A home and giftware institution like its counterparts in places like Dallas, Chicago and High Point, Atlanta’s AmericasMart has been around since 1957. Year-after-year thousands of buyers and designers have walked its expansive halls from showroom to showroom, inspecting wares that are made from around the globe. Four buildings, 24 pedestrian connector bridges, and a total SKU count that could make anyone this side of Amazon blush resides just steps from Centennial Park. As a guest of a current exhibitor, I had the opportunity to walk the floor at the recent Fall Design Week event, a small show focused primarily on interior designers looking for the latest trends in home decor. While many things have not changed from my first visit to the Mart years ago, there are signs of the digital transformation taking place outside of its venerable walls.

Frozen In Time

I couldn’t help but first notice the juxtaposition of the common areas versus individual showrooms. The latter, authentic product collections often supported with sleek brand messaging aimed at impressing an educated trade class. The former, dated, often dimly lit hallways and common spaces that more closely resemble a 90’s era suburban shopping mall than a center of high design. Unlike a consumer shopping mall of today, there were few noticeable signs of technology or digital disruption. There were no interactive displays, no endless aisle e-commerce options, and many showrooms lacked even a URL posted on its door or storefront. Much of this has to do, of course, with the fact these showrooms are catering to the merchant trade, a group who still relies heavily on tactile feel and face-to-face business relationships that have been a staple for many years. That being said, I did encounter a few instances where a wholesaler incorporated digital marketing tactics, albeit in an analog manner. The first was a confectionary company promoting the viral views of a video that had been produced, along with its accompanying exposure on BuzzFeed. Another, a flooring and rug showroom, created a visual board depicting positive reviews of their products from various online sources. In both cases I found it interesting they chose to tell a digital story using analog tools such as signage or a window display. No iPads, TV monitors, or other ways to attempt to bring the story to life in a more experiential way. With an often older buyer demographic, technology may be more of a distraction today, but how will millennial professionals view this presentation style when they become the dominant buyer and designer demographic?

A new model to emerge?

To start with the obvious, real estate is expensive. The square-foot heavy block of buildings that comprise the Mart just steps from the CNN tower, Philips Arena and the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium is undoubtedly worth millions of dollars. There’s little question that if the Mart were being built today, it would look far different than it does now. But how do you balance the need to satisfy that tactile desire to see a product while face-to-face with the seller, against the economic realities of maintaining a space that eventually has to more closely match the density of the spaces that surround it?

One possibility is the use of virtual reality, which could ultimately be used in conjunction with a network of smaller, physical locations around the country. VR may still be some distance away from the mainstream, but its proponents argue it will get their sooner rather than later. Already large companies are utilizing its technology, like Marriott, who uses it to allow guests to experience an island resort as if they were standing on the beach with the sand crunching between their toes. Imagine if you could “walk” around a virtual showroom, potentially with options that could change based on preferences or preferred product lines. Today’s designers and buyers may love to touch and feel, and that’s certainly important, but tomorrow’s professionals are likely to value a rich experience even more. To replace the tactile portion, I’m reminded of the recent things Amazon has done to transform itself into a logistics and brick and mortar powerhouse from being exclusively virtual, such as their pick-up lockers and fully-automated grocery store test in Seattle. Sure, there’s only one Amazon, and few others can afford to simply buy a premium grocery store chain like Whole Foods and instantly multiply their physical footprint overnight. But then again, it wasn’t that many years ago that Amazon was a fledgling online bookseller nipping at Barnes & Noble from below. Imagine bringing the Mart to the buyer instead of the buyer traveling to Atlanta a couple of times per year, with a national network of smaller physical spaces and just enough product samples and experiential technology to delight the buyer at a more economically feasible square footage. It could happen, and perhaps sooner than you think. The wholesaler showroom business model will be one to watch as digital transformation continues to disrupt all facets of how we buy and sell goods.

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