Patio & Hearth Blog

from Patio and Hearth Products Report

Wake-Up Call for Specialty Retailers

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by Carol Daus

If you haven’t read the interview with Jim Brett, West Elm’s president, in the April 2014 issue of Fast Company, you can find it right here. The article, written by Danielle Sacks, is a wake-up call for specialty retailers who think they have a competitive edge over mass retailers when it comes to providing personalized customer service.

In the piece, Brett says that a retailer’s best customer “could be a person who has never bought a single thing. You have to throw out the classic retail metrics.” In other words, Brett believes that in today’s competitive retail environment with digitally savvy customers, any brick-and-mortar’s edge is in its relationships. This goes for West Elm’s once struggling, but now thriving, home-furnishings’ outlets throughout the country. Brett goes on to say, “I think brick and mortar is an amazing opportunity to use our stores and our store staff as a vehicle to truly engage with the community in a way no other retailers are doing.”

When Brett was hired to revive the mass retailer, his goal was to transform his stores into “community hubs,” which would maintain individual identities and distinct personalities. He directed sales staff to think of themselves as “old-fashioned merchants” who could direct customers to other stores and services in their neighborhoods that they would find interesting. For example, “employees should look for ways to enrich the interaction—directing them toward a nearby flower shop, say, or recommending a great local tapas restaurant.”

West Elm is even working with local craftspeople to fashion custom-made pieces for its customers. “We’re trying to truly scale local,” says Brett. “I want West Elm to be known as the brand that does local better than anyone else in the country.”

As I read Brett’s comments, it made me realize that specialty retailers in the casual furniture, barbecue/grill, and hearth industries are in the best position to provide a relationship-based experience for their customers—if they’re not already doing so. In addition to being product experts, they know their communities and the customers they serve.

This issue’s Showroom Showcase retailer, Fireplace and Verandah, in Orlando, Florida, has been providing personalized customer service for close to 40 years. Its repeat business is one of the reasons for its success. Simple touches like offering outdoor-space planning and contacting customers when collections are discontinued but pieces are still available, are greatly appreciated by customers.

To connect with existing and new customers, Fireplace and Verandah hosts promotional events to showcase its products and create a family atmosphere. A recent cookout with Big Green Egg turned into an all-day party. During the event, customers learned about the store’s products but also enjoyed exchanging grilling tips with different customers.

Creating a relationship-based business is not difficult. A store owner simply needs to understand his customers, extend first-class service beyond the confines of his store, and offer special events such as classes or cooking demos that strengthen customer relationships. If West Elm can create a sensory (and fun) experience for its customers, you can too.

Carol Daus is editor of Patio & Hearth Products Report.

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