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Cinde W. Ingram

CFR provides health checkup for retailers

If the health of the Casual Furniture Retailers Association were judged on the corny jokes and marginal magic tricks of the keynote speech or apologies from AmericasMart officials regarding reservation snafus that started the annual forum, some would call for a coroner.

Bob Phibbs, the Retail Doctor, arrived to pump life back into about 60 people who attended his interactive sessions, starting with How to Double Sales Without Discounting. Phibbs challenged retailers in his audience to first look in the mirror to build their sales. For example, consider how lighting shows off products inside the store and remember customers don't shop where it's dark.

As far as the store's exterior appearances, make sure customers can recognize it's a business when they drive by but don't rely on a lighted open sign. Too many signs give retail stores the appearance of a war zone, Phibbs said. Instead of intimidating consumers with signs plastered with the word "no," invite the public with bright and cheery displays in clean, well-lit store environments. Clean up the front windows so window shoppers can see there are people inside. Recognize traffic patterns inside the store and remember that consumers generally veer to the right after they enter. Know the first one-third of your store is the most valuable real estate and present it well, using different levels for the eye to absorb.

"Great retail experiences mimic the best of our homes," Phibbs said. "Merchandise is your silent salesperson."

Putting new arrivals in the spotlight near the door, grouping product by color or theme and changing displays monthly were among Phibbs' tips for merchandising to grab customers' attention.

Addressing the issue of competing against mass market stores, Phibbs told specialty retailers they already have the advantage because consumers want customer service.

Phibbs advised retailers to move away from their customers' needs and toward meeting their wants, such as Ben & Jerry's ice cream has done. The premium goods sit gathering dust when clerks don't believe they can sell it because either they have no training, don't personally like it or feel jealous because they can't afford it.

To create the kind of sales staff specialty stores need, Phibbs advised starting with friendly people who can form relationships easily. Stores should have a process they train sales clerks to follow. Role-playing is a great training tool, Phibbs said. Customers should be greeted in a casual manner within 15 seconds after entering the store, Phibbs said, contradicting the average three to five minute wait before greeting. He suggested carrying a folder while crossing the customer's path, welcoming customers and asking them to feel free to get started looking around while the sales clerk will be right back. When the clerk returns, he should establish rapport and offer a short tour of the store.

The less than two-minute tour is important because it sets specialty retailers apart and because customers will come back for other items they see, Phibbs said. By complimenting something specific about the customer's clothing, jewelry, car or other and establishing a common interest, the interaction moves beyond the idea of a product pitch and closer to naturally asking the question about what brought the customer into the store.

At the end of Phibbs' first session, retailers gave specific examples of what they planned to do differently at their stores. Karen Galindo of The Greenhouse Mall in Austin and San Antonio, Texas, said, "I'm going to treat my business like the best part of my home." Rex Maynard of Maynard's Home Furnishings in Greenville and Belton, S.C., vowed to train his sales staff better. Lyle Ecoff of Porch & Patio in Connecticut said he would decrease sales clerks' greeting time.

Phibbs' Five Parts to a Sale package was headed home with retailers like Carls Patio President Gary Ecoff, who plans to put it to use in his nine Southeast Florida stores.

"I always take something home that will be valuable to my company," Ecoff said. "If you want to be the best in your organization, you have to put the effort in. It's mind-boggling that only 40 companies from across the country took the time to be here for this."

Other participants said the seminars were valuable for store owners and managers who attended.

Harold Fleischut of Casual Marketplace in Hockessin, Del., recalled the long list of activities he and his wife Petey had taken home with them after their first CFR forums, especially related to evolving technology and creating Web designs to promote dealer locations.

"This is the best return on investment a new dealer can make," Fleischut said.

A couple of retailers who were in Atlanta shopping AmericasMart for accessories and holiday products gave various reasons why they did not participate in the CFR forum. One retailer said past CFR boards were made up of larger retail store owners who were empowered to take up important industry retail issues, such as influencing premarket dates, rather than bowing to manufacturers' demands. Another retailer complained of feeling left outside the CFR "clique." One suggested CFR participation could be increased if the forum were held the day before the Casual Market or premarket in Chicago.

Joe Johnson of CitiFinancial outlined one specific program that benefits CFR members who offer financing. Retailers from Phoenix-based Paddy O' Furniture and New Orleans-based Pool & Patio Center made comments about how much easier this made financing.

During a seminar challenging retailers to consider how their stores compare to the industry's best, Brian Kaznova advised store executives to take time to decide the company's vision, mission, purpose and values. Kaznova asked them to decide how they want the company to be perceived by customers, employees, shareholders and the community.

"Leadership that is passionate and moral is leadership that works," he said. "Real executives drive sales to increase profits, not cut costs."

The sessions did tie in with the points of keynote speaker Kent Cummings, who noted things change quickly in a highly competitive economy. He urged retailers to stay focused on their goals, to take the time to learn and to accept help.

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