Last month, I drove to Richmond, VA, to check out the new Charles Luck Stone Center. And while I anticipated seeing a new, top-of-the-line stone showroom, I ended up seeing a lot more than that. Taking their cue from high-end retailers such as Gucci, Prada and Armani as well as hospitality experts such as Ritz-Carlton, the people at Charles Luck Stone Center have truly created a stone sourcing “experience.”

Rather than overwhelm customers with lavish vignettes and an ocean of color samples, the design studio (they prefer not to call it a “showroom”) has a more subtle appeal - and this is reflected in the building’s stonework. “We wanted to have judicious use of stone, rather than commoditize it,” explained Peter Frasier of Frasier Design Associates of Richmond, the architect for the project. Frasier said that rather than use a “blend” of stone, they wanted to make the facility distinctive using monolithic forms where they could “express craft” without using so much material.

Soft lighting, high ceilings and relaxing music add to the “spa-like” feel of the studio, and the layout of the space was carefully arranged so that visitors could engage with the products before interacting with the staff, allowing them to move about the facility at their own pace. “They’re not getting jumped on the second they walk in,” said Mark Fernandes, President of Charles Luck Stone Center explained. “That’s one of the concepts we picked up by looking at high-end retailers. They let customers come in and look around.”

In other words, customers are given the opportunity to look at the materials with as little or as much assistance as they like. Stone products are neatly positioned on aluminum panels that the customers can easily browse through on their own, and a series of worktables allow homeowners to interact with their own designer as well as Charles Luck Stone Center staff members. The company employs in-house designers as well as stone experts to assist in the process from a technical perspective.

Over the years, I have seen some very impressive showroom concepts in our industry, and I can honestly say that the experience of walking through the Charles Luck Stone Center was unlike any I have ever visited. Through the sights, sounds and feel of the studio, they have succeeded in creating an environment where customers are compelled to create spaces using natural stone. It is sort of like shopping along Rodeo Drive; if you don’t come home with some of those bags in hand, then it wasn’t a successful trip. (Not that I’ve ever shopped along Rodeo Drive on a journalist’s salary, but you get the idea.)

Of course, the studio is merely a vehicle for the Charles Luck Stone Center - or any company that has invested in its showroom facilities. The “driver” is - and will always be - the people who work there. All of the strategy and planning in the world will go for naught if the customer runs into a staff member who is having an off day. Now that we’re seeing some belt-tightening in our industry, the companies that remain successful will be the ones who remember to put the customer first. Stone is no longer selling itself, so we need to make sure the people doing the selling are always on the top of their game, and that they uphold the concept of stone as a premier building material.