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57: In the Lap of Luxury Appliances with John O’Halloran

Written by Rob Stott

February 16, 2021

JO cover luxury appliances

Nationwide Marketing Group recently named John O’Halloran its Sr. Merchant for the appliance team with a special focus on the luxury category. We sat down with John to get the latest on the space, his plans for expansion and more.

Rob Stott: All right. We are back on the Independent Thinking Podcast and super excited right now, a guy that’s gotten a lot of press from us recently and now we get to have him. You’re a star, Mr. John O’Halloran. I appreciate you finding time on your packed calendar for us and this measly little podcast, so thank you for stopping in with us.

John O’Halloran: Well, thanks Rob. Yeah, you guys do a wonderful job on our comms team making me look good, so I appreciate it.

Rob Stott: We try. So, for those who don’t know, Mr. John O’Halloran is our recently anointed senior merchant for appliances with that special focus on the luxury and premium space, so we are thrilled to have you after a year, a little more than a year I think with Nationwide, and then this new role. I mean, let’s start there. For those not familiar with you, prior to Nationwide what was John O’Halloran doing?

John O’Halloran: So let me tell you about John O’Halloran real quick. I’ve been in the appliance industry for 20 years now. It’s hard to think back because I always thought of myself as kind of the young kid in the business and I still think of myself that way, even though it’s completely not true. But my career started in my early twenties with a company in Chicago. I still live in Chicago here with my family, and it was a family owned appliance distribution company, and it was a luxury distribution company. Some people might be familiar with it that are listening. It’s a company called Oakton Distributors. We serviced quite a few members that are still with us today.

It was at a time when all the luxury vendors went direct through distribution, so they were not selling direct to retailers and the other interesting thing was the vendors also only sold one category. So, Sub-Zero was just refrigeration. The Wolf didn’t exist back then. They did just purchase Wolf but it wasn’t a part of their portfolio. Thermador just did cooking, Bosch was dishwashers and 24 inch laundry. So, it was a completely different world back then and it was awesome because I went from selling Yellow Page advertising which was a very cold sales process, cold calling and getting yelled at, to all of a sudden this industry where you’re walking into retailers and saying, “Hey, we’re here to talk to you,” or, “We’re partners.” And it was so warm. It was just such a unique experience. So ever since then, I’ve just been in love with the appliance industry and a lot of people that are in it today will tell you the same thing. Once you get in it, it’s really hard to get out, but it’s because of the people.

Rob Stott: Yeah, absolutely.

John O’Halloran: So I spent seven or eight years there and had an opportunity to sell brands, Sub-Zero, Thermador, Bosch, U-Line, Scotsman. We were part of the debut of the Bertazzoni product when it came to the United States, BlueStar cooking when they launched. So I had the opportunity to do a lot of different things, working with builders, architects, designers, and then most importantly, retailers. And that’s where I got my start working with a lot of our members today. So, my relationship with a lot of our members goes back 20 years, which is crazy.

Rob Stott: Yeah. So you’re sitting here talking about yourself feeling like the young guy in the industry. I’m not going to say you’re old because you’re not, but you’re talking like… you are a grizzly veteran.

John O’Halloran: Yeah, Well, you know when you look back and you start looking at things, you’re like, “Oh, wow. Yeah, I’ve been doing this for a while”. You know? But I guess age is just a state of mind, right?

Rob Stott: Amen man. Amen.

John O’Halloran: So I was with Oakton for a while and then I had moved over and I was recruited over to a company, the Almo Corporation, which is a phenomenal company, based out right where you are, right in Philadelphia, man.

Rob Stott: Hey. I know. Right in the backyard.

John O’Halloran: Yeah. My role there was helping them launch the Samsung brand with key accounts throughout the Midwest which was awesome. It took me from Denver all the way to… I was working with accounts in Indiana and Ohio and all over the place. But at the same time, I had opportunities with Almo to work in their premium division in Chicago, at one time in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, selling brands like Liebherr and Bertazzoni and Capital Cooking. So, I’ve always had the experience working in the luxury space, although it wasn’t necessarily my focus with Almo, I always still had an opportunity to kind of touch it and it’s always been my passion. The last four years I spent in Almo I was managing our LG and Frigidaire team, which I had an awesome team working for me in the Midwest.

As much fun as I was having, I still had something missing and I really wanted to try to find a path back to the luxury business. So I met somebody, a member actually, reached out and said, “Hey, you should reach out and talk to Tom Hickman with Nationwide.” I knew of Tom. I’d never met him before. I was very familiar with Nationwide because I’d been working with the members and been going to the shows for many years. So I did that and Tom and I started talking and he kind of gave me an insight that they are looking at maybe doing something in the luxury space, a little bit more formal than what they’d been doing but they weren’t there yet. So we just agreed to continue and I expressed high interest in, “Well, if you are, I would love to talk to you further about that,” and we kind of left the conversation there and just said, “Let’s continue to keep in touch.”

And then a few weeks later I got a call from Mike Manthey who runs our Core team, and Mike and I have been friends for many years. Mike said, “Hey. Listen. Let’s talk. I want to tell you more about what we do at Nationwide.” So a long story short, they had an opening within the Core team and I wasn’t necessarily looking to get back into a field type position, but I saw the opportunity that jumping into that role could give me an opportunity in the path I was looking forward to get back into luxury business. It was one of the best decisions I made. We just had an awesome time working with Mike and the Core team and here we are today.

Rob Stott: Yeah. And it’s cool too, because you say you weren’t looking to get back into the field, but that opportunity over the past year to do that… I mean, I think we’ll get into it now here in a little bit, is something that allowed you to get in touch with all these members, see what they’re dealing with on the front lines and then take it back into this new role, which is really cool. Talk about that a little bit. This past year, you picked a heck of a year to try to come and be a field team member by the way, I just want to point that out. 2020 was a year unlike any other, however…

John O’Halloran: I actually started in October of 19, so I started off…

Rob Stott: Right. So you had a little bit… A little bit of time.

John O’Halloran: Yeah. You’re right though. I mean, looking back, it was the best experience I could have had and probably one of the reasons maybe why in the end that, on top of my experience though, that I was probably a really great candidate to be in the role I am today.

I mean, it was a very comfortable transition because I was working with a lot of members that I had been working with for many years, but it was a transition for me because it was going from selling to our members, to being more or less a support staff, almost like a consultant, to try to help them with their business, which took me a little while to wrap my hands around, but it just gave me great insights and I learned so much about the retail business and about the importance of all the things that Nationwide does, but all the different resources that we have available. So, understanding and working with our members on a different level was really important for me but then understanding all the resources and working with all our different business units inside of Nationwide, that I didn’t even know existed before. So, those two elements really coming together, being in the field the last year was just invaluable experience.

Rob Stott: Yeah. Is there one thing? Maybe you don’t even have to limit it to one, but think about that time and being so hands on with the members and getting to see the struggles they face and challenges and being that support system for them. Is there anything that stands out that you learned that sort of resonates the most with you from the past year of working with them?

John O’Halloran: Yeah. Well, really you get a firsthand look at, especially in the last year, how resilient these guys are. Our members and the independent retailer, I can only imagine the stress of looking at your entire world being shut down in March of last year and then not knowing what the future’s going to hold and you’re responsible for all of these families and everything that you have responsibility for as an entrepreneur and then just to try to grind through it every day.

And being a part of that was just so gratifying for me because we worked together really closely. Our contacts, when I’ve talked to members maybe once a week or once every two or three weeks just depending on the cadence, we were talking multiple times a day and just trying to help and talk through different situations and share what other members were doing.

So the resiliency and how the independent retailers are able to pivot, I think, on the drop of a dime and be successful. I mean, how cool is it to see that a lot of our members at the end of 2020 probably had one of their best years ever.

Rob Stott: Which is unbelievable.

John O’Halloran: Most challenging, right?

Rob Stott: Yeah. Absolutely.

John O’Halloran: Most challenging but one of the best and granted we’re still not through it, but it’s just a testament to them. I’ve always thought that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I’ve never either had the opportunity or the courage, so I just get so much satisfaction of being… I enjoyed it on the distribution side but I really enjoyed it on the Nationwide side to be able to partner with them, to help them be successful.

Rob Stott: I mean, you got to do that for the past year and now you’re continuing to get to do it, but in a slightly different capacity. So let’s talk about this added emphasis on the luxury business, now you’re here to do what you were meant to do. So, the luxury space and this new role as a senior merchant on the appliance team. Talk about that a little bit. I mean, what gets you excited about this new role and the opportunities it presents you?

John O’Halloran: I don’t know if it was what I was meant to do, but it was what I thought I was meant to do, right?

Rob Stott: Yeah.

John O’Halloran: It took maybe a little convincing. What’s exciting for me is just that there’s so much opportunity in this space. The independent retailer, our members are the experts. They dominate this segment of the business. They always have. We’ve never had somebody that’s been a hundred percent focused on the luxury business. It’s always been part of somebody’s list of 10 other things that they’re responsible for and where did it come as a priority? You know, sometimes maybe it wasn’t on the top. It was here, was here. So I don’t know if we were maybe doing some of the vendor partners in that space, justice, as well as really our members.

And so it’s exciting to be in a different position, for the simple fact that you and I are talking today, I think is huge, because we’re talking about the luxury appliance business. Something we wouldn’t have done maybe a year ago. But to have somebody, if it was somebody else, but somebody that Nationwide has said, “Hey, listen, we need this individual to be a hundred percent focused on luxury business,” is really exciting. And Rob, it’s not just me though, too. You know, I’m one resource, but we’ve also brought on another resource on our marketing team, Karen Brandon, and Karen is quickly becoming my partner in crime, but to help me. But again, that’s another person that we’ve brought in to be focused on the luxury space. So, together we can partner together and establish what needs to get done and working with our members.

Rob Stott: What makes the timing right now? What is it about the luxury space right now that you think this moves makes sense as it is and this added focus?

John O’Halloran: I think, what do they say? You know, we listened to Bill Darcy’s NKBA speech the other day and the e-commerce business advanced 10 years in eight weeks, right?

Rob Stott: Yeah.

John O’Halloran: So, my point of bringing that up is the business is evolving pretty quickly. I’ve seen in the last five years some national competitors come into play in the luxury space with people like Ferguson and people like Best Buy’s Pac Sales now. This type of competition didn’t exist before. So, you couple that with the evolving business and the change in the web and digital world and how consumers are shopping. Having somebody focused on this to support our members, to listen to our members, understand the challenges that they’re facing and working with some of our key vendor partners. I think it was just… the timing is perfect. It’s crucial.

Rob Stott: No, that makes a lot of sense. In the same vein, you talked about the timing. What are right now some of those opportunities? Probably a lot, I imagine, a lot around digital, but what are some of those opportunities that exist in this space for Nationwide members specifically with luxury appliances?

John O’Halloran: Sure, sure. Well, not giving away the playbook a hundred percent, and Rob we’re only about 30 days into this…

Rob Stott: Right, yeah. One month in, tell me… this is the checkup point. Let’s go.

John O’Halloran: Yeah. But first and foremost, it’s understanding what the needs are of the members and that’s something that I’m starting to do and it’s going to be a big focus of what I do moving forward. But to look at a few of the things that are top of mind with me, and then maybe even ask the members that are listening to think about, because these are just some areas that I think are important or will be important. You said before, the web and digital. How do we work with RWS and Site on Time? If I was a member and I’m looking at my webpage, am I merchandising the luxury appliances the right way on my website? I want that consumer to have the same experience as if they were in store as they do when they’re clicking on my webpage. I think that’s very, very important.

And that’s something, I don’t know, we really haven’t focused on as much before, but I want to bring a lot of attention to today. And, Not saying that consumers are going to be checking out 10, 15 thousand dollar stoves and refrigerators online, but we want to make sure that if we’re doing special digital campaigns to drive that luxury customer to a website, that they’re not underwhelmed. We want them to get an experience that drives them to want to reach out and connect with a salesperson, go into the store, to make sure that we’re getting the proper conversions.

Rob Stott: No, that makes a lot of sense and kind of brings up another question too. I know, again, understanding only 30 days of being in this particular role, but the last year in the pandemic, we know that it had a major impact on a lot of retail aspects and how our members are interacting and engaging with their customers. The luxury space, and you mentioned that you don’t anticipate a lot of people making those big purchases online anyway, but have you either anecdotally or anything you’ve seen as far as the impact on the luxury appliance journey for a customer because of the pandemic?

John O’Halloran: Yeah. So the journey is so different than the core business and that’s one thing that we all need… I think historically we’ve looked at and tried to utilize what we’ve done on the core appliance business and trying to adapt that to the luxury space and it doesn’t work, right?

Rob Stott: Right.

John O’Halloran: So I think when we’re looking at that, one thing we’ve learned through some test and learn type things that Jennifer Danko and her team have done, is that the consumer’s journey is much longer and so what we need to do with our campaigns, if we’re going to run a digital campaign it needs to be run for a much longer period of time and it needs to be more of an evergreen campaign to try to capture that customer at different points in their customer journey. So I think there’s something we need to do too, trying to expand our reach into the key influencers and engaging with them somewhat digitally or virtually.

Rob Stott: Yeah, it makes sense. Like I said and as you touched on, it’s a very different experience, so just being able to focus on that now and see how that evolves because of everything and then also just working with the tools that we have, I’m excited to see where it goes and how you and your growing team here can take it. So, it’ll be fun to watch and certainly something that I know it’s got some eyeballs. It’s got some eyeballs.

John O’Halloran: Yeah. It’s important…

Rob Stott: Absolutely.

John O’Halloran: And there’s other things we want to look at. I mentioned the influencers. How do we support the members in reaching or create new technologies to reach out and communicate better with the designers and builders? Education’s a big part of it. And then one thing that we’ve really started to talk about this year is our PriMetrix platform. On the core side we’ve got the ART tool. Historically there’s never been any type of insights into the luxury business, so if we can use our PriMetrix data analytics and start getting more insights for our members into the luxury space… What SKUs are the top selling SKUs? What vendors are the top performing vendors? I think we can provide some insights that will help them make better merchandising decisions. So there’s a lot of different things that we are going to tackle but first and foremost, like I said, I need to understand what are the needs? What are the challenges that the members are facing?

Rob Stott: And it’s only been a month, we’ve got to pump the brakes a little, right? No.

John O’Halloran: It’s only been a month. That’s great. This is a long-term play, okay?

Rob Stott: Absolutely. I know you’ve mentioned a month and already a week of that has been donated to… you mentioned Bill Darcy and NKBA… The KBIS and IBS. We’re just coming off of that and I’m sure that’s a show, you mentioned your history in the space, that’s one you always had an eye on, but now as part of Nationwide and getting to experience it, albeit in a virtual format and a slightly challenged show this year… but what are some of the takeaways that you were able to glean out of that show this year?

John O’Halloran: Well being virtual, it was not nearly as much fun as they normally are.

Rob Stott: No, not quite. Not quite.

John O’Halloran: For a lot of reasons. It’s a great chance to catch up with people you haven’t seen in a long time. It’s a great chance to network and connect with members. And really it’s a great chance to go and see products, which was interesting because of the format and being virtual, and we had talked about this before but for the first time I was able to participate and listen to a lot of the different talks and speeches that they were doing. There’s a lot of value in that, and coming in as Nationwide was real exciting because I went in with what I like to say is radical open mindedness. I wasn’t there for a specific brand and to try to sell that specific brand. I was there to listen and learn and try to absorb as much information as possible.

Rob Stott: Absolutely. And it’s a great show for that. You know, on those recaps we were doing, had the chance to talk about, in regard to that education, just to be able to listen to those guys. Also, you get to see the product when you’re in person in those booths and it’s set up in a way that they intend you to see it and they want you to see their product. But I know in a couple of the experiences that we were able to have, because of this virtual nature of the show, we were able to go into some homes that had these luxury appliances actually installed to see how they are deployed and what they look like in the, quote unquote, real world. So, to be able to see that, just the virtual experience… I think we all miss and crave that in person experience for a number of reasons, but to experience that, the virtual presentation with the real world mixed in there was just really cool.

John O’Halloran: It was. As you said, to go in to see product actually in consumers’ homes and talk and listen to the designers and why they specced it in, to get their perspective, but then to transform us to a showroom in Chicago and get a demo on a wall oven, and then to get transformed to Louisville and to take a look at a new product launch. It was just… it was very well done. So, right, with the challenges that you do have and the experience that you miss out, there are still some benefits, I think, for the virtual side. You wouldn’t normally be able to get transformed and moved all around the country.

Rob Stott: Absolutely.

John O’Halloran: An in person KBIS experience.

Rob Stott: No, it was an interesting show and I know I can’t say it enough I don’t think, that we will enjoy being back in person sooner rather than later… What is your outlook for… again, understanding only a month in, but your experience and history in this space, I think can lend to this maybe a little bit, what are the things you’re looking out for the rest of this year that are important to you and that you’re focusing on as you dive deeper beyond a month in this role?

John O’Halloran: Well, first off, I think we’re all very fortunate to be in the industry we’re in. I think that became very clear coming off the KBIS, looking at some of the statistics that they were showing. I mean, the kitchen and bath industry I think is going to be up maybe 16% they predict for the year.

Rob Stott: Unbelievable.

John O’Halloran: The average consumer has $194,000 in equity in their home, and I think you’re an example of that, right?

Rob Stott: Absolutely.

John O’Halloran: Maybe not that exact dollar amount, but reinvesting those dollars into putting an office in, or really redoing their kitchen, upgrading their appliances. So, we’re very fortunate and my outlook is that it’s going to be very positive. We are working right now establishing some key vendor relationships that we can work with our members on and we look to bring a lot more focus, listening to what the challenges are from the members’ standpoint and working to overcome them.

To set the expectation, this is not a light switch that’s going to happen overnight, but this is something where I hope our membership feels that they have an advocate in this space now, and I am their advocate and we’re going to be fighting tooth and nail to make sure that we’re successful. And the ultimate goal Rob is, how do we innovate this business, right?

Rob Stott: Right.

John O’Halloran: And that’s what I think collectively we all can do together and be the leader in the industry. We have some of the best top experts selling luxury appliances in the group and we want to make sure that we maintain that and help some of the members that maybe aren’t in that space or aren’t as engaged in that space. How do we help them get more invested in there? Because it’s going to help their overall business and I believe it’s very important for the long-term sustainability of the independent retailer.

Rob Stott: That’s phenomenal. And I feel like I could have you on here for hours and talk about this space because there’s a million ways we can go with it and just to pick your brain a little bit on it is phenomenal and a lot of fun. So we’ll be sure to do that, but I know if we want to get you past a month working in this role then I’m going to have to let you go and get back to working on behalf of the members.

John O’Halloran: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, we’ve got to make a date a year from now. Let’s reengage, see where we’re at. But yeah, I’m excited and if anybody has any questions, please, you know I’m available anytime to any of our members. Please reach out to your MSM or reach out to myself and I’d love to engage and talk with you.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. Mr. O’Halloran, I appreciate your time. Appreciate you dialing in from Chicago and catching us up on the luxury appliance space and look forward to catching up again soon, hopefully in person sooner rather than later.

John O’Halloran: Absolutely, bud. Thanks Rob.

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