To The Trade: Dying Concept or Design Mainstay?

Even on a design blog, the term "to the trade" can spark a fierce debate. I admit that as a newbie, I associated it with an "old boys club" mentality that stood in the way of the democratization of design. Perhaps there is a bit of truth in that, but I've also come to appreciate its place in the industry.

Before we begin, I think it's helpful to see "to-the-trade" as most relevant in a traditional designer/client relationship: the clients desire a custom home perfectly suited to their tastes, and the designer provides it to the best of his/her ability. On that point, it's also helpful to know that the traditional designer/client relationship is still alive despite the internet chatter suggesting otherwise. A glance through any shelter magazine will show you that.

To the average DIYer or creative type, this relationship itself may seem outrageous. Who wouldn't want to save a buck and find the perfect fabric themselves for half the price? Working in the industry, I can tell you, lots of people. Many people don't want to spend the time sorting through fabric, worrying about scale, making sure it will hold up for its intended application, tracking down an upholsterer, researching terms to make sure the upholsterer knows what they want, etc. A DIYer is willing to take risks, but not everyone is, especially if there's a big ticket item involved. And furthermore, there are people who don't appreciate or have the talent to DIY. Maybe not in blogland, but they're out there.

Why to-the-trade pricing? Because custom products require more than swiping a credit card. In a perfect world, you walk into a store, glance to a far corner, and spot the perfect sofa… in the perfect patterned fabric… with the perfect finish on the legs… and nailhead trim that coordinates with your ottoman… and it's the perfect size for your octagonal living room. And that perfect fabric, it's also stain resistant. Lovely dream, right? In reality, getting the perfect custom sofa takes a bit of time. As a designer, you have to research and test products so that you feel confident recommending them to someone who is paying your for your recommendation. Then you often have to find a separate textile company to get the perfect fabric. But that fabric needs to be backed to be suitable for your type of upholstering project. So you look into fabric backing. If you're stain-guarding the fabric, you have to run the idea by the textile distributor to make sure it won't ruin the expensive fabric. Most of the time, the distributor won't recommend a stain guard because they don't want to be held responsible. So you do the research yourself.

After planning out specialty upholstery details such as welts, pleats, nailhead, pattern placement, etc., you present your plan to a reliable workroom and request an estimate. Then, you present the estimate and plan to the client. You may have to wait while a client makes a decision — meanwhile, your workroom is getting busier by the second, and you have to beg them to "hold your spot in line." The client may decide that you have to adjust the type of pleat, number of cushions, or type of cushion fill. THEN, you place the order, track the progress (this includes inspecting parts like the fabric or special custom hardware before it's sent to the workroom), deal with backorders and damages (and these happen way more frequently than you may think), and coordinate the delivery.

If a client were to pay a designer his/her hourly rate to see a custom product through to installation, the amount would be outrageous. Think about it — on the low end, metropolitan designers charge roughly $75/hour. A custom sofa with average setbacks may take about 10 hours of shopping, research, and damage control phone calls. But can you imagine, as a client, seeing that on a bill? Because it's unreasonable to charge the actual amount of hours it takes to see a custom piece through to completion, to-the-trade pricing helps to ensure that the designer gets compensated at least in part for the time it takes to ensure a product arrives as expected. It also offsets a bit of the cost that an unresolved damage places on the designer. Ultimately, the designer is responsible for the end result. Having a reliable workroom and delivery service (which, by the way, take time to build relationships with) helps to reduce the risk of loss, but if something is damaged and the cause is not clear, the designer, not the client, almost inevitably eats the cost.

The flip side is that as more retailers offer semi-custom options, this system doesn't need to be relied on quite as often. One-stop-shop retailers like the Williams-Sonoma empire, take the brunt of the responsibility. They offer their own fabrics and finishes, arrange the shipping, handle damages, etc. If they offer special trade pricing, it's usually much less of a discount than to-the-trade-only suppliers.

Why trade-only products? I'm sure there is much more on this subject than I know, but some of the best answers that I've heard come from the comments of this post last week:

• MadMateKate: "[some] manufacturers do not wish to work with the general public, instead they prefer to work only with professionals. Sometimes specifying certain aspects of a product can become very tricky very fast (a chair is not just a chair), and if you're not familiar with what you're doing, an order can go wrong very quickly and the manufacturer will not be at fault, instead you will be. If you hire a designer and a product you ordered isn't right, you go to the designer, they deal with the manufacturer and eat the cost if they have to, and you get what you wanted in the first place."

• mmaves: "When it comes time to create or purchase furnishings - "To the Trade" isn't about hoarding in my estimation, but making sure that there is another way we can ensure our value to the client. While every 2 clients I had were willing to work within my options provided (example - 3 sofas: similar design, similar fabrics, different price points and quality options); there would always be the 3rd client that had no trouble running me through the paces, having me research 20 acceptable sofa options, as many acceptable fabrics - then would put off the ordering to scour Amazon.com; Ebay, wholesale providers, etc to purchase around me and tell me the piece has been ordered. It can be very difficult to bill all of that time back to a client, and ultimately unproductive to the working relationship.

While striving to keep the customer happy and complete contract requirements on time - being able to charge a bit more for something to the trade would help offset the time/expense of all that additional research that cannot always feasibly be billed back at an hourly rate when you've hit the limits of your design fees but have a project to complete. Conversely, when you have been used for ideas but then cannot make the full amount of that time back if a client purchases from outside of your firm, at least you know they couldn't necessarily take all of the financial and intellectual value that came from your hard work and resources. "

Of course, snobbery does exist. There probably are designers who use their trade-only status to feed their ego. But I can assure you that far more use it to make sure that they can pay their bills. Design is a time intensive business — DIYers, you know that! — and to-the-trade products and pricing helps ensure, for the designer, that at least some of their time is compensated.

So, what do you think? Will we see "to-the-trade" go under to stay afloat?

(Image: Leah Moss)