Breaking away from the same old, same old

May 2017—

Your customers won’t try something new?
How do you know?

As I write this column it’s a Thursday, so I’m participating in #tbt (Throwback Thursday) and flashing back to 2010 when I was at my first market as a rep.

It was winter in Las Vegas and the wind was blowing so hard you could feel the building sway. My beeper, yeah, I said beeper, shrieked on my belt indicating I had a customer in the showroom. It was my largest account and the pressure was on. This needed to go well. I met the customer at the front desk, and after the usual diatribe of rookie questions I promised myself never to ask again (When did you get in? When are you leaving town? Did you win any money last night?) we got down to business. Pausing at our new collection, I turned to gauge his response.

The look on his face was the same look Dorothy had when the curtain peeled back to reveal the diminutive Wizard of Oz. The expression was a mix of pure astonishment followed by that 360-degree glance we used to see when Ashton Kutcher was punking celebrities on MTV.

Granted I sell some far-out stuff, but this particular dealer wasn’t smelling what we were cooking in the least. He questioned our audacity to show such a collection and ask such a price for it. He was speechless, and who could blame him. To be honest, I was equally speechless the first time I saw it; everyone was. “What is this?” he asked.

Remember 2010? Dark days indeed. Furniture stores from sea to shining sea were assaulted with various classifications of precisely the same color tone, anointed with descriptions of such sought after premium woods like Espresso, Merlot and Mocha. These deep-stained Asian hardwoods worked equally well as dining tables, occasional tables and bedrooms. Looking back, all that aggressively stained wood and earth-toned fabrics were an Orwellian sign of the times. After all, everyone had just gotten their financial kiesters frapped and those of us still crazy and solvent enough to remain in business were praying for a recovery. I digress.

Smash cut back to that cold and blowy mid-morning in Las Vegas in January; I knew what my customer was thinking. He was thinking we had either lost our minds and any grasp of reality, or we had cracked the code and my customer didn’t know which it was. He chuckled in that way you see in the movies when the little freshman challenges the starting varsity linebacker to a fight or a race or some other mode of maintaining masculinity and asked what else we had this market. No way was I leaving it at that and asked him to have a seat for a minute in the one-of-a-kind sofa near the dining room. I sat down and we chatted about his business.

We sat there for almost an hour and talked about his store and how it was merchandised. We talked about all the sales he used to make when business was better. We talked about how much money he paid in commissions back in the good old days. We were competitors back then and we laughed a little and we cried even more. We also agreed that something needed to be done about what his floor had become so he called his wife, who was shopping for baubles, to come up and to check “this” out.

This wasn’t going to be a unilateral decision. She arrived and was as stunned as he was. She said her customer wouldn’t understand this and her customer only bought $699 bedroom sets. Her customer wants a deal on everything and her customer is only looking for low prices. Although she loved it and would kill for something so glitzy and blingy in their home, her customer would never buy this. Her customer this, and her customer that. I looked at her husband who was nodding in agreement and I rolled my eyes.

“You guys, this has to end,” I said with my best and most genuine look of concern. “If you don’t do this, what are you going to do? Why are you even here?”
And so the discussion went.

What I tried to get across to these folks that were working their business extremely hard was two things. One is that it’s so easy to get wrapped up in what you’re selling that you forget this is a fashion business. That it’s important to offer variety. It’s so easy to become a cliché. If someone asks you about your store and you say, “We have the best selection at the lowest prices,” you surely must know that’s not the most original peg to hang your hat on. There needs to be something more to your business.

The other thing is that shoppers—most of them women—come to your business to be inspired. They want to gawk at something and are eager to find the next great thing. They want to tell their friends that they found it! Why is Magnolia Home the belle of the ball right now? They have style and charisma that resonates well beyond West Texas. I know lots of you do too, however lots of you don’t. It’s important to remember that Mrs. Jones, otherwise known as your customer, exists in your mind when you’re reordering what has been selling. Take a chance, be bold and offer something unique. Even if you question it.

I joke that my crystal ball broke in 1988 when I was sure that Jennifer Banks would go to the prom with me. I’m a rep so you may say it’s easy for me to pitch this since I don’t have to pay for it, allocate floor space to it and explain it to my sales team who I expect to sell it. I believe that risk is rewarded and we owe it to all of your customers out there to inspire them and make them glad she parked her car in our lot and came inside to experience our store.

If you’re still here, you’re probably wondering if they bought the group. They didn’t. The store around the corner did, however, and it is still there selling very nicely, thank you.

About the Author

Jonathan Schulman

Jonathan Schulman is a member of the IHFRA executive committee. His coverage area includes Southern California and Hawaii. He has won several awards including Sales Professional of the Year in 2013 and can be reached at jschulman@breaklinesales.com.