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Donnie Thedford, co-owner of Don’s TV & Appliance, talks about his foray into the world of chat. Thedford recently rejoined Nationwide Marketing Group and almost immediately began realizing the benefits of a full-blown chat strategy — at just the right time, too, as COVID-19 began forcing businesses into a state of uncertainty.


Rob Stott:
All right. We’re back on the Independent Thinking Podcast, and excited to chat today with a recently rejoined member of the Nationwide family, Don’s TV, down there in Tyler, Texas, and we have co-owner, Donnie Thedford. I appreciate you joining, taking some time out of your busy schedule down there. I know it’s a little crazy right now, but appreciate you coming in and working through some technical glitches today to get on the podcast.

Donnie T: As they say, the new norm, but I think we’ve got it worked out, and I would say we’re glad to be back.

Rob Stott: See? This is our new norm, right?

Donnie T: Yep. That’s a page, and unfortunately, where I’m at, I can’t turn that one off. But we’re glad to be back, a part of Nationwide, for sure.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. Donnie, I know we’ve got a ton of cool stuff to talk about today, but first of all, I just want to ask, given the current state of things, how are you doing personally? How are you taking all this new norm, as you put it?

Donnie T: Rob, we’ve been very fortunate, Don’s. I mean, our particular area, our government has kind of allowed each county to decide their own fate, and we are in a shelter in place and have been for over three weeks now, but we were deemed essential, and so we’ve been open. Our business has actually been brisk. What we have found is sheltering in place lends to using appliances, whether it’s laundry, refrigeration, or cooking products, 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, which we also service everything that we sell. So, our repair business and our sales are up right now.

Rob Stott: Wow. That’s great. You think about that seven-to-10-year thing. It usually, I guess, ranges, or you’re used to just cooking dinner. Now it’s breakfast, lunch and dinner in some cases. That’s something you don’t think about, but obviously, it is the case right now.

Donnie T: Well, I know that. I mean, that’s the comments we hear. I sold a dishwasher, actually,  on chat to text this morning, and the lady was complaining that she was washing all these dishes.

Rob Stott: Yeah. Yep. I mean, I can’t even… I’m sick of dishes, so I’m ready to switch to paper plates, just plates and dishes, and maybe some plastic utensils at this point. I know I can’t be the only one feeling that way.

Donnie T: Well, I have teenage children, so I’m teaching them some good hard lessons on how to handle the dishes and get them in the dishwasher every night, because it’s running every day now, whereas typically, maybe every couple of days for us. I think that’s the norm across the country.

Rob Stott: It’s crazy, but no, it’s certainly true, and it obviously presents some opportunity for appliance retailers out there. But for those out there who might not know Don’s TV, give us a little background on the business and kind of your path to being involved in the business.

Donnie T: Well, it was formed in November of 1979 by my father and one other person, and so we’ve grown substantially since that. We’re still a one-store operation. We joined Nationwide approximately 20, 25 years ago, remember us for many years before this brief three-year hiatus, we… Like I said, just glad to be back in Nationwide Marketing Group. So, about 10 years ago, right when the housing started falling, Don thought it was a perfect time to sell part of the business to his two sons, so he got top-dollar for… His business was going down. We gave him a hard time about that, but we made it through that, and we went from two employees in 1979 to 48 employees today, running full service. We run our own delivery department, and of course sales as well.

Rob Stott: Now, what’s Tyler, Texas like? So, I’m from Philadelphia.

Donnie T: Sure.

Rob Stott: No hard feelings. I don’t know if you’re in cowboys’ country, necessarily, but-

Donnie T: Well, sure.

Rob Stott: So, what’s business like in Tyler, Texas?

Donnie T: So, Tyler, Texas is kind of in the center on an interstate between Dallas and Shreveport, Louisiana. We’re 80 miles between those two cities, but Tyler is a mid-to-upper-level income community. We have two major hospitals. For anywhere in this area, this is where everyone comes. We also have a four-year University of Texas at Tyler here with a little over 12,000 students enrolled, and then we also have one of the largest junior colleges in the United States, Tyler Junior College, with a little over 10,000 enrolled. So, it’s a pretty diverse town. So, my family was born and raised here. All of us attended public schools here. My children attend public schools, my brother’s. So, I think what’s helped us be successful, we care about the community, and that’s really the message that we’ve been putting out. We have all of our careers, but even more so, the last 45 days or so when this pandemic started.

Rob Stott: Yeah. It’s been crazy. You think about just how these last few weeks have gone. But before diving even deeper into that, obviously a family-owned business. Was retail always in the cards for you?

Donnie T: I laughingly say I’ve been working here since I was six or seven, but in truthfulness, when I was in high school, every summer I worked in delivery, but that was when it was me and one other person. We pulled the product. We prepped the product. We threw it in the back of a pickup truck, and we delivered it. Well, now we run six bobtail trucks. We have a 15,000-square-foot warehouse with a loading dock and have 12 guys that that’s all they do.

I give them a hard time, and I’m like, “Hey, I had to prep it, load it, and deliver it. All y’all do is take it off the dock and deliver it, but somebody else preps it for you.” But that’s just how business has changed and how our community has grown. We’ve grown alongside that. So, I learned at an early age I loved doing what I was doing, and so when I was going to junior college here locally, I began to work full-time. I took early morning classes so I could get here, and definitely sales is what I knew, whether it be appliances or televisions. I knew I was going to be in the sales industry.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. That’s awesome. You kind of mentioned how you and your brother took this on 10 years ago, at the time when another sort of economic crisis was happening, and now, 10 years later, here we are with COVID. There’s a lot of changes we can get into that I know we will, but just sort of generally speaking, how has business been impacted by this for you guys?

Donnie T: Well, no doubt that our store traffic, the visits in-store are way down, but like I say, our actual delivered sales are up, and our deposits are up. So, we’re proud of that. But that’s because a lot of the things we’ve done on the backside with our website and our ability to chat to text and things like that, and the messages we were putting out on social media, we are here, they know who we are. We say I’m in the community. We’re the people you can trust in our community, so we have been really emphasizing that we don’t feel there’s a safer place in Tyler, Texas to buy your appliances, because we didn’t talk, Rob, but I have a Lowe’s a half a mile from me, a Home Depot a mile-and-a-half from me.

I have a Walmart Supercenter directly across the street from me. We have a Sam’s Club, which is equivalent to Costco in most people’s areas, and so we have all the same competition that everyone else has, but they know us, and they know that we care about them, and they’re not just another number. So, that’s really what we’ve been emphasizing, is that we’re cleaning rigidly every day in every department. We implemented over three weeks ago for our delivery department and our service guys to wear masks and gloves when they enter a home, and we’ve been asking the CDC-recommended questions. Fortunately, we’ve had some truthful answers, and I had to schedule some of those things. I had one yesterday.

Rob Stott: Yeah, it’s crazy, crazy that you’ve kind of got to do these pre screenings now and things like that, but I can constantly keep saying that this new normal is kind of what we’re operating under. I know you guys have done a lot on the digital side. I look at the… I think you shared a couple commercials that you mentioned with me. So, talk about the importance of… In some parts of the country, you’re seeing that marketing spend sort of come down as people don’t want to talk about their business, things like that. They want to kind of direct those dollars elsewhere. What’s the importance in your mind to get that message out there into your consumer base?

Donnie T: I will tell you, we did pull back on our advertising budget. We immediately, the day that the pandemic really started taking a foothold in my area… We work with a local agency on a local level for our television, radio, and print, and have worked with them for many years, and so they stopped by and said, “Hey, I’ve already cut everything to 50%. I’ve let everybody know for all my clients,” and we said, “Take it to 25,” because we just didn’t know if they were going to shut us down like other places. You don’t want to just send money to the fire. So, we’re still at about a 25% spend on television and print and radio, but what we have found, because we’ve partnered with those guys over the years, is many of them are earning us way more than that 25%, because you know what? They’re hurting too.

A restaurant’s not advertising. They have plenty of airwaves. So, a little bit is going a little longer than it has in the past, so we appreciate our local television affiliate sponsorship of that, but socially, we feel the same way. We’re not running our fun come get a free ice cream cone when you buy a refrigerator promotion. It just doesn’t feel right. So, the last couple spots we did, we didn’t have a script. I mean, 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.” I went, “We may have,” because we do care. Our community and the people, our customers that choose to come in here-

Rob Stott: Yeah, it’s crazy. You hit it perfectly, is that when you don’t have that script in front of you, it does come from the heart, and it sounds more meaningful, and it’s clear just watching those commercials that you guys… It’s personable. It feels like you’re talking directly to… This is coming off cheesy, and I don’t mean it to, but it sounds like you’re talking to your customer, and delivering that message to them, and feeling the same impact that they are. So, it feels real, really, when you boil it down.

Donnie T: Well, and in reality, we are, because we live nextdoor to them, and as I’ve told my own family, we’re exposed. I’m really struggling right now finding masks and gloves. They’re hard to get, and I want to call these people and go, “I know these are reserved for essential really medical personnel right now. It’s hard to get, but we are essential.” We’re deemed essential in my county, but it’s hard for me to get that protective gear for my own employees. I’m okay right now, but I’m getting to where I’m getting a little nervous.

So, I’m going to make a few calls and maybe argue with them that, “Hey, we were deemed essential, and we’re open. If someone’s refrigerator’s out, they can’t keep their medication cool. They can’t keep their food from spoiling. So, we have to be there to take care of them.” We service many ER workers. I had an ER nurse call yesterday, and she couldn’t answer those COVID questions with a no. She said, “I may have been exposed. I’m an ER nurse.” Of course, we want to take care of her. So, we just asked that she stay in the other end of her house, that she clean the area before we get there, and then we would clean it again once we arrived and before we left.

Rob Stott: Wow.

Donnie T: So, we did make the service call.

Rob Stott: Wow. That’s awesome. I know another way you guys are continuing to serve is ramping up those digital efforts and virtual efforts to be able to interact and engage with customers, and to be able to talk to them, sell to them, and all that sort of stuff. So, tell us a little bit about kind of… Flash back 45 days to what your digital offerings looked like to where they are now, and kind of how things have changed so quickly, and what that change has been like.

Donnie T: Well, the first initial couple of weeks, it was really Facebook-related. We do the normal posts that most people do on their Facebooks, the little one today that’s Earth Day and things like that, but I did a video, there again, no script, just had a salesman film me, sent it to my ad agency. They posted it. I think we ended up spending about 10 bucks just boosting it a couple of days later, and man, it just blew up. But it was essentially just telling people, “Hey, we know there’s concern. We know you’re worried a little bit, but we’re already taking the precautions that we can to protect you and our own employees.”

So, we followed that up about 10 days later, which in a timeframe was three days before we were shelter in place, so we’re still operating business as normal in my county, but only three days before that, I made a video, and for some reason, the words came to my mouth. I kept saying, “As your essential business, as your essential appliance,” and some of that may have been to kind of top-of-mind awareness in case somebody missed it to say, “We are essential. Don’t close us down.” So, that thing took on… I think we had 4,000 views, 24 or 25-plus shares, which I know in some respects is not a big number, but from our area, that’s pretty big, especially just talking about appliances, and again, I wasn’t talking about product. I was just talking about people, relationships, and if you have a need, we’re here for you, because that’s really what we’re doing. We’ve kind of put any promotions on hold.

Then that day, the next day is when I just thought, I have some friends in the government who said, “We feel like Friday we’re going to shelter in place,” and they let me know that. So, I start scrambling. How can I communicate? So, I immediately jumped on Podium’s website. I had already looked at them at several different shows, and just started chat to text with someone there, takes me to a little demo. I’m like, “I’m in. Let’s do it.” So, Tim and Greg Danko from Site On Time run my website and they are awesome, and you can trust those guys, and they react quickly, which has been a key right now during this pandemic, is quick reaction.

So, anyway, they had the script edit. I had tech going that afternoon. I mean, just started chatting. Podium actually called me to say, We’re training you next Monday, but I see you’re already doing it,” and I’m like, “I watched the same videos. It’s not rocket science.” You know what’s great about the Podium? I do not work for Podium, and I don’t get a discount for promoting them, but what are you going to do this afternoon with your friends? You’re going to text them. You know?

Rob Stott: Yeah.

Donnie T: I mean, text is how a lot of people communicate nowadays. I know it’s how my children do. They actually use Snapchat. So, we’re not on Snapchat, but…

Rob Stott: Yeah, or TikTok. You know?

Donnie T: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah, my daughter, she’s a TikToker, for sure.

Rob Stott: Yep.

Donnie T: But it really has blown up, and even this customer that I talked to this morning, because once we confirm a sale, we call them and verify all their information, she said, “This is really how the future is going to be anyway,” and I said, “You’re probably right.”

Rob Stott: Now, was this always something you were going to pursue anyway? Were you looking into chat, or was it really this situation that drove you to want to explore?

Donnie T: No, we’ve always looked at it, which when things are going good, Rob, why spend that extra money? Honestly, initially, when I talked to Podium and they told me the monthly price, I thought, man, how can I commit to that? I just cut all my advertising, and I’m going to spend this? I didn’t have any proof that it would work, but obviously it’s paid for itself and then some, substantially. Really, the sales guys, the way we… There’s all different types of ways to do it, but I do get the chats. So, I monitor them. We keep them open longer than our normal store hours, and then I have my two sales managers and my top two salesmen also on the chat. So, 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. I mean, it’s been a great thing for us.

Rob Stott: So, talk about that strategy of how you pick and choose who’s involved, who you want to be a part of that chat, and what the process is like engaging with a customer in a platform like that.

Donnie T: Well, for us, my goal when I met with my team, because not all my team is on the chat, and so my big number one thing was immediate response, and maybe that’s just my personality, but I know if I were to text a friend of mine or my child, and they don’t respond in 10 minutes, I’m going-

Rob Stott: You get a little nervous.

Donnie T: Yeah. Well, I’m going, number one, that’s my phone if it’s my child. You better respond. But no, you kind of feel like you don’t matter. So, we’ve always made it a habit, even as a customer enters our store, to greet them immediately, that first impression, and you kind of have to take that same stance, to me, with the chat to text. If they text, obviously it sends an automated response, “Thank you. A Don’s employee will be with you shortly,” but even if they’re busy, I’ve just said, “Hey,” text and say, “Hey, this is Donnie. I’m with a customer. I’ll get right back to you.” So, that’s what we’re doing immediately, and like I say, the response has been great.

Donnie T: The other thing it’s done is with websites and the catalogs, I don’t know, Jim could tell you, but ours is probably 20,000-plus products on that catalog. We have a really nice 10,000-square-foot showroom, but I don’t display 20,000 products. So, within our website we created a shop now button, so when you click on that shop now button, that’s basically our display models. That’s what we focus on in our store. So, on the chat to text, what we are doing is sending links. We say, “You’re looking for a French door refrigerator? Well, you got 700, 800 you can choose from on the website,” so we copy and paste a link immediately. “Here’s what we’ve got in stock. Here’s what we recommend.”

I mean, we get many questions, like, “Do you have this certain model?” Well, we don’t have it, but if we have a model X that’s real close, we make sure and send them that model X with that, “No, we don’t have that in stock, but here’s what we recommend. It’s real close. Take a look.” Most of the time, they don’t know what they want. I mean, my wife would not know which refrigerator she wanted when she clicked on there and there’s 14 pages of refrigerators. It’s really helped us micro-focus on meeting that need immediately for those customers, and that’s what’s been great right now.

Rob Stott: Right. The other thing too, I know just thinking about general concerns that typically come up when someone’s exploring an option like chat and kind of how to dedicate the time, time being a concern, if you have someone that might be what you consider one of your better closers on chat responding to the people, that it takes away from their in-store abilities and who they help. Is that something that you’ve noticed, or how do you mitigate that?

Donnie T: Not at all. It’s a great tool. I can say they’re excited. Now, it’s been a different timeframe, because again-

Rob Stott: Fair, fair.

Donnie T:… our store traffic has been a little down. I will tell you, in Texas, if people are watching the news, we’ve been a little more fortunate, maybe. I don’t think anyone really knows the numbers, so who knows? But in my particular area, we seem to be flattening the curve with what we’ve done the last three weeks. So, probably starting this weekend, our store traffic really picked up and seemed very normal, if not better than normal. So, time will tell how… Because two weeks previous to that, they had plenty of time to chat because there wasn’t a lot of people just roaming into the store. As many of the other dealers I’m sure will attest, the great thing is when they do come in, they’re here to buy. They’re not here to look around. So, that’s been a good thing, for sure.

Then, obviously, if I could have 1,000 freezers in stock… But just for an example, yesterday, out of the blue, we got in a dozen freezers. They’ve been on order forever, they show up. So, we’re like, “Oh, what are we going to do with these? Don’t bring them to the floor.” So, my guys started calling the lists they had. Well, I went back onto the chat and looked at chats that I had closed out from last week that were inquiring about freezers, popped in there, text them, “Just got in these freezers. They’ll be gone in 10 minutes. Here’s the price,” sold two of them just like that from four-day-old texts.

Rob Stott: Wow. That’s crazy.

Donnie T: Yeah. It’s pretty cool, though.

Rob Stott: Any challenges in getting onto a platform like this?

Donnie T: Yeah. The only challenge I would foresee is once you sign up, is you have to add that script to your website, but again, with Jen and Greg, it was done in 30 seconds. I mean, I sent them the link, and then he emailed right back, “It’s on.” So, there’s really not… I mean, the fear of adding it probably stopped us from doing it until we were kind of forced, but now that we’ve done it, it’s so easy, and I should’ve done it a long time ago. I mean, it was crazy.

Rob Stott: How about any unexpected benefits as you were implementing it, things that you never expected to have success from or realize through a service like this that now you look back, you’re like, “Man, thank God”?

Donnie T: Well, I think the chat to text is just beginning. We’re in such an elementary stage of it. We’ll just continue to grow that. We’re beginning to use… Some of my builders onsite… We do a lot of new construction business. We kind of specialize from low-end to high-end. We’ll sell it all, but we carry Wolf, Sub-Zero, Viking, Thermador, all those high-end guys. So, we’ve had several that have jumped on our website on a job site and text, “Send me the cutouts.”

Rob Stott: Wow.

Donnie T: Well, we can send it right there through that text without it going through an email or PDF or anything like that. Excuse me. So, that’s been good.

Rob Stott: So, that’s interesting. So, you have actual guys, part of your team that’s contacting you through this as a way just to get some quick feedback and access to-

Donnie T: Absolutely.

Rob Stott: Wow. That’s pretty cool. See, it’s not just for the customer at that point.

Donnie T: No. We can send messages between the team, so instead of having to… We’ve gone back and forth from an automated phone answering system with voicemail, so right now we’re answering it ourselves, taking messages. So, now I can actually send them a message through the chat, and it comes to their… assigned to them. So, that’s been helpful, but again, the chat to text is exciting, and I think it’ll continue even… because I do think business has changed. I do think and pray that this COVID virus will subside and allow us to have some more of the new normal, I guess, but I think everybody’s seen it. You’ve seen it in your lives, just the fact that 10 years ago you didn’t know what a text was, or probably five or six years ago, and there’ll be another change. You know?

Rob Stott: Sure.

Donnie T: In a couple years, Rob, chat to text will probably be old news, and we’ll all be Snapchat and filtering each other or TikToking each other.

Rob Stott: Hey, that’s how this tech industry works. It’s crazy. But kind of in that vein, as you’re looking ahead, you mentioned that you’re starting to see traffic already kind of pick up. Maybe you might be on the early side of it for some of these parts of the country that haven’t opened yet. As you plan for getting back to this new normal and what business is going to be like, what are some of the things that you’re keeping an eye on, or you’re trying to get ahead of as a store owner that you might want to warn independent retailers in other parts of the country about?

Donnie T: That’s a great question. I mean, really, what we’re struggling with now is availability. We were told mid March, early March, by several of our key vendors, “Hey, you need to put some dated orders in.” Well, at that point we weren’t going to put a lot of orders in anywhere because we just didn’t know what tomorrow would bring or whether we were going to be open. We were more concerned with keeping our people employed and keeping them safe, so we didn’t date a lot of orders, and we pulled back ordering, and really, we keep a lot of inventory in stock, several million dollars worth. So, we started micro-focusing on selling what we had in stock, and we were walking the warehouses.

That’s the other big change I think it did for me as an owner. I’m involved. I’m close to all my 48 employees, but I’m involved every day in every department first thing in the morning now. I mean, I’m going into each department, encouraging them. Hey, this morning I went and said, “Hey, don’t get caught up, and then it’s over. It’s getting better, but still, clean. Clean your dollies. Clean your trucks. Wear your mask. Wear your gloves,” because unfortunately, I can’t force them to do that. I require them, but they’re grown men and grown women, and so they do have to make those decisions even outside of the workplace.

So, I’m just continuing to encourage them that it’s going to get better, but we’re going to do this to be overly safe. But for other dealers, I would say I know it’s scary, but get some product. Right now, for us, laundry and refrigeration are the two big things. We saw a little uptick in dishwashers this week, and then in cooking, but from my major manufacturer, which is the Whirlpool corporation, pretty tough to get top-load washers with agitators right now. So, some of that’s due to their factories running at maybe 60% because of COVID. So, availability has been our biggest struggle. So, I would say make sure you have the product ready for when you’re open. People are going to be there to buy.

Rob Stott: Yeah. That’s a very good point, and something else that I think we’ve been hearing a little bit about as we get ready to… You don’t know how far out it is. I personally think it’s going to be this stages-type reopening situation-

Donnie T: I agree.

Rob Stott: … in areas of the country, so don’t know how far out that end of the tunnel is, but it feels like it’s getting there. But one last question, kind of a lofty, fun one I want to end with on you, and for you, and that’s… You mentioned, obviously, foot traffic was down. You had some more time, in an essence, at your store over these last few weeks. Any new activities, hobbies picked up, or even store-related? Did you do any training or anything like that while you had some extra time?

Donnie T: Really just been hyper-focused on work. I mean, we’ve been getting here early, staying late, making sure things are running, making sure everybody’s healthy, because as an owner, it’s our responsibility that if their child is sick with a fever, they can’t come to work, and just having to keep up with 48 people, it’s like having 48 family members that you have to take care of. So, that’s really what it’s been. I play golf. I have a lot of hobbies, Rob.

Rob Stott: So, you don’t need any more.

Donnie T: I’ve played nine holes in the last two months.

Rob Stott: Wow.

Donnie T: I’ve really been spending time with my kids and my family. I have a senior in high school and a freshman in high school, so trying to spend a little more time with them when I’m home, because they’re struggling too.

Rob Stott: Hey, absolutely. Maybe some of the most important time spent there is with family right now, so-

Donnie T: It is.

Rob Stott: … I could totally appreciate that, and Donnie, I appreciate you taking the time. This was an awesome conversation, and one I think that members throughout Nationwide will certainly be able to learn a lot from, and we keep sending our well wishing, and I hope things continue to go well for you guys. Of course, if there’s anything from the Nationwide family, you know where to reach out. You’ve got Jen’s number on speed dial.

Donnie T: Got it.

Rob Stott: I’m sure you can go bother her.

Donnie T: Oh, she’s great, and I would say the same thing. I’d wish all the members well wishes and to stay healthy, and really, more than anything, you’re not going to learn it from me. I would just encourage you, don’t be afraid. We’re all scared of change sometimes, and sometimes when your hand’s forced to it, that fear goes away. We’re going to make these lemons into lemonade. That’s been what we’ve been saying all along, is whatever we can do to turn those lemons into lemonade, let’s do it, so absolutely.

Rob Stott: Awesome. Well, appreciate it again, and look forward to hopefully catching up, maybe in-person sometime soon at a PrimeTime, or somewhere else. Thank you.

Donnie T: That’d be great. All right. Thanks, Rob.