At Arnold Lumber, Pete Shea's reaction to the idea of tarting up the visual presentation of his store is pretty typical among dealers: "It pisses off our customers when we change things around," he says. "You move something and it irritates them."
But even if you haven't heard customers complain, that's no reason not to take a look around and see whether your store's setup is doing the best it can at capturing customers' interest and helping boost sales.
"The only way [a store reset] pisses off customers is if the customers think you're spending money on design and raising prices," counters Craig Sinclair, CEO of Retail Revelations, which provides marketing and retail merchandising services to LBM dealers. Sinclair is intimately familiar with the industry: He spent 26 years as director of marketing at Ring's End, a Darien, Conn.-based dealer with multiple locations.
At Ring's End, says Sinclair, "we realized that retail is where it's at. A lot of dealers don't realize the consumer is the end user of all these products. Consumers are spoiled; they are used to being marketed to by places like boutiques.
"In this market, most window, door, molding and paint color choices are being made by women," he says, even if those women aren't the persons making the actual purchase. Sinclair warns: "If you are marketing only to contractors, you are in trouble."
That view has yet to take hold just one state over. "You just wing it, in terms of the design," is the philosophy at Arnold Lumber's Wakefield, R.I., location, says Shea, the store's manager and purchasing agent. "We have a couple of people who like to change things around, but this (visual merchandising) is just not on the radar.
"It all depends on your clientele," Shea adds. "When I have a customer come in, we say, 'What the hell are you doing here?' That's the way it is around here. We do not have a female clientele or salespeople."
However, he acknowledges that "one of our major problems is that our exterior does not look that great. If we had a more attractive front, we might attract more customers."
"Nothing says 'I'm going out of business' more than weeds," says Sinclair. "Declutter your place, get rid of all this crap. I basically go into these contractor yards and say, 'Let's start by putting nice clothes on your people and getting the old dead vines off your fence.'"
Capturing more of that retail custom was part of Brent Simmons' playbook at Mountain Lumber, and making his Boone, N.C., store more customer friendly was part of that strategy.
Simmons, Mountain Lumber's vice president and general manager, had long been itching to renovate his store's interior. "We knew it was needed; we had that LBM look, an unkempt boys' environment, typical vanilla paint, just ugly," he says. "I never liked it." When the economy slowed and the company consolidated its millwork division into the hardware store, Simmons jumped at the chance to reconfigure his store. The renovation was completed in fall 2011.
"We didn't feel homeowners felt welcome," Simmons says. "Our hardware aisles were very long—our store is a long rectangle. Our experience is if a customer looks down the long aisle and doesn't see what he wants immediately, then he leaves and skips 40 feet of selling space."
Mountain Lumber had 260 feet of shelving; Simmons cut 100 without reducing inventory. He managed that feat by taking advantage of his store's vaulted ceilings and going up—from six feet to eight feet—with some of his shelving. The large volume of overhead space kept things light and airy, so customers didn't feel like the taller shelves were looming over them. He also added more eight-foot shelves around the store's perimeter walls.
At the same time, Simmons slashed the run of his aisles by half, and got creative with what products went together, a process made easier with the shorter aisles. Long aisles mean multiple product categories are grouped together—which can make it difficult for customers, especially retail customers who may not be as frequent visitors to the yard as pros—to find what they need.
In a lot of yards, even when customers know where to find the fasteners or drill bits, a lack of good lighting can lead to some head scratching and muttered profanities if they can't see whether they've gotten the right size of the product they need. Simmons beefed up the lighting throughout Mountain Lumber, using a variety of different lights and intensities There is overhead lighting, using spotlights as well as lights mounted on the store's exposed roof trusses. On the shelves, he installed valance lighting, which bathes the products in a soft glow, the valance hiding the fixture from view in the way a light strip is used to similar purpose for under-cabinet lighting in a kitchen.
Simmons is particularly pleased with the lighting designed for the store's sales counter, which employs LED lights mounted in a false ceiling over the counter. They are strategically placed so they just light up the work space, making for a comfortable working area, he says.
Simmons has found proof of his design convictions in Mountain Lumber's sales figures. Cash sales for walk-in traffic in the three months post-renovation jumped 35% over walk-in cash sales in the three months prior to the renovation. "We need to take this [visual merchandising] seriously so other people take us seriously," he says.
Simmons believes one problem with many store layouts is that they were set up more for the comfort level of staffers than for shoppers.
"Our industry fails so much because we don't seek out professional help in design," he says."It's part of our duty to get the presentation right. We need to do this if we want to survive."
Defying the Experts
Most dealers either set up their stores themselves or let their distributors do the layout, tweaking the design when philosophies diverge.
Jim Higgins, who owns Do it Best Home Center in Tuscola, Ill., with his wife, Kay, says: "Do it Best did it for us. Now we had some input, but in reality, they are the experts."
However, the experts lost the battle of the long aisle in Tuscola. Higgins' store has 40-foot aisles, and when the distributor's merchandising professional suggested breaking up that run with a cross aisle. Higgins wasn't having it. "I would have lost eight feet" he says. "I didn't have the space to lose. Dealers will kill for eight feet."
Steve Frawley, president and CEO of Emery-Waterhouse, a distributor of hardlines in New England and the Mid-Atlantic, understands why dealers are reluctant to spend the bucks on store design, which many see as having little or nothing to do with the lumberyard experience and all too much to do with HGTV.
Plus, they remember how it was not all that long ago. "When business was good," says Frawley, "it was almost like the gold rush. And a lot of dealers thought they were great merchants, even when they weren't."
Emery-Waterhouse has spent a good deal of time and money figuring out just what LBM customers do want, using focus groups. "[They want] convenience, stores that are easy to get into and out of, and stores that present merchandise well, helping them make a decision," he says.
"Improving the store also has a positive impact on store morale and that makes it easier for employees to serve their customers.
"You need to create an impression that this is a retail place," Frawley says. "Sometimes you forget a contractor wants the same thing a retail customer wants. What is clear is that the sooner you engage the customer in buying, the more you'll sell."