Today's furniture buyer has a multitude of resources available. There are the big-box stores, small boutiques and many online distributors. But with all of this merchandise available, you still may not find what you are looking for and may want to search at a facility that caters exclusively to members of the interior design or architectural trade.
"To-the-trade" refers to a store that sells goods to members of the professional trade. In this case we're referring to members of the architectural, interior design or building industry. In order to purchase an item at a showroom or trade mart you'll either need to be accompanied by a member of the trade (who will purchase the item on your behalf) or you will need to present a document that says you are excluded from taxation (a tax ID number).
Why? When a member of the trade purchases an item the burden of tax is passed along to the end consumer or client. An interior designer purchases an item and then sells it to their client. Without a tax ID number you cannot purchase the item at net cost. And, this situation can vary: some showrooms cannot charge sales tax and therefore cannot sell anything without the customer's tax ID number, other showrooms are set up to charge sales tax. It's important to ask questions before falling in love with a piece you cannot purchase.
If you plan on visiting a design center take note that some stores post a "trade only" sign while others might say "public welcome." Why the distinction? The signage usually indicates which stores will sell items only to members of the trade versus stores that will sell to the public. Again, it's a good idea to ask questions when entering a showroom to clarify your situation.
Some trade-only stores have additional policies such as no photography (this is to prevent the copying of designs), no pricing on tags (because the item may be offered in a multitude of finishes and therefor have varying pricing levels) and may charge for renting or borrowing samples (often samples are hand-made, expensive to produce and there may only be one copy available). These rules may seem burdensome however they are in place to ensure that the clients gets exactly what they need and protects the integrity of the showroom and the designers.
One of the biggest advantages of shopping at a trade-only shop with your interior designer is that most of the furniture and furnishings in the store are made to order. Bespoke furniture is usually offered in a wide variety of finishes, sizes and styles. When ordering a sofa, for example, a number of details need to be specified: arm style, leg style, size, cushion filling, upholstery, trim details, pillows, etc. To the experienced designer these decisions are expected and can be made quickly and efficiently. For the novice these decisions are overwhelming and confusing. It may seem an easy task to order a custom piece of furniture but depending on the manufacturer, the ordering process may be more complicated than it appears. And changes made to an order are costly and time consuming.
In summary, shopping for furniture at a design center or furniture mart can be an option for the average consumer. However, you may need to be accompanied by a professional and you may have to purchase the item from the professional, not from the store. Because of the custom nature of the showrooms be prepared before you walk in — bring measurements, swatches or other information that will make your decisions accurate. Be aware that custom furniture often has a lead time of anywhere from a few weeks to several months and with upholstered furnishings you will need to select (or have your designer select) the appropriate fabric.
It's a good idea to check with your local design center about their admission policies. Some centers will not give access to the general public unless accompanied by a trade member. Other centers leave that decision up to each individual showroom. If you do not have a designer but would like to work with one, most design centers offer a designer resource center and can be very helpful in recommending professionals.
Click here for a list of major design centers in the United States.
Image: Pacific Design Center