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43: For Pay-Less, Return on Website Investment Was Like Opening a New Store

Written by Rob Stott

November 10, 2020

Fred Pearson, owner of Pay-Less Furniture & Appliances, will be the first to admit he was very much against major investments into his online presence. But now, a little over a year since upgrading, his website has become one of the most successful “stores” in his company’s portfolio.

Rob Stott: All right. We are back on the Independent Thinking Podcast and excited right now to be joined by a retailer that we’ve actually had the pleasure of profiling a couple of different ways now, here at Nationwide, and that’s that’s Pay-Less Furniture and Appliance out there in Jonesboro, a couple locations out in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and surrounding areas, but excited right now to have on Fred and Rachel Pearson. Father, daughter duo here joining us on the podcast. Guys, appreciate you taking the time and chatting with us a little bit about how things are going out there and about your store.

Fred Pearson: Well, thank you for having us. We appreciate it.

Rob Stott: Awesome. Well, let’s start right there. Tell us a little bit about, Fred, the history of the company and kind of your path through retail and what businesses is like in Jonesboro.

Fred Pearson: Well, I’ll start by saying, after I graduated from college, I went to work for GE. I worked as a sales rep for a few years, and then I was promoted to an area marketing gap, or home laundry for GE, and I moved to Louisville, Kentucky. And worked for GE for about 10 years, and then went into business for myself, into the retail business. And I was in the retail for about 10 years also. And about year nine, we acquired a rent-to-own operation when we bought out another dealer.

And so, that was my first taste of rent-to-own and I kind of enjoyed it and liked it. And I ended up buying it from my partner and that’s how I got into rent-to-own business and I’ve been doing it now for about 30 years. So, things have been going well, and we’ve started out with one store. We have four stores now, in this little section of Northeast Arkansas, and it’s a family business and it’s really been good for us.

Rob Stott: We see that. And obviously, you say family, you got daughter sitting there next to you. Rachel, was this predetermined path for you? Is it just a family business, were you always interested in joining dad and jumping into retail?

Rachel Pearson: No, I tell everybody my first job was cleaning scuff marks off the showroom floor. So I think it was always meant to be, I started working here when I was in college getting my business degree, doing some of the accounting duties. And then, since then, that’s been about 10 years or so, I’ve had the opportunity to work in various aspects in the business. And now marketing is my main focus.

Rob Stott: Well, like I said, of course, happy to have both of you on. And paint a little picture for us, either of you guys can take this one. What’s it like when you walk into a Pay-Less store? What would a customer expect to see, whether any of the locations, what kind of a presence are they greeted with at a Pay-Less?

Fred Pearson: Well, you could expect to be welcomed and treated with great friendliness as only a Arkansan could probably do. In the South, we’re famous for being friendly and welcoming. So that would be the first thing. And then you would find a great assortment of product, furniture, appliances, electronics, and some items like maybe a scooter or a stereo, some isolated items. But mainly furniture, appliances, and electronics. And we would have many options for you in the way of rent-to-own. We have synchrony financing, obviously cash, everybody loves green. And so, we would offer you many options to choose from, to have your product delivered.

So that’s kind of what you could expect when you walk in our store. We built a new store recently, and it’s kind of set the tone for our future growth and we want to have that look from this point on, and it’s a beautiful new store, it’s got about 10,000 square feet, and some warehousing next to it. And we actually built a little shopping strip there so we could rent out some other pods to other people. So that’s gone over really well. It’s now our number one performing store. So we’re very happy about that.

Rob Stott: Oh, that’s awesome. And congrats on the opening. How long ago was that opened?

Fred Pearson: This is going on year three. So it was three years ago, approximately.

Rob Stott: Awesome. I’d be remiss too if I didn’t mention, you talked about… How do you say that? I’m going to mess it up. Arkansans?

Fred Pearson: Arkansan. You got it.

Rob Stott: All right, there we go. See. You all are certainly friendly. You got that reputation. But City of Brotherly Love up here, I’m sitting in Philly. So I think we can be pretty kind as well, unless you’re talking sports and then it’s a different story, but we still got some hospitality up here.

Fred Pearson: Absolutely.

Rob Stott: So how has business… I know this is… We’re talking in 2020, and it’s been quite the year. So how has business been for you guys over these past eight months or so?

Fred Pearson: Well, actually, it’s been unbelievably strong. I didn’t really anticipate it when I first became aware of the pandemic, and I was anxious, as many other people were, about whether or not I could stay in business and whether I could actually keep my doors open. But we were deemed a essential business because we sold refrigerators and things that people really needed, so we were allowed to stay open. And we’ve had 25 to 30% increases every month since the pandemic started. And it’s been incredible. We really feel blessed that we’ve been able to have that strong a business during this uncertain time. But it’s really been good.

Rob Stott: What do you attribute that to, is it just the demand for the product, because people were locked up and needed to replace it, or is there something different that you’d kind of point to?

Fred Pearson: Well, I actually think it maybe was a combination of things. I think maybe there was some panic buying going on. I think that freezers spiked, we had a lot of freezer business and were able to get our hands on some freezers. And I think the big thing, I believe, was the focus on the home, because people were having to stay at home more. And so, they noticed little things that needed to be done. And since they were going to be there a lot, they wanted to spruce it up and make it as comfortable and convenient and nice as possible. And I think we’ve benefited from that.

Rob Stott: Oh, that’s awesome. And certainly makes a lot of sense. I know too, one of the reasons you guys… You’ve been in sort of our coverage, Nationwide’s coverage of late is digital… We had a nice case study done on you guys about the investments you’ve made in a digital way and with your website and that sort of stuff. Couldn’t have had better timing with some of the changes that you guys made to your website and things like that.

So I want to kind of segue, because I know that certainly had a lot to do maybe with some of the success you saw as well, being able to have an e-commerce website. But walk us through that. From what I understand, I did a little pre-work talking to your member support manager about what that was like to try to get you guys to upgrade. Were you guys a little hesitant about wanting to upgrade? Or was it just something that you didn’t, really, I guess, spend a lot of time focusing on?

Fred Pearson: Well, I remember a quote, one of the very few things I remember from my high school, but I remember a quote by a poet that said, “Be not the first by whom the new is tried, nor yet the last to lay the old aside.”

Rob Stott: I like that.

Fred Pearson: Well, I certainly wasn’t the first try anyway. So I cannot fit into the category, I was the very last to lay the old aside. So I was very reluctant to get into but the Nationwide people encouraged me and, Jason, who is our rep in this area, encouraged me to try it, and my daughter here who is more on the cutting edge than I am, encouraged us to do this. And so, we just kind of took that step. And I think it’s one of the best things that we’ve ever done.

Rob Stott: You guys are certainly not alone. I remember, prior to me joining Nationwide, I had attended PrimeTime as a member of trade media and covered the shows and the work that Nationwide was doing. And I remember hearing a stat that I… This was three years ago, maybe at this point now, that I think it was only 30% of Nationwide members had actually turned on a website at that point. And so, you guys were far from the only ones that hesitated with the digital presence. It’d be interesting to know, why was there that hesitation? What was it that made you not want to take that leap into diving deeper into digital?

Fred Pearson: Well, simple explanation is I just probably old school. I just wanted to wait and make sure that those who had tried it were having a measure of success. That’s really the only thing I could say that would be the reason for me hesitating. I just wasn’t very forward in my thinking. And I was encouraged by my daughter and others, who were younger, to at least give this a try. And so finally they drug us, as they say, screaming into it. And we took the plunge and it’s really paid off for us.

Rob Stott: Now. Rachel, is there anything… Do you think… How much credit do you take? Your dad’s giving you a lot of credit, but how much credit do you take for the transition? And can you think of the conversation that you had that you felt like, “all right, this is finally going to happen?”

Rachel Pearson: Well, we’ve had a domain name and a Facebook page since about 2013. I knew we needed to be online, but as far as everything that you could accomplish online, I don’t think that either of us really had seen the full potential there. My degree was in marketing and we never talked about social media, websites or anything. So even though I might be a little bit younger, it was still a bit of a learning curve.

And I think another thing that might’ve made us hesitate was that it seems like a pretty big investment on the front end, getting the website set up, and allocating marketing dollars to that when you’ve got other methods that have worked in the realm of direct mail, TV advertising, and radio. But I will say, at least in my own experience as a shopper, I realized how much I liked being able to browse online and interact with stores and find out as much information as I could before I spent time going from place to place.

So I think just that personal experience, and then obviously hearing from other dealers that were having success with the online platform, kind of made it a no brainer for us to take that plunge, and it’s paid off.

Rob Stott: Sure. And talk about the transition now, what was it like going… If I’m correct, you guys work with Retailer Web Services on your website, what was it like transitioning to the digital presence? I mean, you go through the website now, there’s a lot on there, a lot to do, it’s an impressive web presence that you guys have. So what was it like going through that transition with them and getting all this up and running?

Rachel Pearson: Shout out to RWS, they have been very easy to work with, very responsive. And while I can navigate a website, I definitely can’t build one. So to be able to rely on their expertise to create something that looks good and that had the functionality that our customers were seeking, that was nice to be able to kind of trust them to take care of that.

There was a lot of design elements we talked about in the beginning and they helped us work on everything from layout to color scheme. They had some templates that we could choose from. So, while it was a lot of information, it was never overwhelming.

And then obviously one of the greatest features that they offered us was the access to all the manufacturer catalogs. So we could give them a list of our inventory, and then the way it shows up on our website has all the specs, all the color options, and it just makes it look really sharp and like a place a customer would like to spend some time and browse.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. You mentioned you had anticipated there being a learning curve, did you find that to be the… Was it difficult? You said a lot of information, could be maybe a little overwhelming, but was there actually, as far as a learning curve and getting yourself acclimated to the platform of what you guys are doing, what was that like for you?

Rachel Pearson: RWS provided some really good training on how to do some of the more basic items, like adding a product that might not necessarily have a manufacturer description to go with it. They have a very easy to use backroom feature.

I think one of my main concerns was increasing web presence meant I was going to have to learn how to code or something like that. So the fact that they have it all set up in a way that you can point and click and easily access the information you want to take a look, one of the best things, and probably best feature on our website from our perspective is, there’s various ways customers can go ahead and start their transaction online. They can fill out a rental application, they can sign up for our email list, they can request more info about a product, and RWS sends us emails when we get those kinds of requests for information. And then we can also go into the backroom page and easily pull those. And we’re already halfway to a deal at that point if they’re spending that much time giving us that information.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. And it sounds like… I mean, as soon as you guys turn this on, the engagement and that sort of stuff, it naturally sort of followed it. I mean, is that the case? Did you guys notice a lot of immediate returns on this investment and kind of what you’re seeing from a business perspective?

Rachel Pearson: Definitely. We saw an increase in quote requests, in online applications, and I think even in store, we would see an increase in traffic, just a combination of our increased web presence, the impact that that had on our social media presence. It just kind of all came together with great return.

Rob Stott: Yeah. And I mean, for some, the simple fact of turning on e-commerce alone might’ve been something where it’s there, it’s nice to have, but for you guys, if I’ve heard correctly, you guys, it was almost like adding another store for you guys, as far as the type of impact it had on your business. And kind of what you’re realizing.

Fred Pearson: Yeah, I will just simply saying, and I’ve said it before, that we would’ve had to open a rental store and done 600 units, or had 600 customers the first year to have produced the revenue that we have produced this year. And I give a lot of credit to this website and the work that Rachel has done, and RWS has helped us to do, I give them a lot of credit for that. It’s having another store without having to buy the bricks.

Rob Stott: There’s certainly investments that need to be made and some website maintenance and things like that, but a little bit cheaper, per se, to not have to build a store.

Fred Pearson: For sure. Yeah.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. I mean, any unintended benefits that you’ve realized with having the improved website, the level four website, that maybe you weren’t anticipating as you were thinking about going down this path?

Rachel Pearson: It’s opened the door, I think, for us to increase our web presence, to increase our transactional capabilities, that’s something we’re actually working on right now is getting the website to where a customer doesn’t have to even come into the store, they can go ahead and give us their information, and we can deliver it, have them e-sign the documents and take care of them that way. So, that’s definitely been a benefit. We’ve seen an increase in our reviews, both on social media and Google. So that, obviously, is never a bad thing. Those are two of the main things, I would say.

Rob Stott: Yeah. And kind of a nice segue too, you mentioned the reviews. I know another new partnership for Nationwide is with Podium and everything they’ve done there, I know online reputation management from there. What has that relationship been like for you guys?

Rachel Pearson: Well, we signed up for Podium, I guess, about a couple of months ago. So we’ve definitely seen an increase, not only in the quantity of conversations we’re having to quote customers, but in the quality of that conversation. We can track sales now that started on the website and ended up in the store.

Back when the pandemic first hit, back in March, we installed Webchat for the first time on our website. We were just using a free program, basically just to have something there. And that was one of the reasons we chose to go with Podium, was to provide a more customer friendly way to web chats. And it’s been a game changer.

Now we can get access to each store to be able to talk to the customers that are in their close proximity to their store. So it’s not one person at the home office trying to figure out where this person needs be sent. The customer has the option to go ahead and select their store. So it just eliminates some steps along the way, and just really has, well, like I said, increase the quality of those conversations and the outcome.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. And I mean, another one of the concerns I think that most people typically have when they’re considering going down this path is, there’s the monetary side of things, but also the hours spent on this sort of thing. I’m sitting here talking to a marketing manager, this is what you do, this is your day to day.

I mean, is it as much work as… I’m trying to think just how to say this without having it sound like marketing is nothing, because it is, it’s a lie. Sitting here talking to someone in communications, this is what we do on a day to day basis. So, I mean, is it the massive time investment that would make someone that’s on the fence not want to make the leap into doing something like this?

Rachel Pearson: I would say that this has been a huge time saver. To get Podium installed and be able to start to use it, was pretty turnkey. I mean, they do all the hard work on their end. I gave them our information and a day later we were set up, ready to go. I did a short training with them and then was able to train our people on how to use it.

So, we think of Webchat as just another way… It’s the same as answering the phone in the stores. So that’s a nice feature. Podium is being able to give control to the stores so they can work their own sale and just kind of… It’s like someone walking through the door, they’re able to handle that. Give have up-to-date inventory, give that friendly customer service via Webchat that the customer would get if they came in the store.

So, I mean, really, it’s taken a lot off of my plate. Not that there aren’t a million other things to do, but it’s nice to be able to kind of delegate some of those things and allow them to be accomplished a lot more efficiently by letting our managers handle things on a store level.

Rob Stott: Certainly. I love talking digital, so this was a conversation that I can have for hours on end, which I’m not going to try to do because certainly we’ve all got places to go and things to do. Maybe not places to go with the pandemic going on, but at least things to do.

No, but I appreciate you guys, once again, opening up and sharing your story with Nationwide and our family here. So, I mean, any last advice or words that you have to a member, one of your fellow members and independent retailers to sort of convince them that this is time and money well spent?

Fred Pearson: I would like to say one thing and that is to my fellow dealers. Don’t be like me. Just because this is something that I personally wouldn’t do, or didn’t do, don’t let that be a roadblock to keep you from doing the things that you need to do and the investments that you need to make in your business. Because a huge part of our customer base is doing the very things that I would not do. I want to lay down on a mattress. I don’t want to buy one online, but many people would love to buy one online.

So, you have to open up and realize that a big part of the world is doing things different than you are, and you have to accommodate them and make your business convenient for them. And so, that would be my advice to anybody that’s reluctant, don’t let them have to drag you kicking and screaming into the new world. So my experience tells me that I waited really too long to do this, but thank goodness I did make that decision and it’s really paid off for Rachel and I and our business.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. And I think great words to part on. So, Fred and Rachel, I appreciate the time and I look forward to hopefully, sometime soon, at a Prime Time, in person, getting together and checking in and seeing how things are going and following up with you guys, but otherwise, appreciate it and all the best and stay healthy.

Fred Pearson: Thank you, sir.

Rachel Pearson: Thanks.

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