Lessons from the Great Recession

2010 will be remembered as a year of struggle, of challenges, of slow rebuilding.

On a smaller scale, I’ll also remember it as the year all my appliances died.

The first two appliances went early in the year. When I went out looking for replacements, I was all but assaulted by salespeople eager to show me products, answer my questions and go over specs and warranties. A sign of the times; customers were in short supply and service was at an all-time high.

My refrigerator and dishwasher died just before Thanksgiving. However, this time, my trip to a local home center was far less satisfying. The store was crowded, the wait for help endless and the salespeople seemed to take the crowds as a sign that it was okay to be rude to the customers.

Neither did the place seem prepared for the holiday rush; Nearly every advertised sale product was out of stock. While I found this encouraging from an industry perspective, I was less than pleased from the consumer perspective – especially when they tried to sell me lower-quality products that were not on sale, and that cost far more than the advertised deals I’d come for.

After being told that one product was out of stock “indefinitely,” I went home to find 46 of them available on the Web site (including more than a dozen in the very store that swore they didn’t have any).

I called the manager who never returned my call. I tried to buy it through the Web site, but was unable to get the free financing online. I called the store again, where I was directed to a credit department (which “didn’t handle that”) and a customer service line (which was already closed). I went back to the store, but the computers were down.

By Sunday, I’d spent three days trying to spend several thousand dollars and still had no appliances. At this point, I gave up – the home center clearly didn’t want my business.

And then it occurred to me: This company had learned nothing from the Great Recession.

Thankfully, most kitchen and bath professionals are smarter than that. Over the past few years, many have been forced to employ more creative marketing strategies, out-of-the-box sales techniques and above-and-beyond customer service to entice spending-shy customers. And while things are finally getting better, many are still taking advantage of the creative strategies and superior service that helped them survive when so many others were closing their doors.

This month, we talked with a few of these dealers and designers about tactics they employed to weather the recession, and lessons they learned as a result (see Bouncing Back).

There was the dealer who recognized a new gender trend: Men were more optimistic and more likely to spend than women. With this in mind, she created a promotion giving away a “man cave,” which not only drew male prospects, but also gave female prospects a way to encourage less-than-enthusiastic spouses to come down to see their offerings.

Then there was the dealer who decided to invest in sponsoring high-end charity and arts events at a time when most people were pulling out of such community happenings. As a result, the firm gained recognition in the community, which continues to pay dividends today.

Still others focused on doing smaller jobs – countertop replacements, hardware upgrades and the like – which broadened their potential audience and sometimes led to bigger jobs.

But now that things are finally beginning to look up, dealers and designers will face new challenges. Chief among them will be employing what they’ve learned during the tough times to continue to grow their sales, client base and word of mouth.

Sure, when people are coming through the doors again, it’s tempting to forego the serious brain wracking required to come up with creative promotions, or ignore the client who wants a simple countertop replacement.

Yet these aren’t just things you do to get people in the door when times are tough. You do these things year round, in good times and bad, to build your sales, your reputation and your brand.

While 2011 holds bright promise, many of the greatest success stories going forward will be built on the lessons learned from the Great Recession.

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