George Whalin Explains How to Be a “Retail Superstar”
May 26, 2010 - 2:08pm

Residential Lighting: In your book, “Retail Superstars,” you profile the 25 best independent retailers. How can we emulate that success?
George Whalin: The place to start is to be different from everybody else. For example, Lightology in Chicago is not like any other lighting showroom I’ve seen. They’ve got a “rooftop showroom,” a place to entertain customers and hold events. Their whole approach is unique. That’s so essential today. Competition is fierce. You have to stand out.

RL: What does it take?
GW: Gallery Furniture in Houston sells mid-priced, mid-tiered furniture. They do a lot of television, radio and special events. The owner’s a celebrity. I’ve been out to dinner with him and had people ask for his autograph. He’s involved in the community. When Children’s Hospital wanted to build a cancer ward, he invited them to do their media release and media event in his store. He got television coverage like crazy. He gives free furniture to schools that have worn-out furniture in the teacher’s lounge. His marketing is more than just an advertisement.

I used to think billboards were a stupid way to market a business, but if you go to Florida you’ll see a Ron Jon Surf Shop billboard along the highways. They’re everywhere, getting the consumer’s attention.

REI out of Seattle is in mountain climbing, backpacking, canoeing and kayaking. They sell expensive, better-quality goods. If you go in, you’ll get somebody who absolutely knows everything about the sport. They can tell you what you need in order to climb a mountain somewhere. They know a lot and they have the ability to communicate that to the customer.

RL: What other creative marketing ideas do you have?
GW: Powell’s Books in Portland, OR, has an author’s book signing just about every day. I think the lighting business has an opportunity to have lots of small seminars for consumers and businesspersons who want to change their lighting. Opportunities to educate are creative marketing opportunities. Abt Electronics in Chicago has white papers on its web-site. They cover all the questions to ask when the consumer is looking for a DVD player, or a flat-screen TV, or a high-def TV, and so on. Consumers download hundreds of [white papers] every month from their website. If somebody is going to take the time to educate us, we are more likely to buy from them. It’s like social media right now — Facebook, Twitter. It’s not about what you get from it. It’s about what you put into it. The more you put in, the more you get back. We want to do business with people who know what they’re talking about.

RL: What else can we learn from the retail superstars?
GW: Two things I found interesting about the retailers I interviewed for my book: One, not one had a business plan when they started; they had a great idea. Two, and this is the greater driving force, most paid no attention to the competition. Instead, they focused their energy, brains and creativity on what goes on in their stores and their businesses.

You can’t compare a single-store operation to The Home Depot. So, concentrate on your customers and be better every day. I know retailers who spend 20 percent of their time focused on competitors. But if you look at their store, you find signs burned out, dirty floors and other things out of place. So, pay attention to what’s going on in your business. That’s how to be a superstar.

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