American Sale's diversification drives 50 years of success
Staff Staff -- Casual Living, February 9, 2011
BOB JONES Sr., is as adamant today about his fundamental business philosophy as he was a half century ago when he opened his first permanent retail location.
"Give your customers 110 percent and you will always have plenty of customers," he said.
Jones is CEO of American Sale, a home recreation superstore with seven locations in the Chicago area and 250 employees. His son, Bob Jones Jr., serves as president, while daughter, Sandra Jones, is vice president of merchandising for the family business.
Named 2010 Illinois Retailer of the Year by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, American Sale's product mix ranges from outdoor furniture, trampolines and pools to Halloween costumes and Christmas trees. That diversity is a testament to Bob Sr.'s passion for selling - something he's been honing since he was 7 years old and hawked bottles of cold soda to construction workers building homes in his neighborhood.
Since then, Jones has never been afraid of leaping into new categories.
Consider the company's latest expansion. Although it raised some eyebrows among other specialty dealers, American Sale went deep into Halloween last fall.
"We've always been in Halloween home décor, but adding costumes and masks last year was a new category for us," Jones said. "It went very well and fits nicely with our big Christmas business. We started setting up Halloween right after Labor Day, then after Halloween moved right into Christmas."
Jones credits his multiple product categories with helping American Sale weather the recession without any major cuts. Now seeing increased sales across the board, Jones is upbeat about going forward.
"Like other retailers, we reduced our inventories and watched every cost, and when you have to do something like that, you learn that your productivity can be much greater," he said. "I think every company will be more cautious going forward as far as expenses go and therefore more profitable."
Hands on service
Although American Sale scaled back on its inventory during the recession, availability and value pricing remain central to the brand. Container buys therefore are critical, facilitated by the company's 225,000-sq.-ft. warehouse.
In addition to keeping plenty of stock on hand, the company stays in close contact with its customers to help it deliver on its promise of 110% customer service. Part of this feedback comes from Jones's weekly visits to each location, when he walks the showrooms and chats with shoppers.
He takes this even further during the Christmas season when he spends time working the floor at each store.
"I go in without a tie, just wearing the American Sale shirt, and since most of the customers don't know me, they think that I'm a part timer and harmless," he said. "I ask a lot of questions and get a lot of good answers."
In addition, the company sends out a customer satisfaction survey following deliveries.
"Right now we're at about 97.7 percent of customers saying that they would recommend us to a friend," Jones said.
American Sale's dedication to 110% customer service also requires a commitment to customer education. In addition to its well-trained employees, the American Sale Web site features a Learn section with information about each product category. There are also monitors throughout the stores showing educational videos on product features and buying considerations.
For example, for the Christmas season, Jones was featured in a video explaining what to think about when buying an artificial tree.
"We've been doing these videos for about 20 years on our most important categories," Jones said. "We try to make them as convenient as possible. They also run on our Web site and Facebook page."
As in many family businesses, American Sale has implemented formal policies on an as-needed basis. For example, it hired its first human resources director in 2001, which lead to more formalized employee policies and procedures, as well as to more employee training.
Decision making is done primarily on a consensus basis with input from non-family management team members.
"We are fortunate to have a lot of smart people working here who make good decisions," Jones said.
All of Jones' immediate family have worked in the store. His wife, Dolores, used to handle the administrative end. Their oldest daughter, Mary Ellen Griffin, also worked in the office for several years until leaving to become a stay-at-home mom.
Transitioning day-to-day operations to the second generation has been relatively seamless. While there isn't a formal succession plan in place, Bob Jr. has set up some guidelines by requiring that after college his three children work at least three years for someone else.
"I think that's a great idea," said Jones, adding that in addition to teaching his grandchildren self-sufficiency it will make them better stewards of the business.
Bob Jones Sr. and son, Bob Jones Jr., lead American Sale as CEO and president.
Multiple product categories keep customers returning to American Sale’s seven home recreation superstores in the Chicago area.
Despite the recession, American Sale was able to avoid any staff cutbacks by spreading out reduced hours across its employee base. With many 20-, 30- and even 40-year employees, the company has never had a turnover problem, which Jones believes reflects the family's respect for and dedication to its workers.
"We provide medical insurance, 401k programs and a lot of extras," he said.
That respect is a two-way street spurred in part by Bob Sr.'s obvious love of what he does.
Jones is a true American entrepreneur. Within a few years of hawking sodas to construction workers, he was selling pinwheels and other small toys to families from a stand he set up on Sundays across the street from an amusement park.
After becoming a licensed barber at age 16, he worked in his dad's barber shop. But not long after he and Dolores married in 1958, Jones became frustrated by the limited money to be made cutting hair.
Saving every cent he could, he was able to open his first seasonal toy store in 1959. The following year, he established a permanent location with $1,500 of inventory and a $35 cash register. He left barbering for good in 1964.
"When I started, I just wanted to stay in business from year to year," Jones said. "I kept my barber's license for 20 years because I didn't know if the business would take."
With any doubts laid to rest years ago, and now in negotiations for an eighth American Sale location scheduled to open in March, Jones is grateful for his success.
"I'm very fortunate," he said. "I love to go into our stores and work with our customers."
Expansive display of replacement cushions provide consumers with plenty of choices.