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Hearth Retailer Profile

Winning the Hearts of Customers

For many retailers, the personal component of personal service doesn’t go beyond the initial sale. For Spike and Mary Lynn Salisbury, husband-and-wife owners of Fireplace Lifestyles in Grand Rapids, Minn., their business is personal. Customers stop in regularly to chat over a cup of coffee, manufacturers’ representatives are close business partners and friends and they are active supporters of their community. Everything the Salisburys do is from the heart, and that’s what has made their business grow and thrive for the past eight years.

A New Venture

In 2000, the Salisburys, hearth veterans, left the corporate world to open their own small-town hearth retail store. “We wanted to do something rewarding for ourselves,” Spike says. It has paid off in more ways than one. They now own and operate two 2,500–square-foot stores in Northern Minnesota: Fireplace Lifestyles (opened in 2000) and Fireplaces of Bemidji (opened in 2004). The stores carry everything that Northern Minnesotans need to stay warm, including high-end wood and gas stoves and fireplaces.

The Salisburys are the model husband-and-wife team. Mary Lynn runs the operational side of the business, including marketing and purchasing, while Spike handles hands-on work, overseeing installations, deliveries and vehicles. “People often ask us how we can work together all day, every day; the answer is that we don’t,” Mary Lynn says. “We work independently. It’s easy to make decisions that we both agree on because we have the same business focus.” The Salisburys have expertly blended their personal and business lives to create a venture that is both rewarding and profitable.

The Human Connection

They explain that the human connection has been a major factor in the success of their business. Many of their initial customers were mutual friends or were part of Spike’s community of friends in Northern Minnesota, and their customer/friend base continues to grow daily. If people are not yet their friends when they walk through the doors, “We certainly consider that they will be by the end of the transaction,” Mary Lynn says.

She explains that customer relationships built by the business are based on trust. “Everyone who works for us is not only highly trained, but shares a passion and enthusiasm for the hearth,” she says. “We give our employees freedom to make decisions on their own so customers don’t always have to talk to the owners.” She adds that the installers and service techs are some of their best salespeople.

A customer recently commented that her house was cleaner after the store’s installer left than it was before he arrived. One of the service techs, Joel Richards, connects so well with customers that it’s not uncommon for him to be invited to stay for lunch after he’s done his annual fireplace cleaning and service.

The Salisburys also emphasize that they wouldn’t be where they are today without their strong professional partnerships. “Some of our best allies are our banker, attorney and accountant,” Mary Lynn says. “We can call on them to get advice at a moment’s notice.”

They also can’t heap enough praise on their manufacturers’ representatives. “Retailers underestimate how important their relationships are with their reps,” Spike says. Good representatives don’t just come around to collect a paycheck; they are willing to step up to the plate to help a retailer grow the business. “The best reps have a sixth sense about what your needs are, and address them before you even know that you have a need,” Spike says.

The Salisburys give special praise to one of their long-time representatives, Rodger Holland, who has become a close friend. He does everything from troubleshooting technical issues for customers to working at trade shows and helping to generate enthusiasm among staff for new products. Howland even spent a whole week helping Spike build displays in their new store. “Reps like Rodger are of great value to our business,” Mary Lynn says.

Investing in the Community

According to the Salisburys, when one owns a business (particularly in a small town), there is no better way to raise its profile than to support local events and activities. It puts your store in front of the community and shows residents that you care enough to give back to it. While the Salisburys primarily support two major charities, the Special Olympics and Fishing Has No Boundaries, Inc., they have found an easy way to give donations to a number of smaller causes as well.

“We had people coming to us every week wanting a donation and we ran out of ideas on what to give,” Mary Lynn says. To solve their dilemma, they created an area in their store that is always stocked with home-related items that are designated exclusively for donations. “When people ask for a donation, we let them choose whatever they want. It’s worked great,” Mary Lynn says.

Fireplace Lifestyles has undoubtedly settled into a comfortable niche in Northern Minnesota. Its personal service, high-quality products and dedication to the community have given residents a trusted place to go for all their hearth needs and more. “To this day, I still don’t understand why people buy things at big-box stores,” Spike says. “They must not know what they are missing.”

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