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Guest Editorial

Holding Steady

It seems that the only thing that isn’t being touted as green these days is the economy. It appears to be more black and blue than anything else. With the downturn in the economy, the question is: How do you stay in the black? My experience, with both boom and bust, says not to alter your normal business practices and procedures.

In boom times, the problem typically is getting in product. You have to explain to your customers that the manufacturers are hard pressed due to demand, and delivery times have been extended. Normally, they will understand.

In a sluggish economy, when things are going bust all around us, our business—given its concentration on high-efficiency, multifuel products—is actually uniquely suited to prosper because our products help reduce costs with clean, high-efficiency heat (energy) production. We have actually been having record months this year, starting in September; this follows similar record gains last year.

It is, however, imperative that retailers explain how products pay for themselves over a period of years. We use a comparative energy-cost chart that graphically illustrates to customers how this works, and we update it every year. For instance, we have a lot of all-electric homes in this area, and this creates several opportunities. Since much electricity uses fossil fuels for its production, it is almost obvious that it costs more than virtually anything else to produce. We use current kilowatt/Btu output with other energy sources to show our customers how high-efficiency products will literally pay for themselves in that environment in about three years, at current energy costs. Travis Industries has a wonderful energy chart that we use for this purpose.

Steps to Avoid the Red

First, service what you sell. In an economy like this, delivering top-notch service is imperative if you are going to stay profitable. It is the single most important reason for our existence. You have to sell the product, which means you have to work harder at explaining its features and benefits. Beyond that, you have got to be able to provide the installation and service after the sale.

That’s what we do here, and we do it well. We’re very proud of the fact that Lowe’s and Home Depot refer their customers to us when they require service or parts. We do this a couple of times for the customer, and guess what? Soon, that customer is buying all of his or her whole goods from us.

Second, get the right mix. You must focus your attention on carrying the right product mix. Our first requirement is that the product is the best quality for the money and will hold up over the long haul. We have to install and service it after the sale, so this is very important. Once it is out the door, we can’t just forget about it.

We’ve had great success with companies like Travis Industries, Heat & Glo, and Mendota. We also like companies with complete lines of wood stoves, gas logs, and so forth, so that we can offer the customer a range of quality and price. Two that fit this bill are Empire and Broil King.

We also like the companies that we buy from to have been in the business for a reasonable period of time, even though the brand name may not be one that the customer knows. It is more important that we know them and their other dealers.

Third, fire up your showroom. With the right product mix, the next step in avoiding the red is setting up your showroom so that browsers turn into buyers. At our shop, what makes specialty retailers special is that we offer turnkey installations—an advantage that we promote widely. In fact, visit our Web site, www.allseasonsgasgrills.com, and you’ll see on our cover page that we describe ourselves as a one-stop shop.

We even demonstrate this benefit in our store. We have installed and vented multifuel fireplaces in our store, so customers can see how they will look and perform in their homes. Live-fire units are absolutely critical, and the more, the merrier. We have 12 full-sized, live-burn fireplaces in approximately 5,000 square feet of showroom space.
Fourth, go green. As mentioned earlier, green is the buzzword across every industry. To me, it is just a new term for the very old concept of high efficiency—in other words, getting the most performance out of every penny spent.

Choosing green products for your product mix is not difficult. There are very few products left in our market that aren’t either environmentally friendly (highly efficient) or healthful (gas grills or smokers). Our role, then, is to explain how the product performs, which is all part of the sales process.

Fifth, get out the word. With the products in place and the store set up, the next thing that retailers must do to stay in the black is advertise, advertise, advertise. Advertising should be a scheduled expense, just like your utility bills. We use an advertising manager who believes as strongly as I do in using multiple media.

Our advertising mix includes 30 percent radio, 25 percent newspapers and journals, and 25 percent television advertising. An additional 10 percent is allocated for printed materials, and the remaining 10 percent is our reaction budget.

In addition, I host a grilling show on the local ABC affiliate every Friday morning. The show was a natural for its programming, which features local talent and activities. We simply proposed it, and the rest, as they say, is history. The show has been on now for almost as long as we’ve been around: 10 years.

Sixth, get real. Another problem for retailers occurs when they hedge on the actual cost of goods. The key word here is actual. Our competitors consistently fail to appreciate what the actual cost of goods is. It is not just what you pay the manufacturers, but also the freight and warehouse costs. They add up, so don’t overlook these costs.

Seventh, stay for the ride. Don’t panic, no matter how fast or crazy the economic roller-coaster ride is. The world is still round, even though it doesn’t always appear that way. Energy prices are through the roof, and demand for wood-burning products is sky high. Despite the negatives, keep focused on what we do that is unique. Don’t send up an SOS; instead, focus on SIS: sales, installation, and service.

Dave Backs is the owner of All Seasons Gas Grill & Fireside Shop in Bowling Green, Ky.

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