Market topic: better home decor

INDIANAPOLIS. —A veteran of hardware store retailing, Steve Davitt appreciates the nuts-and-bolts role of the hardware store in the community. But for real in-store drawing power, he points to an emerging area—home decor.

“Sure, we like power tools, but the most exciting part of the store is the decor part,” said Davitt, the general manager of Channel Islands Hardware in Port Hueneme, Calif. “If you want to add excitement, this is the stuff that pops.”

Davitt is part of a growing trend of hardware stores and lumberyards expanding into kitchen and bath design and installation—one part of the larger category of home decor. At the Do it Best May Market in Indianapolis, Davitt—a former manager of a Home Depot store—helped lead a discussion of the ways home channel companies can develop home decor business. Two of the key takeaways: there is tremendous business potential in the kitchen and bath business, and relationships and people are the basis of any success to be gained.

Among the ideas shared:

Know the competition. This can be achieved by shopping the competition, or asking customers about the competition.

Recruit creatively. The panelists pointed to the customer base or college art departments as possible sources of design professionals.

Recognize the importance of the female customer. “From 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., it’s a male dominated environment,” said David Knecht, outside sales for Gillman Home Center in Oxford, Ohio. “But after 9, it’s the women who are in there buying duct tape.”

In recent years, the Do it Best Home Decor program has been a growing emphasis at the co-op, according to CEO Bob Taylor. The business takes members into what Taylor called “a whole project realm of selling” that starts with either the kitchen or bath and then expands to include flooring and other related projects.

“It’s a different selling process,” Taylor told Home Channel News. “Members have to understand it and commit the expertise and the skill set in the store to really achieve their goals.”

The idea for those who do it right, he said, is not to merely build a niche, but to build a core competency. “If they do that, we think they have a great program to partner with to supply the right types of products and the right systems and merchandising to really create a great new opportunity and another profitable one.”

According to Bob Michalak, the flooring department merchandise manager for Do it Best, 61 members participate fully in the Fort Wayne, Ind.-based coop’s Home Decor program, which provides focused merchandising and product programs in flooring and kitchen and bath. Both Channel Islands Hardware and Gillman Home Center participate in the program.

The key step is to educate the community about your business and your capabilities, Knecht said. “You have to get traffic into your store, and then you have to get them to know you have a design center, plus let them know the great things you can do in the design center,” he added. “The next thing is: satisfy the customer, and they spread the word.”

A home decor initiative represents a new way of business for many companies, and requires new ways of thinking about sales staff. One example is pay structure.

While outside sales in the LBM world is a commission-driven exercise, Channel Islands’ Davitt described a salary-focused compensation as a preferred method for the home design specialists selling kitchen and bath. A lot of cabinet-shop competitors have adopted a commission model, but that comes with the perception of pressure. “Whether it’s real or perceived, perception is the reality,” Davitt said. “Our focus is on the customer’s needs, not the cost of the sale.”

Still, performance incentives are a big part of both retailers’ strategies.

But he cautioned: “It’s not for the timid.”

The same could be said for most initiatives in the highly competitive home improvement industry. CEO Taylor described the May Market as a venue for growth for its diverse members, who compete with multiple big boxes at a growing number of locations.

“That’s why we think our markets are such a key event for our members,” Taylor said. “It’s a way for them to connect, look for new products and really learn from one another those kind of best practices moving forward.”

The Do it Best May Market provided for a variety of interests.

For Robert and Tutti Gosche, owners of Morley Building Supply just outside of St. Louis, replacement for shingles in tornado-ravaged southeast Missouri and replacement for 11-year-old computer hardware were the top needs.

Because of southeast Missouri’s string of tornado damage, shingles are in intense demand. “We’re seeing 50 times the normal demand for shingles,” Robert said. “We just couldn’t keep in stock.” Gosche bought a couple truckloads of shingles at the LBM Sneak Peak.

For Bonita Doerksen, owner of the Coast Do It Best Hardware in Poulsbo, Wash., the May event satisfied a need for seasonal merchandise. While the fall show serves as a lawn and garden forum, the spring show typically turns into a Christmas in May.

The seasonal LED lighting displays caught her eye—literally. “You’re going to see a lot more of those LEDs this year,” she predicted.