Have you shopped your competition lately?


November/December, 2016—

A retailer turned rep offers suggestions for your store— and for getting the most out of your rep relationships.

Full disclosure: Before I was a rep, I was one of you. I planned ads, merchandised, managed managers, cycle counted, adjusted min-max levels, coached the floor, trained sales, adjusted goals, measured attachments ad-nauseam, and, when needed, loaded a few trucks. Sometimes it seemed like I was the only guy working a food truck with a line around the block. Plates were constantly spinning. I know that’s not unique, it’s what we do and to butcher a quote by Hymen Roth in The Godfather II, “it’s the business we’ve chosen.” Maybe it chose us or our parents chose it for us. Whatever the case, here we are and we’re all in it together: Big guys, mom and pops, and everyone in between. Sure it’s war out there, but we all speak the same language and have similar experiences. I think that’s cool.

I’ve been carrying a bag for seven years now and not a lot has changed. In fact, my days on the road aren’t too dissimilar from my retail days. Plates still spin and attachment rates are still measured. Each dealer has their own nuances and preferences and it’s my job to make sure product is shipping and customers are delighted. Not all of us do things the same way, but in the end, we all have the same goal.

When I sat down to write this article and thought about what I wanted retailers to consider when a rep comes in, one thing was very clear. We are partners and we need each other. Furniture is a very incestuous and entrepreneurial industry filled with intangibles. Reps must use a keen sense of osmosis if they want to even be close to being successful. There are no books to direct someone on how to be a rep. There are no courses that will certify someone to represent a manufacturer. Like the Lone Ranger, we are road warriors and it can get lonely out here. I talk to other reps. A lot of them have angst about how customer presentations or store visits with vice presidents who tag along might have gone and what it all means.

As the newest member of the International Home Furnishings Representatives Association’s (IHFRA) executive committee and having lived (and loved) the retail lifestyle most of my life, I find myself walking into stores with a soft spot in my soul. I know how hard you work in your stores. Each store is the result of insanely long days, employee drama, difficult customers, municipal interference, increased costs and yes, I’ll admit it, factory errors and defects can take a toll as well. Hey, no one’s perfect. Since we’re in this together, I want to give what I consider to be the lowest hanging fruit on how to increase your sales, improve your business and get customers to fall in love with you. This seems so obvious, but I don’t hear a lot of people doing this, so I have to believe a few of you might take me up on this. Ready? Here it is:


All of you reading this article are consumers. You know what good service looks like and you can certainly spot bad service and point it out to anyone who will listen. It surprises me how many of my customers never leave their stores to check on what the competition is doing. Store owners tell me with their shoulders back and the faint air of dismissiveness in their tone that they concentrate on their own four walls and what’s inside them. It’s then when I decide to win the battle or win the war. I’m going deep here, but full credit to Sun Tzu who said, “Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.”

Tzu has been known for centuries as the foremost expert on leadership and competition, so following his advice just may bear some fruit. If the only thing you know about your competition is what your customers and reps tell you, you’re foolish. You have to know how your competition is treating customers; those same customers who may also be your customers now or in the future. You need to know what it is about your competitor’s business that wins sales you couldn’t win.

It took me years to learn that customers will buy from the store that offers the best experience. That’s it, case closed. If your competition offers a better experience, you lose. If they have a salesperson who can close a sale and get that customer come back time and time again, you need that person on your team. If you want to know how your service compares, start by analyzing how many sales you have from referrals, not repeats. How many fresh customers came in because someone recommended them? Hold a contest to see who can get the most referrals in a year and make the prize a good one. There are other stats to check, but I have another article to write, so I’ll save the rest for that one.

Here’s my request of retailers: Tell reps what you want. You wouldn’t hire someone and have them start tomorrow and not tell them what your expectations are. We want to do a great job! We want more of your floor space! We want to be called upon to help out, problem solve and listen. The best way to offer you a great experience is to know what you want. So tell us.

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.