Howard’s TV & Appliance
Today, Howard’s is an ESOP that employs more than 160 people who share ownership in the company. “Howard was very invested in the notion of providing for his employees,” Wilkerson says, noting that the company’s associates take its success seriously.
“They’ve all got skin in the game,” he says. “We’ve got employees that have been here two-dozen years or more who have invested their lives in the company.”
Howard’s also enjoys a high rate of repeat business. “When you’re in business for nearly 70 years, it’s not because you’re doing things wrong,” Wilkerson says. “It’s because your Dad shopped here and Grandpa shopped here.”
Veteran of Retail
Wilkerson joined Howard’s earlier this summer, after serving as the executive vice president and general manager for Karl’s Appliance in New Jersey. “I’ve been in and around retail for most of my career,” he says, adding that his first job was at a mom-and-pop used appliance store in his hometown in San Diego, Calif.
He credits Howard’s success to its founder and its staff.
“Howard Roach is a solid individual,” Wilkerson asserts. “He’s always believed in hiring good people, getting out of their hair and letting them do what they’re good at.”
Under Wilkerson’s leadership, Howard’s has plans for growth, but not in the way some might expect. When many of his peers and vendors congratulated him on his new role, “They asked, ‘Are you going to be opening stores?’” he recalls.
“I said, ‘No, not for just for the sake of opening stores,’” Wilkerson says. “The plan is to grow the company in an organic sense.” Part of that organic plan includes newly introduced sales techniques training. “It is really focused on engaging customers in ways that compel them to want to buy from us,” he says.
Howard’s also has migrated towards high-end appliance vendors. “We already have GE Monogram, Bosch Benchmark and Thermador on board,” he says. “Our initial focus is to make sure we’ve got our ground troops in place and pointed in the right direction.”
After only three months, the approach is paying off. “We’re experiencing customers coming to us from competitors and choosing to spend their dollars with us,” Wilkerson says.
Howard’s training sessions have focused on the way its associates engage with customers. “One of the things that we taught our salespeople was a greeting dialogue,” Wilkerson recalls. “They were able to learn it in five minutes, role play it for five more minutes, and go out and immediately succeed with it on the sales floor.”
The technique has been successful, as more potential clients are willing to engage with Howard’s associates. “The numbers have dropped from eight out of 10 customers saying ‘Just looking,’ to only two out of 10,” he says. “That’s just a tiny example of the basics that we’re refocusing our people on.”
Other basics include listening to customers, asking more deliberate qualifying questions and zeroing in on the exact products they need, even if the appliance is not the most expensive item. “In some cases, it means that we’re going to take them to a product and not allow them to overspend,” Wilkerson says.
Howard’s wants to provide “a fit-like-a-glove solution to their needs and desires,” he says. “We see every customer as an opportunity to really fulfill some specific needs, and at the same time, make a friend who will be an advocate for Howard’s and will truly drive the growth of our business.”
Howard’s plans to provide refresher courses to its associates, Wilkerson says. “The training is here to stay,” he says, noting that the company recently appointed a director of training. “He’s out there in each of our stores, reinforcing the training, role playing with the troops, and further coaching the managers on the best ways to perpetuate what has been taught.”
As part of its efforts to reshape the company’s culture, Howard’s also has adopted the following credo: “From this point forward – regardless of tenure or station – there will be only two types of employees here at Howard’s … those of us who serve customers, and those of us who support those who serve customers!”
In the Trenches
Howard’s strives to set itself apart through after-sales services. As part of this effort, Wilkerson himself and Vice President and General Manager Mike Sanchez spent a day with the company’s delivery teams and took hands-on role in the delivery and installation process.
At lunch, “We asked our driver teams, ‘What are customers looking for that we’re not giving them?’” Wilkerson recalls. “We were in the trenches, trying to realize what we need to give to our customers that they’re not going to find anywhere else.”
Wilkerson also has spent time on Howard’s sales floor. “I’m a ‘from the trenches’ kind of guy,” he says, noting that he enjoys interacting with the customer and makes himself available to sales associates.
During his first week at Howard’s, “I called my first leadership team meeting and I made it clear that the people on our front lines don’t work for us,” he says. “It’s entirely the other way around!”
He also maintains an open door policy. In fact, “We just take [the door] off the hinges,” he asserts, noting that he has given his personal cell phone number to the entire company. “We really want the collaborative input of everybody in the organization.”
A Logical Addition
Howard’s has recently become a Serta Inc. mattress dealer. “Serta is a great partner on this side of the business,” he asserts.
He admits, though, that some questioned the move to selling mattresses. “I’ve had a few people wrinkle their foreheads and say, ‘I get consumer electronics, but bedding?’” he recalls. “This is just one more product for the home.
“We already have the expertise in warehousing and distribution of bulk items,” Wilkerson explains. “It was a logical addition to our assortment. It brings the ability to serve the customer across a new category, as well as attract customers that would not be coming to Howard’s otherwise.”
Howard’s looks for two qualities in managers, Wilkerson says. First, “I look for what I call an ‘eight-day-a-week’ work ethic,” he says.
He does not always expect his employees to work extra hours, but if there is work that cannot be avoided, “You [need to] turn back around to your desk and get it done,” he says. “You put in that eighth day when you have to.”
He also looks for common sense, which is critical in the world of retail. “We’ve got to make plenty of decisions on the fly, and in the moment-of-the-customer,” he says.
Howard’s has such confidence in the common sense of its store managers that it recently promoted them all to the status of general managers, Wilkerson says. “They now have complete responsibility for each one of their locations,” he says, noting that they oversee sales, human relations, administrative issues and above all else, ensuring absolute customer satisfaction!
“If they’re dealing with a customer issue and they decide to give a customer a product, they’re empowered to do it,” Wilkerson adds. “They don’t have to ask permission.”
On the Eve
Next year marks Howard’s 70th anniversary. Wilkerson notes that the company’s plans for 2016 include establishing its e-commerce presence.
“We’ve already entertained numerous web development providers,” Wilkerson says. “We’re on the eve of selecting one of those to make a completely custom, new face for our company on the web.”
Howard’s might someday add more stores, but will wait “until we are confident that our infrastructure is in place,” Wilkerson says, noting that the process also involves “cloning a proven and successful format.
“We’ll also continue to grow and develop our people here so that we have the team in place that will facilitate expansion when it makes sense to do so,” he says. “We’ll continue to migrate towards the luxury category and never lose sight of delivering a superior customer experience.”