a local design center.

When I started in interior design without any knowledge of the industry, nor having worked for somebody in the industry, I had no idea where I was supposed to source my furniture and decor.

Was I supposed to use retail stores or online resources? Would I run the furniture through my business, or would the clients pay the retailers directly? I honestly had NO idea what I was doing!

Then I started hearing words like “trade discounts” and “trade accounts”, and started to learn about having accounts with manufacturers. There was so much variation in what companies would offer designers when it came to discounts...the major online retailers would offer discounts of 10-20% off, and the bigger manufactures had even better discounts, but it looked like I'd need to have a warehouse, a delivery team, insurance, the list goes on!

It seems like so much work and so much time, but I knew I was leaving money on the table by not selling the furniture myself.

I'm happy to say, we've finally got a system that works!

Ways to Source Product

There's a lot of ways that you can source your product. When you source retail, you are essentially being an outside sales person for that retail company, except you likely wont be getting a commission on the furniture—which you should! I rarely source retail for my full-service clients. Some retail vendors will offer you trade accounts (those offers might be a 20% discount) and then you have the option to extend that to your client or take that profit for yourself.

The opposite end of the spectrum would be having your own accounts directly with furniture manufacturers. There are hundreds and thousands of furniture manufacturers out there and you can have accounts with many—if not most of them—but it becomes fairly complicated to do that. For instance, you might have accounts with 20 manufacturers that you enjoy and like their product, but when you order those products, you need a place for them to go, like a warehouse or store. These manufacturers are will not deliver a sofa or multiple sofas to your house or even to your office unless you have a loading dock because it's like going to arrive in a giant semi truck.

Typically, people who have trade accounts are using a white glove service. This service either delivers furniture to a warehouse that’s contracted outside of their business, or they rent their own warehouse and have somebody there to receive the items. It’s a LOT of moving pieces, and you can surely do it that way, especially if you are a bigger team. BUT! if you are a solo designer or have a small team like myself, there is another way and it has been a HUGE game-changer in my company.

In Grand Rapids, Michigan we have a wonderful local design center. If you are located or near a bigger city, you probably have a much bigger one than we have, or even multiple design centers!

Find a Local Design Center

My local design center is a large showroom with lots of beautiful furniture, and in the back of the shop there's a giant work room setup for interior designers. They have lists of all the different manufacturers they already have accounts with and, you can source from ALL of them!

They have all of the fabrics and finish selections for many of the furniture manufacturers they carry. One manufacturers I especially love is Lee, and they have an entire wall of Lee fabrics and a bin of all the Lee finishes, metal, and wood colors.

I do my initial sourcing online, and when I'm ready, I pop into the studio pull the fabrics and finishes I need, and I have my selections for the project!

Now, if you had your own account with Lee, you would be the one building up and maintaining the sample library of all the fabrics and finishes. What's great about a design center is they've done the legwork to build up the sample libraries, keep them up-to-date, and make sure that things are still in stock and haven't been discontinued. That in and of itself is a full-time job! You could be doing that as a designer, but if there is a company that's going to do that for you—by ALL means, utilize it!

Additionally, I have found that the discounts manufacturers will give me directly as a designer are almost identical to the prices I receive through the design center. Designers usually don’t get wholesale pricing because we aren't doing the same kind of volume as a furniture store, such as Art Van or Talsma Furniture. These furniture showrooms can do tons of volume and so get better pricing on furniture.

Similarly, your design center is going to be able to have that higher volume and get really great pricing on their furniture. Because of that, they can offer you that same designer net that the manufacturer would offer you! Here’s the real kicker—you can order all those different manufacturers through this ONE location, and they do all the receiving for you, store it for you until it's time for installation, and they'll do the delivery!

So, rather than you having to find the white glove service or the warehouse to store the items and making sure you have insurance for all of that (because the design center should have that too!) or hiring the movers and coordinate that for installation day, you are just dealing with ONE single design center to do all of that!

So - Who Sells the Furniture?

You can work with your design center a couple of different ways. The way I like to do it is have my clients purchase through me so that they are never in direct contact with my sources. That keeps my value-add very high.

My design center sells me the furniture at usually 50% off of retail pricing (designer net is 50% off), and then I split that discount 50/50 with my client. Whatever the manufacturer's suggested retail pricing is, I subtract my price from that and we split it. They get half off and I get the other half of that! This is a very transparent way of doing it, because sometimes people get a little weird about pricing in the interior design world and I like to be really transparent to keep a good relationship with my clients.

So, I have my clients purchase through me and I get it at designer net pricing from my design center, they sell it to me and I charge the sales tax to my client - so I'm responsible for submitting sales tax - and then I have it delivered to my clients!

Then, I pass the cost of delivery and installation onto my client (as you should as well - it's not a cost of doing business, that’s the client’s cost). I don't, however, mark up shipping or delivery. Some designers do, but I don't feel there's a transparent way of doing that.

Tap into Their Product Knowledge

The great thing about working with a design center, especially as a new interior designer, is that they are going to know the products that they carry inside and out so much more than you could know in a small amount of time that you've been doing it! Even if you are or have been in the industry, you have to remember that every single element of interior design is it’s own industry that you can be an expert in and spend your whole career doing so.

Flooring, furniture, lighting, fabric, wood finishes, and all of these things you could be an expert in! So, you have to learn very quickly as an interior designer that you do not need to know the answer to all these things. You need to figure out who your A-Team is and who these resources are that you are going to go to and say, “I don't know the answer to that, but my girl/guy does.”

Your interior design center can be that resource for you!

When I was first getting started with my design center, I would say, “I'm looking for a sofa around $3,000 to $4,000 in this style, in this kind of a layout, can you direct me to one or two manufacturers that I should look at or do you know of one specifically that I should at?”

I do this with rugs too, I say, “I'm looking for this style of rug, can you point me to a good vendor for that or a good line that you carry?”For instance, the other day I was looking for a designer ping pong table so I reached out and asked, “Do you know any manufacturer that has ping pong tables?” Side note, I did find one and Nuevo carries them by the way, it’s about $6,000 and it's beautiful.

So, the design center will know a lot of that so you don't necessarily need to have all the answers, you just need to know who to go to!

For West Michigan Designers

If you are a Grand Rapids interior designer and you have not yet been introduced to The Home Studio, it's on 29th Street and Marian Silverman is the owner and Becky Scholten is the one who will be talking to you via email. There are so responsive and extremely helpful!l I had so many questions when I first got started with them and they're so glad to help because you are their client! We have our clients, and we are their client, which is so different from retail, because you’re essentially a direct competitor to the sales team (if you come in and help the client and you're getting a commission, they're definitely not getting one).

Whereas, when working with a design center, you are the client and you get excellent customer service! I see them as an extension of my team that you aren't paying, but rather, they’re getting paid when you buy the furniture from them for the same price you would get it at direct cost! So, it's a GREAT way to contribute to the local economy. Win-win!

The Wrap Up

So you lovely people, I want to know if this blew your mind or did you already know this and it’s super, knowledge?? But, if you haven't used a design center, let me know how it goes and if you have questions about it please comment your questions below and I will try to answer those for you.

Again, if you haven't downloaded this free resource of my Top 9 Interior Design Business Resources, you can download it here!

See you soon!

Lauren