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Joe Ochs, the VP of Sales for Bray & Scarff, a DC-Baltimore-based appliance retailer and kitchen design outfit, chats about what it’s been like managing more than a dozen stores during the coronavirus pandemic, the digital efforts of the retailer, and how they’re preparing to fully reopen their stores.

 

Rob Stott: All right, we’re back on the independent thinking podcast. And right now, always love talking to members on the podcast. And right now we have a really fun one lined up for us today. We’ve got Joe Ochs, the VP of Sales for Bray and Scarff based down there in the DMV, which for the uninitiated is the District Maryland and Virginia. So Joe, appreciate you taking time. I know a busy schedule for you running all over the place right now, but I appreciate you finding the time and hopping in and talking with us.

Joe Ochs: Absolutely. Thank you for having me. Appreciate it, Rob.

Rob Stott: Not a problem. So, how is everything at Bray and Scarff right now? Tell us a little bit about yourself and about the business and kind of what you guys have going on these days.

Joe Ochs: A little bit about me. I’ve been with Bray and Scarff since 2002, I had like a full head of hair back then. 

Rob Stott: Jobs will do that to you.

Joe Ochs: Anybody that knows me knows I’ve got a pretty shiny head at this point. I’m very bald, but anyhow, so it started back in 2002 and came from a Montgomery Ward prior to that. And obviously that didn’t end well but chose to go the independent route versus big box and incredibly thankful I did. It’s a great business, worked my way up through multiple positions, multiple stores, inside of Bray and Scarff, and really it’s the leadership and the people that really make the difference. Fantastic business.

Rob Stott: So tell me a little bit about the business itself. I know, as I said, the DC Bailtimore Metro area is kind of where you guys are based, but what’s the company look like as far as stores and where you are and all that kind of stuff?

Joe Ochs: Well, like you said, we serve the greater DC Baltimore Metro area. This Monday, we actually opened up our 15th location in Springfield, Virginia. Like I said, it was just a local retailer. I guess, the way to kind of sum it up is we’re like a Lexus dealer of appliances in our market. So there’s a lot of people out there selling Toyotas, nothing against Toyota, good car…  it’s a good vehicle and all but that’s not what our customers are buying. They’re looking for a premium appliance and the services that go along with that. So, I mean, whether you’re talking about any of the premium brands, Jenn Air, Monogram, Thermador, Sub Wolf, and then again, the services that go with that being custom installation, appliance repair and kitchen remodeling.

Rob Stott: Awesome.

Joe Ochs: So we do the hard things pretty well.

Rob Stott: Gotcha. And I know we talked about before the call that Springfield store, that old stomping grounds for this podcast, literally lived down the street, maybe like a two-minute drive from where that location’s going to be. So I know it’s in a good spot, a very high traffic area right off, what is it 395 is right there?

Joe Ochs: Correct.

Rob Stott: And 95 intersect I think? Right at that spot. So you guys picked a good area.

Joe Ochs: Yeah. We’re pumped up. We love the Springfield area. We’ve been selling some product there for quite a while, but our stores aren’t quite close enough to serve it well, and it’s right off of Frontier Drive next to the Springfield Mall. Yeah. It’s a great spot. We’re excited to be there.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. You mentioned the other things obviously, appliance sales is the big thing for you guys, but you also do remodeling and custom install. So tell us a little bit about that and what that does because I don’t think a lot of, you know, you think about membership, a lot of these guys are straight sales, yes, they’ll come in and install and do installation services, but not full-scale remodeling. So what has that been like for you guys to be involved in?

Joe Ochs: It’s intricate, but it’s also very logical for us. Everybody has some type of adjacent category that they dip into. Whether they’re an independent selling electronics or selling mattresses or whatever. Pretty much every independent tries to diversify at some level. And with us, it’s like there couldn’t be a better fit for who we are, than kitchen remodeling. And we have a good reputation in the market and people know us to execute well. And when you look at the competitive landscape in remodeling, you go to one of the more high-end kitchen design firms and they basically give you a set of plans. They sell you the cabinets and wish you luck as you try and find a plumber, an electrician, somebody to sell you the appliances. Then it’s like, wait a minute, who’s handling the permitting. Like that’s kind of important right? So our customers, they don’t want to play general contractor. They’re busy. They want somebody to come in that’s a professional to manage the process from start to finish. And that’s us. We’re a turnkey remodeler.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. And so you guys, I mean, in-house for you guys, what does that look like as far as, do you have a full-blown remodeling team like that walks customers through step by step, what this looks like and all that? So I guess what really then what’s the process like for the customer that comes to you wanting a remodel from start to finish?

Joe Ochs: It’s an interesting process. So what it starts with typically for one of our customers, see, we’re more known for appliances than remodeling. So usually they’ll come in looking for an appliance package and as we investigate and figure out what they’re doing, we educate them on our abilities for kitchen remodeling. And then from that point, once we kind of get a picture of overall what they’re trying to achieve, we turn them over to a kitchen designer who handles everything, other than the appliances.

Rob Stott: Right?

Joe Ochs: So, from the design and construction standpoint, everything from cabinetry, countertops, sinks, faucets, flooring, all of that, the designer handles that aspect of it and ties in the appliance salesperson because they’re obviously different skill sets between them.

Rob Stott: For sure.

Joe Ochs: One’s more obviously, inside sales for appliances versus inside/outside with the kitchen designers. It’s product knowledge is, our people are phenomenal. So it lets them really shine with that customer with the whole process.

Rob Stott: Gotcha. No, that’s awesome. And I know you mentioned having different skill sets is certainly a big part of it, but it is kind of seamless the way that plays. I know, in talking to a lot of, you mentioned CE, the consumer electronics side, the guys that are independent guys in that space, we typically find them they’re selling speakers and TVs and that kind of thing kind of plays well generally to have what would be home theater installation kind of be a part of their package and what they offer. So it’s very similar in that regard, like you mentioned, that they go kind of hand in hand and makes a lot of sense. You keep the customer under one roof and you get to be that kind of turnkey solution for them rather than having them go a bunch of different places.

Joe Ochs: Absolutely. It’s somewhat different too than in those other categories because it’s not as commoditized.

Rob Stott: Right.

Joe Ochs: Like, for example, you can’t click your way through Amazon to redesign your kitchen.

Rob Stott: Yeah.

Joe Ochs: Cambria countertops. It’s just not an option. Yeah. So there’s a little bit of protection built-in by having that as our add on category.

Rob Stott: That’s pretty awesome. And I know right now we’re talking during a time that is a little different for most businesses. I think everyone at this point kind of knows about what Coronavirus and COVID have done to the industry and life in general right now. So in that regard, how have things been for you as a business at Bray and Scarff?

Joe Ochs: Interesting. It’s been interesting.

Rob Stott: Yeah.

Joe Ochs: It’s I tell you, it’s like you rewind the clock to the onset of the whole pandemic and state of emergency being announced in Maryland. Whenever that was, the second week of March or so.

Rob Stott: Right.

Joe Ochs: And it basically it’s at that point, we immediately pivoted to become essentially an Etailer at that point. The stores were closed to the public, we operated from within the building to be able to answer the phone and get video presentations, things of that sort. But I mean, on the front end of it, we just basically shut it down and operate it as an Etailer.

Rob Stott: Yeah. So I know, not to cut you there, but I know that essential business status was something that a lot of appliances got. Is that something that you had and you just opted to take the safer route or was that were you guys ordered to close?

Joe Ochs: We were deemed and are deemed essential. Really what it came down to was making sure that we knew competently that we could take care of the employees and the customers and operate in a safe manner. And just not knowing the whole situation, even early on getting PPE was a mess for everybody.

Rob Stott: Yeah.

Joe Ochs: Now, interestingly, I’m outside of our Rockville store and I’ve got a truckload of PPE to deliver. But it’s, I mean, we constantly transitioned and all the way up until like right now, just today actually we’re announcing that we’re just completely wide open to the public. We’ve been working, stores have been open for quite a while, but we’ve been operating by appointment only.

Rob Stott: Right.

Joe Ochs: And consumer behaviors essentially dictate how you should function as long as you do it obviously under the premise of it being safe in general. The customers are now, I’d say 50% of our foot traffic’s direct walk in without an appointment being set. So just constantly changing, going through it.

Rob Stott: Yeah. And you mentioned the appointment only. I know that’s something that you guys kind of transitioned to as states started reopening here within the last few weeks, A, that kind of shows, I think, of course, a constant theme that we see and that’s the ability for independents to adjust on the fly and change business models really seamlessly and effectively, but what was it like transitioning to that and getting that message out to customers? And then to follow that up, did you have good response to the appointment-only model?

Joe Ochs: We had a fantastic response to it. Customers, if you look at okay, Depot and Lowe’s right, if you look at that environment and what that looks like to shop there through the past several weeks, it was just, it’s a madhouse, right? I mean, social distancing, forget it. At least this was my experience, there was no social distancing whatsoever inside of the other essential businesses. And I think it was an opportunity to show contrast. We’re not like them at all. So yeah, we both can sell metal, but the reality is the environment that we can give our customers, the expertise, and lets us elevate the experience with them coming in. They can pull their vehicle up in our parking lot, get a great parking space, walk-in at their appointment time, meet an industry professional and get taken care of.

So, I mean, if you think about it, Lowe’s, not to pick on them, but the throttling of traffic at the front door, you ended up in a situation where you’re standing outside for 20 minutes in the rain. And you’re just hoping that somebody inside is going to be able to help you.

Rob Stott: Right.

Joe Ochs: And that’s an incredible opportunity for contrasts. Our customers received it. Well, man, our customers are great. They’ve been incredibly loyal throughout this whole thing and patient because it’s obviously we’re not operating like normal yet.

Rob Stott: Right. I want to get back to some of the other changes that I know you guys made, but along the lines, kind of neat to have some breaking news on the Independent Thinking podcast, but now the reopening now what, as you have prepared for that transition to being fully reopened, what are some of the things that you guys kind of look to or bullet points you tried to check off to make sure that, okay, now’s the time that it’s okay for us to do this?

Joe Ochs: Number one is safety, without a doubt. If we couldn’t open safely, we just wouldn’t open. I mean, safety trumps everything in this respect. And really we’ve got to keep the pulse of where the consumer is. The states have been progressing through the reopening phases and just understanding what, we look back to the early onset and what was socially appropriate. Like we were requiring masks and gloves and it’s like we had this thing tightened down pretty hard. And it was a very different environment. The customers appreciated it, especially. I mean, if you have some stores, obviously there’s a lot of diversity of age groups and people that are at risk and they see us providing gloves and masks at one particular point, they really received it well.

We fast forward that to today. And if we told them that they had to wear gloves, they’d think that we’re crazy. Like why, right? So you look at what’s socially appropriate and just trying to keep the pulse and move through the phases as to how our customers want to shop. And as long as we can do that safely, that’s really the thing that’s guiding our process.

Rob Stott: Gotcha. I know, kind of going back to those earlier days and what you have to do to kind of remain in the public’s eye, but also accessible to them, you kind of look to what you guys have done from a digital perspective. I know there was a lot of work going on behind the scenes with the Site on Time team here. And I could talk to any members who I’m sure Site on Time team had to add like 17 phone lines I think to their office to handle all of the calls and traffic. But take us through that and kind of what you guys did from a digital perspective to get yourselves prepared early on to handle the change in business?

Joe Ochs: Man, I tell ya, we love Site on Time. I’m surprised I haven’t worn them out yet. Jen still talks to me, so she’s a rock star. She’s absolutely awesome. And the whole team, I mean their whole team gets the credit. They’ve really done a great job working with us and there’s no better messaging tool out there to communicate what we’re doing and what expectations should be like for our customers. Like our website, our website tells obviously that is how we will communicate, how we function to the customers before they walk into the doors, obviously. And everything from figuring out the appointment process. So, I mean, early on one of the earliest calls I had with Jen Danko regarding this was like, I don’t have any idea what I’m doing, so I know what I want to do. Can you help me?

And I mean, it was just unbelievably efficient. I gave her a couple of options. She came back with something that was on point, that could be programmed easily with the website. And it blew me away how fast they were able to work in these changes and the creation of new web pages. Like I said, the appointment process all the way through to being able to communicate delivery dates, anticipated delivery dates for products on the website. It’s been very impressive, what they’ve been able to do.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. Now things like, I know some of the big trends we were looking at that dealers were adding were things like chat to the website. And I think you mentioned earlier too video, doing some video appointments with customers. What was it like adding those? Well, A, were those some of the things you added to your digital sort of tool belt? And then what was it like kind of getting those up and running?

Joe Ochs: We were blessed to be in the position that most of the tools already existed whenever we came into this. So chat and texting, for example, we’ve been doing that for a few years now and I have an actually pretty robust team in all the stores. So we execute it from the store level. It’s not a main office function or anything like that. So it’s the same people in the stores that they would work with. On behalf of the sales team, they are the web team. So we were in a really good position out in front of this. Video chat was not a current function, we use Podium for our webchat and video chat didn’t exist. I remember getting a call from a few of their folks there that basically they said on a Wednesday that they’re like, well, we think we’re going to launch it. And by Friday they called and said, we launched it.

So they like programmed the thing in two days. They threw it together and they’re like, you want to be part of the beta? I’m like, well, yeah, we’ve been here, let’s go. So that’s been interesting. It’s been well received. It’s not a, I wouldn’t label it as a massive game-changer, but it’s just like everything else. Customers want to buy the way that they want to buy. And if they’re more comfortable right now in their home and getting an in-store experience by us walking them through with our iPad and showing them those quality touchpoints, whether it’s ball bearing rollers on the racks of a dishwasher or soft closed doors, like there’s a thousand luxury touchpoints that you just can’t show in a still image. So video chat, it’s helped. It’s definitely helped though. It’s a good feature.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. So what now, kind of looking ahead, there’s obviously some challenges, I think that remain, we’re noticing it in our back to business plan is we’re kind of working through that. What are you guys looking at, obviously preparing to reopen, you’re moving to a new phase. So kind of moving ahead, what are some of the things that you’re focused on as a business that you’re trying to anticipate or plan for that maybe you didn’t think you had to, or that you’re just trying to stay sort of in a position to remain successful as you transition into this next phase?

Joe Ochs: I would say the biggest focus, and this may not be quite what you’re looking for answer wise, but really the biggest thing right now is just getting product.

Rob Stott: Yeah.

Joe Ochs: The structure’s there, the people are there, the processes are there, we’re executing well. All in all, through this environment, we just have to get product. So that is absolutely the biggest challenge is as factories have shut down, man, the manufacturers they all have different struggles trying to churn out the product, but just getting our hands on what our customer wants.

Rob Stott: Gotcha. That’s absolutely something we’ve heard, whether it be from other dealers or just manufacturers too because early on, I think there was talk about kind of preparing dealers from a product standpoint because factories were going to have to shut down and manufacturers, because of social distancing and things like that were either completely shut down or production sort of took a downturn because there were less people working in factories and whatnot. So, what are you guys doing from that standpoint? Is it really just looking for what’s available or is there any sort of, I guess, strategic advice you could offer to other dealers that are certainly, especially in the appliance space I think, facing something like this that you guys are?

Joe Ochs: No, no advice. How about that answer? Right. I tell you, it’s like what we’re doing is we’re working with our vendor reps very closely trying to forecast out as well as we can in advance. Get truckload orders placed and have a pipeline of products. But I mean, at that point, really, you’re rolling the dice and hoping you get product sometime soon. I mean, just like we’re asking our customers to be patient with us as we get products. I mean, it’s kind of the same with the manufacturers, they’re struggling at this point. And really the only piece of advice is we just got to keep an eye on it, communicate and get in line. Right. Get what you can get when you can get it.

Rob Stott: Yeah. It seems like something that’s certainly going to be a challenge until production can kind of catch back up to where it was, but no totally can appreciate that.

Last question to kind of round it up for you. I know, trying to think about from your perspective, has there ever been anything most recent that comes to mind is the ’07 to ’09 kind of downturn in the economy and the housing bubble and all that stuff. But I know it’s tough to kind of compare this to anything else, but this, you know, we’re looking, I think we’re talking now, it’s been 11, 12 weeks almost of just a complete sort of shift in the way business is done. Have you ever experienced anything like this? Maybe not from a pandemic standpoint necessarily, but just this like a sustained period of disruption to what would be your normal business?

Joe Ochs: The short answer is no. There’s a lot of depth to that question. I’ll say it this way from, so I’m not sure that there’s a better catalyst for change than a sustained period of disruption, right? Like that causes people to pause if it’s really a short term pop it’s like back to business as usual. That’s not what this is. Like you said, it’s a sustained period of disruption and it causes a lot of shifting to happen. So I think if I look at that in a retail context, the businesses that were better positioned, whether it be through people or processes or what have you, it’s a huge opportunity for us to capture share, right? It’s a great opportunity for us to communicate that we’re different. We’re not like the box stores.

We have a better story to tell. Shop local, right? So you look at what we can communicate now as a result of that period of disruption, it’s an opportunity staring us in the face. So when I look at it from retail, if I answer that question specifically from a retailer standpoint, that would be my answer. But taking that question in kind of a different direction, socially, we’ve also had a very large sustained period of disruption. And hopefully, that also causes change. Like racism has got to exit this country. Like you look at what’s happened with George Floyd or here locally Freddie Gray-

Rob Stott: Yeah.

Joe Ochs: back, I think it was 2015.

Rob Stott: Yep.

Joe Ochs: Yeah. It’s like… So while we look at what all’s going on and we’ve had protests here locally, voices need to be heard, it’s time for a change.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. And I think a great kind of message to end on. So it’s a period to stop and pause and take a chance to turn the eye inward and reflect on your business, yourself and all that kind of stuff and use it as a time to if there’s ever a time to change it’s when business has stopped and life is kind of not happening as it were normally. So, I appreciate the message there, Joe, and of course appreciate all the time you spent with us diving into Bray and Scarff and everything else. So, good luck and congrats, I guess, on the store opening next week as we’re talking.

Joe Ochs: Thank you.

Rob Stott: I wish I was there still in Springfield to experience it. Maybe I’ll pop down there, visit the old stomping grounds and see what it’s like over there at the new Bray and Scarff. But no I, really appreciate it and wish you guys nothing but continued success moving forward. And hopefully we’ll get to catch up sometime soon in person.

Joe Ochs: Excellent. I look forward to it. Yeah. If you’re ever in the area feel free to give me a shout.

Rob Stott: Awesome.