When word leaked out that a Laguna Niguel operation was stocking thousands of designer fabrics and home furnishings, some shoppers found it difficult to resist temptation. They marched into the showrooms, asked to be shown certain fabrics and grew huffy when they didn't get what they wanted.
But the Design Center South is not for retail customers. Filled with custom and designer furniture, fabrics and accessories, most of which cannot be found in retail stores, the collection of about 70 designer showrooms is created for and caters to interior decorators and architects. Even though there are no signs saying "Keep Out," retail customers are not welcome.
"The Design Center was built specifically for the design trade," said Marty Swenholt, executive director of the center, a Birtcher development on Aliso Creek Road. "All design centers are wholesale operations and are not supposed to sell to retail customers."
"To the trade only" showrooms have been a curiosity to some shoppers who would love to get their hands on unusual merchandise unavailable elsewhere. A browser last week at the Laguna Niguel center said she can't afford an interior designer, but visits the Design Center just to window shop for ideas. And although many people are aware that the center is for designers, many others are not.
Christine Crowley of Laguna Niguel said she has never bought anything at the showrooms, but has wandered through them on two occasions. "I've been thinking about buying some things here," she said. "I didn't know I wasn't supposed to."
The Design Center, which opened in 1984, has seven entrances and no central desk, Swenholt said. "Each showroom does its own policing and has its own policy on who can enter. Most require a resale number, a business card and sometimes a previous purchase order."
But Pat Stamps, a Mission Viejo designer and former president of the Orange County chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers, said she sees in the showrooms many shoppers outside the trade.
"We all know it happens because our customers tell us they have shopped here," she said. "I've seen women come in who use their husband's resale number. And he sells plants."
Elaine M. Redfield, current decorator society chapter president, agreed. "It's a simple matter for someone to get a resale number and go shop at the showrooms. And many do."
A resale certification number, which enables the state to collect sales tax, is a number issued to all sellers of "tangible personal property" and is obtained through the state Board of Equalization. A spokesman in the Santa Ana office of the Board of Equalization said someone seeking a resale number must bring in names of three personal references, his bank account number and his Social Security number before he can fill out an application. The vendor then is interviewed before his number is issued.
State law requires all professional designers to apply for a resale number because they must pay the state sales tax when they resell merchandise (from the showrooms or manufacturers to their customers). Designers are not charged sales tax on showroom merchandise because they collect sales tax money from their customers and turn it over to the state, but if a retail customer buys at the showroom, he or she is charged sales tax.
Stamps said retail customers buying at the wholesale level undermine retail operations and the state because less sales tax is collected on wholesale items than on retail items, which are priced higher. But aside from slighting the state, the wholesale-to-retail cart is toppled when non-designers slip into the showrooms.
Stamps pointed out that retail customers are not getting the sales help at showrooms that they get at retail stores, and that the difference in prices between the showrooms and retail outlets doesn't make up for the lack of service. "They're really not getting as much for their money here" at the showrooms.
"The showrooms are not set up for the kind of service the average retail customer needs," said Redfield, who has been a Fullerton interior designer for nearly 30 years. "It's set up for designers who know what they're looking for. I have to work fast. I can't be cluttered up with lots of people who want to see the same thing."
Stamps added: "It's a working situation for us. We don't need babies crying and toddlers running around. We are trying to maximize our time."
Diane Greener, manager of the F. Schumacher & Co. showroom, said her company only sells to the trade. "We are very strict," she said. "You need a valid resale number and a sales representative will find out if you have an account with us. Unescorted shoppers cannot come, but designers can call ahead and say their client is coming."
On the other hand, two showrooms called this week said "come on down" when asked if a shopper could purchase without a resale license. One showroom representative said, "You can peep around a little and maybe we could get a designer to help you if you see something you really like."
Several other showrooms, however, reiterated what Swenholt, Stamps and other designers said: Design Center South is open only to the trade; retail customers stay home.
However, consumers are in for a rare treat on May 14, when the parking lot of Design Center South will be open to the public from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for the Center's annual retail sale. Merchandise from the showroom will be on display and offered for sale to the public.
For more information call (714) 643-2929. Design Center South is at 23811 Aliso Creek Road.