Mike Graybeal remembers everything—the crowds, the excitement, the buzz—like it was yesterday. Truth be told his story happened nearly a decade ago, but when customers line up outside your furniture store waiting to buy your furniture, trust us: You remember it like it was yesterday.
Graybeal and his older brother Bill were sitting around trying to think of ways to turn around a lackluster year at
HFA member The Gray Mill in Logansport, Ind., when they decided to hold a tax-free weekend sale. We’re not talking 30 percent off or even 20 percent.
We’re talking The Gray Mill eating Indiana’s 7 percent sales tax on all sales. The brothers went to work. They put together print, radio and TV ads, and they turned to their database to let longtime customers know what was coming. Mike Graybeal knew they were on to something when he showed up to work the morning of the sale’s first day.
“There were people waiting outside the store,” he says. “It was busy from the moment we unlocked the doors until we locked them that night. I mean, you would’ve thought we were giving things away free, but it was just 7 percent. People just had this mentality that they were going to get one over on the government and they wanted in.”
By the time The Gray Mill closed that day, Mike Graybeal and his staff were exhausted. The store sold thousands of dollars in furniture. To this day Gray Mill’s tax-fee sale remains the most popular sale the Graybeals can remember. Even more important, it taught the brothers a valuable lesson: There’s no better queen bee to generate buzz for your brand than you.
“That sale just reinforced what we already knew about ourselves,” says Graybeal. “There’s nothing wrong about seeking outside help with different parts of your store but in the end, nobody knows your brand like you do.”
Let’s face it: Selling furniture is a tough business to crack. For every independent retailer who throws in the towel, there’s a Target, Walmart or other big box eager to fill the void. Tim McLain, a retail marketing strategist with Netsertive, says furniture is rapidly becoming commoditized, and increasingly shoppers are putting more emphasis on price over quality—all of which makes gaining customer loyalty a full-time job.
But despite these challenges, McLain says many stores are not only surviving, they’re thriving. Indeed, many HFA members have secured such a loyal following that customers choose to buy from them despite cheaper alternatives.
“Furniture retailers should be asking themselves after every sale, every day, ‘what is it I did to make that sale?’” says McLain.
He says there are many factors at play in answering that question, but he’s found one common thread among successful furniture retailers is that all of them have successfully built strong brands over time. “And many of those retailers have built their brand themselves,” says McLain.
HFA member Sam Zavary couldn’t agree more. Thirty years ago, when Exclusive Furniture was just starting out in Houston, Zavary couldn’t afford an advertising agency to promote his store so he turned to someone he knew he could trust, someone who intimately knew his vision and what he wanted his store to provide customers. That person was Sam Zavary.
Thirty years later that single Exclusive Furniture store is now seven locations. Business is good for Zavary, who can easily afford an outside agency to promote his brand, but that’s not going to happen.
“Self-promotion is the way to go,” he says. “That doesn’t mean an agency can’t do a good job of promoting your brand, but can they do better? Nobody knows your brand better than you. And if someone else knows your brand better, you might not be doing things right.”
Zavary says he has hasn’t changed his store’s motto—“Where Low Prices Live!”—since coming up with it in 1998. Again, he wants his name associated with affordable furniture. His television ads will mention the store’s name several times in 30 seconds. What you won’t hear during that ad is any mention of a particular furniture brand.
Zavary says that steals away from the attention of Exclusive’s hard-earned brand over the years. Besides, says Zavary, he believes most consumers know little and care even less about the furniture brands his store carries. “Unless it’s Serta or Tempur-Pedic in mattresses or maybe Broyhill or La-Z-Boy in furniture, the average consumer doesn’t know anything about them,” Zavary says. “I’m not spinning my wheels or spending my money on vendors when I could be promoting my store.”
Zavary also says nothing strengthens a store’s brand than investing in the community it serves. When Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston area last year, Zavary spent the ensuing days and weeks making the rounds at area shelters offering food, blankets and towels to those forced out of their homes by the flooding. Through his store he set up a crowd-funding site to help victims, and Exclusive donated more than 750 new twin mattresses to distressed families. Even before the hurricane, Zavary had enhanced the Exclusive brand by organizing The Twelve Days of Christmas. Every year, Excusive partners with a Houston television station to find 12 families in need and help make their holidays a little brighter. Exclusive does its part by furnishing a bedroom or living room for the family.
Zavary is the first to tell you these random acts of kindness are just that—random. “There’s nothing strategic about it in terms of branding. I’m a big believer in giving back to the community that has helped me,” he says.
But Zavary also knows there’s a residual effect for his stores. “If someone’s going to buy furniture, it has to help that they know Exclusive is out in the community,” he says. “At some point a consumer is going to ask themselves, ‘Should I buy from this person who’s only in it for the money or should I buy from this company that really seems to care about my community and where I live?’”
Fellow HFA member Tom Barker agrees. Barker and his wife Mary are owners of Aladdin Home Store in Marble
Falls, Texas. In a state that brags about size, Marble Falls (pop. 6,514) is a blip on the map. About 40 miles west of Austin, the town revolves heavily around 4-H livestock shows and high school sports. Aladdin invests heavily in both.
Tom Barker routinely gets letters in the mail from students and parents thanking the store for its involvement in local events. “We do it because we love where we live, but I’m not going to lie,” says Barker. “Our brand is stronger in this community because of that. Sure, you can’t measure what brings somebody in by helping like that, but I don’t think it hurts either.”
Barker used to rely heavily on radio, TV and the local newspaper for his advertising, but has pulled back as the media landscape has become increasingly fractured. These days he’s branding his store through a strong social media platform, and he’s doing it all on his own. Barker spent $27,388 on digital marketing in 2016 and $31,800 last year. He’s on track to spend $37,000 this year.
Barker says an outside agency can’t replicate what he and his staff do in the store for their brand. They are constantly checking up on customers—whether they bought from them recently or not. When someone buys from the company, the sales person reaches out to them after six months to check in.
Barker likes to tell the story of a customer who lives in Waco, Texas, a two-hour drive from Marble Falls. The company was delivering furniture to another customer in Waco but before they did, an Aladdin sales member called another client in Waco to tell them they would be in the area and could deliver for free if they were interested in buying anything. The customer purchased $11,000 in latex mattresses.
“That was a nice sale, but more important to me it showed that we are our own best tool for branding ourselves,” Barker says. “You can’t run enough ads in the paper to show people who you are. You have to prove it. I think we do a good job of that.”
McLain says retailers need to go the extra mile like Barker and his staff, but some are missing out on just the basics.
He began noticing that retailers were missing out on a lot of ways to take control of their brand buzz, so he came up with 16 quick-and-easy strategies retailers could deploy. Some are more sophisticated than others, but most can be accomplished by the end of a work day. A sampling:
Maximize your store’s SEO
McLain says a store is missing out on Google’s powerful search engine optimization when it doesn’t include the store’s name, address, and phone number on every web page a consumer goes to while navigating a store’s website. Google picks up on these search points and they help increase your store’s visibility by boosting your store’s SEO every time someone drops by your site.
“Retailers need to remember they have two front doors,” says McLain. “There’s the one at your brick-and-mortar and the one online. Both are are equally as important as the other.”
Google My Business signup
Last year Google offered businesses a free and easy way for their store to get some prominent Google real estate. Signing up for Google My Business guarantees your store will be featured in a separate place on the search page whenever someone googles your business. Even better, it shows your store’s hours, phone number and lets you post messages about new lines or sales.
“A lot of retailers don’t even know it exists,” says McLain, who suggest you put down this magazine now and register your store before someone else does.
Post a YouTube video
There continues to be a disconnect between retailers and the growing trend toward internet videos. Consumers want them, but retailers have been slow to adapt. McLain suggests the next time your store runs a television ad, have the agency you employ put together a 30- or 60-second ad that gives an overview of what your store offers. McLain says this video is not about your latest store, but rather boosting your brand. “What are you about? What services do you offer? Here’s your chance to extend your brand in video,” says McLain.
(Want more tips from McLain? Text Click Brick to 3131.)
HFA member Ana Abrahams has been boosting her brand since opening her first furniture store nearly 30-plus years ago in a Houston flea market. “When you start like I did you do everything yourself,” says Abrahams, owner of SuperNova Furniture, one of the HFA’s Retailer of the Year nominees. “Now I wouldn’t think about (turning over) my brand to someone else. It’s too important to me.”
SuperNova is a great example of a company that demonstrates a commitment to burnishing its brand as a company that is involved in its community. The store makes a big deal about helping local families in need. Abrahams, an immigrant from South America, is always loading trucks with mattresses or furniture to help families in need south of the border. That generosity resonates in Houston, where many residents can trace their roots back to Mexico and other South American countries.
SuperNova also shows its brand values through its staff. Abrahams says one of its core values is to deliver WOW through service. “Furniture is a big purchase for many SuperNova customers,” says Abrahams. “We want to always be ready to help them and make sure they have the knowledge to make the right decision.”
That’s why Abrahams meets with her staff weekly, going over expectations and updating them on product knowledge. Like other smart retailers, Abrahams knows that if a family, single mother or newlywed couple has a good experience at her store, the sale doesn’t end there.
“Now they’re out in the community telling their friends and co-workers,” says Abrahams. “The word spreads about SuperNova.”
And the buzz grows louder.
So, while there are many agencies and service providers in the industry and in your communities that can help you create and build your buzz—you are your biggest brand advocate. You know your story better than anyone. You know why you started or took over your business. Start creating a buzz.