Some call it “the great pause.” But for the retail industry, the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 has sparked what many insiders are dubbing “the great acceleration.” From curbside pickup and appointment shopping to the integration of online chat and digital commerce, so much change has occurred in the retail channel. And it’s happened, seemingly, overnight.
A little while back, we sat down with Donnie Thedford, co-owner of Don’s TV & Appliance in Tyler, Texas, to talk shop on the Independent Thinking podcast. Specifically, we wanted to hear from Donnie, a second-generation independent retail store owner and operator, about COVID’s impact on his business and where he’s found success in the new normal.
IT: Give us a little background on Don’s TV & Appliance. What was your path to being involved in the family business?
Donnie Thedford: Don’s TV & Appliance was formed in November of 1979 by my father and another. About 10 years ago, right as the housing market was falling, my dad thought it was the perfect time to sell part of the business to his two sons – and he got top-dollar for it. We gave him a hard time about that. But we made it through and have grown substantially since then. Yet, we’re still a one-store operation. We’ve gone from two employees in 1979 to 48 employees today, running full service with our own delivery department.
You mentioned how you and your brother took this business on 10 years ago during another economic crisis. Now, here we are with COVID. Generally speaking, how has the pandemic impacted business for you?
Our business has actually been brisk. What we have found is that sheltering in place lends to using appliances – whether it’s laundry, refrigeration or cooking products – and using them a lot more than they’ve ever been used before. So, those things get a little more pressure. They tend to break, and they need repair. And we also service everything that we sell.
While our in-store traffic is way down, our actual delivered sales are up and our deposits are up. So, we’re proud of that. But that’s because of the things we’ve done on the backside with our website and our ability to chat-to-text and things like that. Also because of the messages we’ve put out on social media, letting customers know we are still here and who we are.
What’s the importance, in your mind, to getting that personal message out there to your customer base?
For our last couple of advertising spots, we didn’t have a script. It was just literally off the cuff, from the heart. We actually had a customer call and say, “I swear you all had tears in your eyes.” And we may have because we do care. This is our community, and the customers that choose to come in here, we actually live next door to them.
I think we had 4,000 views, 24- or 25-plus shares, and in our area, that’s pretty big for an appliance store. I wasn’t talking about the products. I was just talking about people and relationships. We put any promotions on hold.
Another way you have continued to serve is through the ramping up of your digital efforts so you could continue to interact and engage with customers. Tell us a little bit about what your digital offerings looked like pre-COVID and where they are now. What has changing so quickly been like?
I had some friends in government who let me know that shelter in place would most likely be happening within a week. So, I started scrambling trying to figure out how I could continue to communicate with customers. I immediately jumped on Podium’s website. I had already looked at them at several different PrimeTime shows and just started a chat-to-text with someone there. I did a short demo and was sold.
Tim and Greg Danko from Site on Time run my website, and they are awesome. You can trust those guys, and they react quickly. And that quick reaction has been key during this pandemic. They quickly added the script to our website, and I had tech going that afternoon. Since then, it has really blown up.
One of the concerns that typically comes up when exploring an option like chat is around how to dedicate the time and talents to service it. How do you handle that?
We keep the chat option open longer than our normal store hours, and I monitor chats. I also have my two sales managers and my top two salesmen on it. They love it because, you know what? They’re legit sales leads, and they can do it while they’re working on a quote for somebody else. They can chat from their desk.
Chat has also helped us micro-focus on meeting a customer’s needs immediately, and that’s been really great right now.
As an example, yesterday, out of the blue, we got in a dozen freezers. They’d been on order forever and then just showed up. So, we were like, “Oh, what are we going to do with these?” Well, I went back onto the chat and looked at chats that I had closed out from last week that were inquiring about freezers. I popped in there, texted those customers and sold two of them just like that from four-day-old texts.
Was chat something you were already going to pursue? Or was it this situation that drove you to want to explore?
We’ve always looked at it. But when things are going good, you question the need to spend that extra money. Honestly, when I initially talked to Podium and they told me the monthly price, I didn’t know how I could commit to that. I didn’t have any proof that it would work. But it’s since paid for itself and then some, substantially. It’s so easy, and I should’ve done it a long time ago.
Any advice that you’d give to fellow Members, especially right now?
I would just encourage them to not be afraid. We’re all scared of change sometimes. But sometimes when your hand’s forced to it, that fear goes away.
To listen to the full interview with Donnie Thedford, along with other candid conversations with Nationwide Members, industry experts and partners, visit www.NationwideGroup.org/podcast.