“The experience consumers typically have at big-box retailers and when buying home improvement supplies on the Internet reinforces the comfortable, low-stress experience we offer consumers, further differentiating us as a preferable option,” said Jonas Weiner, co-owner of Best.
Weiner’s father Mel founded Best after years of working in Sears, where he saw great consumer demand for home improvement products but few direct-to-consumer retail options, especially in the plumbing industry where wholesalers and contractors dominated. So Mel opened his own direct retail plumbing supply store, one of the first in the country, in 1960.
Until the mid 1980s, Best remained an anomaly for the industry, but Weiner said the spread of Home Depot justified the model and helped define expectations for consumers. Even today, the level of service he and his team provide at Best’s showrooms is unmatched by big-box competitors, and, perhaps more important today, so is the pricing.
“We’ll match any price from a big-box retailers, but in reality, consumers understand they get what they pay for. Here, they benefit from knowledgably, attentive, friendly staff, beautiful and well-merchandised showrooms, and my family’s promise to be a true partner in their home renovation project,” Weiner said.
Just as the proliferation of big-box stores helped Best, so are the plumbing industry’s current efforts to establish a minimum advertised price (MAP) and unilateral selling policies. Weiner explained that Internet retailers have been advertising widely reduced prices, causing confusion in the marketplace and low rates of customer satisfaction with the hidden costs of freight and lack of support when items arrive broken or missing, among other challenges.
Weiner said in the last few months, manufacturers have followed the lead of other industries, especially consumer lighting and appliances, in explicitly defining to whom they will sell and guidelines for selling their products, in addition to enforcing an industry-wide MAP.
“This will provide greater security for retailers in a tough economy as well as give manufacturers greater control of their brands and their consumers’ experiences,” he explained. “But it’s also great for consumers, who now know what is a fair price and what is a scam.”
Smart investments in the future
Changes in the industry have not impacted the way Best does business, however. Weiner explained how, after almost 50 years, this retailer understands its customers and what they need. And although it has been coping with lay-offs along with the rest of the industry, its well-established processes have survived through a comprehensive training program and many salespeople with more than a decade at the company.
Weiner said in 2004 and 2005, Best brought in lots of new salespeople and refreshed its training program with a more formal class that combined the company’s experience in retail and guidelines from the Decorative Plumbing and Hardware Association.
“A key element we emphasize in this course is how, for most of our customers, the experience of buying kitchen and bath products is entirely new. They know what its like to buy a suit or a car, but few people renovate a kitchen or bathroom more than a few times in their lives,” said Weiner. “We encourage our salespeople to listen to what the customer needs, respect the fact that the customer is choosing to work with us on this project that is likely happening instead of a vacation this year, and to get excited along with them.”
He added that the most effective tools Best’s sales team has in meeting the customers’ needs are the company’s showrooms. He said they are beautiful without being intimidating and well edited, with products arranged by category. Another key component of training for Best’s sales people is learning to take the customer through the product selection process and guide them through the most relevant options, saving them hours of comparing and shifting through the thousands of products available.
Furthermore, Best revisits its merchandising strategy often to make sure it’s still relevant and useful for its sales team and customers. The last 12 months have seen the latest refreshing cycle at Best, with more than $1 million of renovations at all showrooms, including at the company’s new 137,000-square-foot headquarters in Somers, NY, which also includes 100,000 square feet of warehouse space and the corporate office.
Weiner and his team spent more than a year designing the Somers showroom, which opened last spring, and they made it the new model for the other locations. It seems like poor timing for such a major investment, but Best’s long history of conservative financial management enabled it to undertake the expense without borrowing. And Weiner said it’s been worth every penny.
“A recession is no excuse to stop providing the highest quality service and product to customers or choosing not to keep your offerings fresh,” he said. “That is who we are, and we’re proud to continue that tradition no matter what’s going on out there.”