On the surface and from a distance, the Independent retail and rent-to-own industries don’t seem to have much in common. How much could a business built around getting and selling product relate to one that essentially rents out their inventory? Do supply challenges even impact an RTO store? Do they even speak the same consumer financing lingo?
Some questions certainly wouldn’t apply to an RTO business, just as retailers don’t necessarily need to worry about refurbishing returned product for the next owner. But to say that they’re completely unrelated wouldn’t be prudent either. Finding local talent to staff up a location is a struggle for RTO, much like traditional retailers. Delivery and installation challenges persist in the rental world. And showroom design and the in-store experience are equally as important to RTO dealers.
Needless to say, RTO and traditional Independent retail business owners would do well to pay attention to, and learn from, one another.
And that’s what makes the story of Castle Rental and Pawn such a great one — and exciting one to share.
Situated in Northwest Arkansas — a region that serves as the headquarters for the likes of Walmart, Tyson and J.B. Hunt, to name a few — Castle has served dozens of surrounding communities for over 40 years. Castle’s management team brings to the table over a century’s worth of experience at the company, which they say has allowed them to build invaluable ties to the local community and establish and maintain some important traditions within their operations.
“I think the thing I’m most proud of at Castle is the culture we’ve built as a company,” says Enos Barger, owner and managing partner at Castle. “We have a value system in the way that we manage people, the communications, honesty, authenticity, integrity, and basically, valuing our people and who they are personally. It’s helped us retain employees a lot better than a lot of companies did through the pandemic.”
That approach, putting a greater emphasis on building a culture where their team genuinely cares for one another, has parlayed into broader success throughout the company. Customer reviews — another area of emphasis recently for Castle — have improved as well.
“We know we’re fighting an uphill battle when it comes to reviews,” Barger says. “But one of the things that set us up really well is the fact that we’ve garnered a fair representation of the kind of customer interaction that we have. We don’t pay for reviews. There’s no discounts for reviews. We just solicit them, and we’ve been able to drive our reputation ratings on both Google and Facebook up into the 4.7 to 4.9 range. In an industry where you’re going to get your share of unfair criticism, we’re very proud of those numbers.”
THE RENTAL PLAYER
Another area of recent success for the company has come in the form of some unique marketing opportunities. Castle participates in many of the same regular streams of marketing that you’d think of — social media, online, etc. But the company found itself in a very unique position recently to get active in an area that perhaps no other rental business (or Independent retailer, for that matter) has previously thought of: NIL.
Short for Name, Image, Likeness, NIL is a year-old program launched by the NCAA — college athletics’ governing body — that allows student athletes to go out and use their own name and brand to sign sponsorship deals. Those deals can include everything from money, to equipment to play their sport, to product from the sponsor, all in exchange for some type of sponsorship agreement from the athlete. If you pay any attention to the world of college sports, the NIL has been a hot-button topic, especially among the powerhouse programs throughout the country, and with athletes in the biggest revenue-generating sports.
The NIL isn’t limited, though, to just those big-name schools and their big-time athletes. Nor is it limited to deep-pocketed national brands, as Castle came to learn.
Through a rather fortuitous situation, and one hottake by a local sports radio host, Barger and his staff became aware of a graduate transfer on the University of Arkansas men’s baseball team, Michael Turner, who was described as a “rental player.”
“As an owner at Castle, a former catcher and a rabid Razorbacks fan, I was ashamed to have missed the connection at first, but when it hit us, we immediately reached out to the player and got the ball rolling,” Barger says. “To be fair, there had to be interest from Michael to get to do something, otherwise this all would have fallen flat right out of the gate.”
Lucky enough for Castle, Turner was all for it.
“We told him, ‘We don’t think rental is a dirty word, and we want to help turn that situation right around,’” Barger explains.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Turner hooked Castle Rental up with the university’s NIL coordinator to start working through the process of ironing out a deal, Turner agreed, and before you could say, “Castle Rental,” Michael Turner was named the company’s “Rental Player of the Year.”
I’m excited to announce my new NIL deal with Castle Rental and Pawn as their official D-1 “Rental” Baseball Player of the year! They’ve provided great value to their rental customers in NWA for over 40 years. Visit their website at https://t.co/KtGWwdglqg @castlerp pic.twitter.com/89w1G6eyoO
— Michael Turner (@MBTurner5) June 8, 2022
“We ironed out a very basic agreement. And that’s really the interesting thing, we didn’t have to get lawyers involved,” Barger says. “It’s really just a very simple one-sheet contract that lays out what’s being exchanged for what. We signed it, and we were off.”
A few tweets from Turner’s social accounts later, and the deal went viral.
“This young man who was really only known to people maybe in Ohio and Arkansas suddenly trended on Twitter for an hour-and-a-half after that tweet,” Barger says. “National sports writers picked it up. I got calls from different people around the country, in Dallas where sports talk people were talking about it during the morning drive. I’ll say this. It was an extraordinary chain of events that led to something this perfect.”
FUTURE NIL PLANS
Of course, the situation with Castle Rental and Turner will be difficult to emulate. It was one of those flash-in-a-pan type of situations. But that hasn’t stopped Barger and the Castle Rental team from looking ahead to future NIL deals.
“For not having given it a ton of strategic thought in the past, it’s been on our minds a lot lately,” Barger says. “We’re six stores, and we don’t have a huge marketing budget, just like a lot of the people reading this can probably relate to. But our plan is to work with the University of Arkansas to identify these ‘Rental Players of the Year’ in each sport every year moving forward. Our strategy is going to be to find people who embody the values, the type of character, the backstory, the blue-collar work ethic.”
Barger also plans to continue to share his story, because it’s one that he believes many other Independent business owners — whether they’re rental stores or Independent retailers — can learn from and apply.
“I hope I can help break down the apprehension and barriers and the lack of understanding around the NIL for other Independent business owners,” he says. “This was an opportunity that I was willing to just jump in with both feet, and it turned out I was pleasantly surprised. It’s so much easier than we would’ve probably first given it credit for. We’re not going to outspend our Big Box competition, but those guys also aren’t tied to the fabric of the community the way that we are.”
To that end, Barger thinks there’s a big opportunity for Independent businesses around the country to identify those same local athletes out there, the ones who put in the blood, sweat and tears to their own craft the way business owners have cut their own teeth in the industry, and support them along the way.
“What better way to get to tell their story and your story at the same time, and you’re doing something for these kids who are more than likely humble, just hardworking kids,” Barger says. “The goodwill that comes from it, you can’t lose. There’s a purity of heart. They love the game. They’ve dedicated their life to it. How can you not benefit from supporting kids like that?”