The Truth Behind Sample Libraries


Material Sample Libraries: This Isn’t Your Father’s Buick

Sample libraries aren’t going anywhere, but the way specifiers interact and engage with the materials in them is changing. Why? Because as society and culture evolve, so too do our preferences and processes—and building material specification is no different.

There was a time when sample libraries seemed to embody our more-is-more culture, taking up prime office real estate with shelf after shelf of sample binders and Tupperware boxes. Then, the market crashed. Firms contracted and mass layoffs occurred; many were forced to downsize or partition off their existing space for subletting. As a result, libraries shrank, shelving real estate dwindled, and the dictum “not more, better” became a lived truth, exercised in the form of sample gatekeeping.

Specifiers are now culling the materials that enter their libraries, often cherry-picking three to four samples from a collection or refusing it entirely. If your sample binder/box (or parts of it) is admitted into this elite club, specification is viable; but, if your product is deemed unworthy and entrance is denied, your chances are negligible, bordering on non-existent.

This blog post explores the truth behind the so-called death of sample libraries, examining the seismic shifts affecting the way libraries and material samples are used today. Specifically, we will:

  1. Identify how library and material usage differ across generational cohorts

  2. Reiterate the continued relevance of lunch-and-learns

  3. Discuss sample kit organizational strategies for specification success

  4. Explain the importance of keeping sample libraries current and up-to-date


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Generations Divided: Generational Differences in Sample Library and Material Usage

Sample libraries are not only changing in size, when and how they are being used within the specification process is changing as well. Through conversations and interviews with specifiers, two camps emerged, divided along generational lines, with each using the sample library for different purposes and at different points during the specification journey. We found that Millennials (ages 22 to 37 at the time of writing) start their building material search online. It’s only once they identify a few products that they’re interested in that they go to the library to look for physical samples, samples that may or may not fulfill the digital promises. Those ages 38 and up, often do the exact opposite. They go to a library to find solutions for a project first; then, once they’ve identified the products that they’re interested in, they go online to find more information.

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In either case, building material and architectural product manufacturers need to make sure that the materials provided online meet the specifier where they’re at in the specification journey—whether they’re seeking inspiration or solidifying specs—or risk ostracizing a faction of their specifying audience.

Lunch-and-Learns: Earning Your Spot on the Shelf

A tried-and-true way to get your product into a firm’s library is to host a lunch-and-learn. And when it comes to lunch-and-learns, specifiers value both—the lunch and the learn. Truth be told, we’ve asked many designers what makes a good lunch-and-learn, and the first response is always about the menu. Provide options and consider a new restaurant that has been getting great reviews. Earn their trust with the anticipation of a tasty fare and your prospective buyers will be ready to listen.

Lunch-and-learns are a bit like reality competition shows (Top Chef or Project Runway, anyone?), where your products are silently but harshly judged by a discriminating group of specifiers whose value judgements and gut reactions ultimately determine whether you’re in or you’re out. They may not say it to your face, but the decision is made nonetheless. Your product lives and dies on the presentation; make sure you’re presenting it in a way that matters.

Get It Together: Organizing Your Samples for Specification Success

Organize your samples in ways that are meaningful and make sense. Smart design has right things in the right place in the right order. Use this kind of thinking when organizing your sample kits or binders to show specifiers that you understand their needs, challenges, and pain points.

Consider this: Within material categories, interior designers often want samples arranged by color and finish rather than by collection. Why? Because that’s how they search for products. The easier you make it for them to find what they need, the more likely they are to pull your sample kit and interact with your products and brand. With increased exposure comes greater brand awareness and, in turn, familiarity, increasing your chance of specification, now and in the future.

Depending on your material, you may need to supply 1”x1” multiples of your samples in addition to the larger ones provided in your sample binder or box for use in project books. Project books outline all of the materials used on a project. Typically, a minimum of three are required: one for the design firm to make sure that everything being installed is correct, one for the owner to have as a reference, and one for the general contractor to make sure that all of the trades are using the right products in the right places.

Sales Rep to Aisle 9: Keeping Your Line Current and Up-To-Date

Periodically check in on the library—a great excuse to get back in front of specifiers—and edit the samples. This seems obvious, but you wouldn’t believe the number of specifiers we’ve talked to who remember selecting a product only to find out it had been discontinued. And with the rise of Millennials in the workforce, replenishing the library is now more important than ever before. Why? Because Millennials will not call you! If they go to the library, and they can’t find the product they are looking for, they will go with the next best thing.

Make no mistake, material sample libraries are alive and well. But, with the wealth of product information available online, the nature of the sample library—and specifiers’ interactions with the materials in it—has changed. Firms are now more judicious about the materials and catalogs they store in-house, with many being relegated to digital libraries. This shift coupled with generational differences in the way Millennials and GenXers use sample libraries has important implications for the makers of architectural product and building materials. Manufacturers today must translate the specification selection process across mediums and generational lines, aligning their materials with key points along the specification journey, to meet specifiers where they’re at, in a format they prefer.

Companies must also remain mindful of the way they present and organize their samples and product lines. Appeal to specifiers with well-executed and informative lunch-and-learns framed around product benefits rather than features. Show this scrupulous audience you understand their needs and pain points by organizing your binder or sample kit in the same way they look for products (e.g., sorting corporate materials by performance or hospitality items by color). Keep library materials current and up-to-date by regularly replenishing samples.

The specification landscape may be changing, but material libraries aren’t going anywhere. Architectural product and building material manufacturers who acknowledge this and evolve with it will survive and thrive.


Susan Milne

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If you have a question that hasn’t been answered or would like find out more about how Epiphany can help you get specified, give me a call: 804.377.0106.