76: Uncovering and Discussing the Van Vreede’s Advantages

Written by Rob Stott

June 29, 2021

Van Vreede’s General Manager Scott Brynjulfson spends some time talking about what separates his business from his competitors, including their service and delivery departments, a commitment to keeping employees happy, and their continual evolution and adoption of digital services.

Rob Stott: It’s an hour, that fun guy. And then we’ll just go. All right. We are back on the independent thinking podcast and heading up to Wisconsin, Cheesetown, not well, technically right in Cheesetown for one of your locations, Mr. Scott Brynjulfson, the general manager of Van Vreede’s. You specifically are in Appleton, but you guys, you’re in Appleton, Green Bay and Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Is that right?

Scott Brynjulfson: You are correct. Yeah. We have three locations under the Van Vreede’s name.

Rob Stott: Gotcha. So, the first question I’m going to ask, I know it’s not on our pre-discussed, but how’s the feeling on Aaron Rogers right now? What’s the temperature up there?

Scott Brynjulfson: Oh boy, I don’t know. It could go either way, maybe 50/50. I do think he’ll be back, but you know, it is what it is, I guess. Typical year here.

Rob Stott: Sounds about right now. Well, we’re obviously here to talk about you guys and Van Vreede’s and what’s going on there, but before we dive into the business, tell us a little bit about yourself and your own retail upbringing and background.

Scott Brynjulfson: Absolutely. Well, my father was in the business for about 45 years. So I started real young working at a different company. It was a furniture appliance mart in Wisconsin, or excuse me in Wausau, Wisconsin. And I started working in the warehouse when I was 16. Did random jobs, went off to school, came back, did some delivery. I got into sales. And then about 18 years ago, my father, Gary, had the opportunity of buying into Van Vreede’s and I ended up getting an interview here and coming over and yeah, so I mean, this is a great company to work for. Like I said, I’ve been here 18 years. I’ve kind of sprinkled in… I’ve almost done everything as far as that there’s to do here. So, but you know, it’s a great… We’re not a huge company, but we’re not small. We’re probably like 150 employees, something like that, but it’s a very fun place to work and I enjoy coming here every day.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. You said Dad bought in, did you have to interview with Dad? Or, how did that go?

Scott Brynjulfson: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

Rob Stott: Did he ask any tough questions?

Scott Brynjulfson: I wasn’t a shoo-in, I’m sure, but yeah, I did. I started off in sales at this location, then moved to sales in Green Bay, and then I got a chance to finally be a manager down in Oshkosh. Ran that store for about four years. Went up to Green Bay, was a manager there for a couple of years, did a little stint then in our distribution center. I was the manager there for a little bit. Then went back to the manager in Green Bay. Then I went to the Appleton store as a manager, and then I got to move to the back offices. So, and I’ve been back here now for probably almost five years.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. Well, interesting kind of, obviously a great experience to be able to get to all those different locations. From the front end of the store, how different is each of the locations, having been a manager for each of them and kind of getting to see what each different town is like?

Scott Brynjulfson: You know, each town has its own… It’s a little bit different, but it’s all kind of the same at the end of the day. I mean, as far as structurally our company… A lot of things come out of Appleton here, like our service, the deliveries all come out of Appleton, but it was a great experience, looking back, I’m glad I did all those. It’s cool.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. So kind of scaling it down a little bit. Well actually going in kind of the opposite direction, higher picture. Looking sort of at the company as a whole, what is that elevator pitch on your operation and kind of what separates you from the competition in the market or just other retailers around you?

Scott Brynjulfson: Absolutely. No. We have… We call them the Van Vreedes’ advantages. We have, just to list a couple, 1) We’re one of the few companies in this area that can say that we have our own service. That’s a huge thing. We do use… We bought a company probably about almost 15 years ago. It goes under the name Howie Voight Appliance. We sell used appliances there. And then also we run 12 techs a day, actually, that go out and they average anywhere from maybe nine to 11 stops a day. So we do service from Van Vreedes’ customers first. We also do service for our competitor friends too, but that’s one huge advantage, not many people can say. The other is we own our own delivery department. We run anywhere from nine to 10 trucks a day also out of there.

So, my background, one thing I didn’t mention is I did work for one of the big box corporations when I was going to school. And I can tell you from looking from an outsider’s view, now, if something does go wrong for say on delivery, because things aren’t perfect, things are going to happen. When something does go wrong and you have control of it, it’s way more smoother for the consumer and the end user, as far as, it’s just a completely different transition. As far as we also, I mean, we do a lot of… Another advantage is we have with that delivery, you have exact time delivery. The day of, the consumer can hop on our website, put in their phone number or put in their order number. And they can actually see a little snippet of where the truck is and kind of give more of, I guess, a real time of when the delivery is going to get there.

That’s another huge advantage. Obviously, best price, best selection. We have digital tags that are on our floor. Those digital tags, they scrub the internet constantly. If one of our competitor friends do change their price, our tag on our floor and our website changes. So, it takes the guessing game really out of the shopping aspect of it, and it really gives a salesperson a nice touch where they can sell themselves, sell our company. We won’t be undersold. So, there’s a lot of advantages buying from an independent retailer compared to the box stores and we do it at the same price and honestly, we should probably get a premium for that. We invest tons of money and time into everything and we’ll be at the market price.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. A lot to unpack there, too, because there’s a lot of different things you talk about that are advantages for you guys. And, one kind of stands out as the service. We’ve talked a lot about service recently on the podcast because that’s a new initiative for Nationwide with the Service Leaders Network and everything going on there. But I want to start… You mentioned the delivery. What’s it… Has that always been a thing that Van Vreede’s has offered, your own delivery or… What’s kind of the thing? Well, what is it like standing up your own delivery and kind of managing that on top of the retail business that you have.

Scott Brynjulfson: It’s a lot of work. We have a gentleman, his only job is for routing and we try to work days in advance. But, with this last, say, year and a half, it’s become quite a challenge with inventory and people scheduling stuff and the product’s not coming in because we’re always… Our motto is “Why shop anywhere else.” We carry… You name the brand, we got it. So, our sales staff for the last year and a half has had to change their thinking quite a bit because we were always, I don’t want to say an on-time delivery, but if we didn’t have anything we ordered it on Tuesday, we got it Thursday.

Well, obviously that’s dramatically changed. So managing that whole delivery side of it, I know has been a challenge. It hasn’t been as smooth as possible, but we’re keeping trucks full and getting stuff out. And, I give those guys credit. I go to the warehouse every morning and just even this morning, I was talking to him and the manager over there and just thanking them again for how much product they’re getting out of the door. And it’s a challenge.

Rob Stott: No, this year has been something, right, with supply chains impacting, at the manufacturer level, impacting so many different industries, but retail, obviously, one being hit really hard as we continue to see and follow that. You mentioned challenges is that, obviously a big one, in terms of getting product and getting it to customers that want that product, but are there other challenges or things that are going on for you as a retailer today?

Scott Brynjulfson: Sitting in my shoes, I wear tons of different hats here, and one of them is I handle some of the HR duties and just keeping everybody’s morale up has been tough because let’s face it, people are very stressed and people are over this, and the excuses of COVID not having products is getting old, but I mean, that’s the reality that we’re in in our sales staff every day. They got to deal with it and they have to manage their open orders. They have to make difficult phone calls and it’s been taxing on them. And, we just try to keep it light, try to have fun at work but there’s been a lot of challenges that they’re not used to.

I know everybody’s ready for availability to get back to where it was, but I have a feeling that’s going to be quite some time and I don’t even know if it’ll ever fully go back. I mean, with some of our vendors, I won’t name any particular ones, but some of them, have dramatically stepped up for the independent channel and some have not. And, that’s going to take some time for those couple of vendors that have not supported the independent channel as well for our sales staff to get back to them.

Rob Stott: You mentioned morale. It’s kind of, of all the things we’ve talked about here and not even just on the podcast, but in general throughout the last year, it’s kind of one of those things like you have the chit chats before you get into a meeting, right. Just the small talk before you dive into a meeting and that kind of stuff comes up, but it’s never really been a major topic. So, what is it that you guys are doing from a morale standpoint to kind of keep staff, just the morale up?

Scott Brynjulfson: Once in a while, buying lunch, little things like that. Also, just staying connected with them. One thing that I’ve loved about this company is if you want to talk to the president, you can. It’s an open door policy, so we just try to stay connected with everybody. We’ve changed some things for them as far as hours. We’re not open as late as we used to be. Traditionally, we were open 9:00 to 9:00, Monday through Friday. We have scaled that back now to 9:00 to 7:30. So they get out a little earlier, as far as that goes. And the weekends, we’re just open 9:00 to 5:00 and then Sunday it’s 11:00 to 5:00. So they can still have a good work/homelife balance, I guess we’ll say.

But the biggest thing that I try to do is just stay in communication with everybody, and listen, too. You can’t fix everything that everybody says, but I hope, and I tell everybody I’m approachable, “Come to me if you have a concern. I want to try to help you. I can’t guarantee you it’s always going to happen,” but we definitely listen and that’s another thing going back to even delivery-wise with their morale. When COVID came, we probably lost some sales because we did something. And what we did is for our delivery guys, when Wisconsin was shut down for maybe five or six weeks, we decided to just do a doorstop delivery. And we probably lost some sales for that because some of our competitors were continuing to go into the house, but we wanted to make sure our delivery staff felt we cared about them. So we did do that. I don’t know how much that affected us, but it might have a little bit, but yeah, that’s another thing that we did.

Rob Stott: What kind of… A couple of ways kind of go with that. Any lasting effects of those changes that you kind of see sticking around? And, the other part of that being, what was the response from staff when you make some of these changes or do some of these small things for them and things like that?

Scott Brynjulfson: No, they’re appreciated. And they’re set, too. The delivery guys, they were ecstatic about that. They weren’t always getting their hours though, because that was one of the other… You can only put so many products on the truck. But, we got through that and then with the sales staff, they enjoy when you do the little things. I remember back when I was in sales, anything like that, it definitely made you just feel a little better.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. And you mentioned a little bit ago about you name the brand, you guys have it. I wouldn’t believe it if I didn’t take a virtual tour of your store. I know you guys have some virtual tours on your website and I forget what specific location it was. It might’ve been where you are in Appleton, but expansive, like a Google maps kind of street view, look through the store…what’s going on in there?

Scott Brynjulfson: That particular tour or those virtual tours were recorded by Google. And we actually had them come in here and do that. Now next week I’m actually having Nationwide come in and Dave Orrico is going to be doing our store here. So I’m looking forward to getting that a little updated, but it is a great thing.

With COVID, that was a huge thing that a consumer could still see into the store, even though it’s not live time. But what we did is we did take that a step further on our website. We do have where you can set up a virtual appointment. What happens is when you set one of those up, it gets a notification to the manager at what location, they then have a pad and they can… It’s kind of like doing a zoom call, really, with the consumer. Those have an extremely high close rates. We don’t get too many of them now, but during COVID we did get quite a bit. And, if people took the time to do that, it was like you were there. So, that was really good.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. So tell me, walking through virtually of course, that kind of space, it is expansive. A lot of different types of products and it’s everything that we cover in the Nationwide space, furniture, bedding, all that sort of stuff. And what’s it like managing show floors, three locations, that are that big. And it seems like, everything is on the show floor.

Scott Brynjulfson: Oh yeah. Yeah. Well, in a normal time, it’s not too bad. Right now this last year and a half, it’s been an extreme challenge because see, originally what happened is when everything first started coming down, we were selling floor models off the floor and it got to a point where you almost came in our store and it looked like you’re going out of business. So, now we do have everything nailed to the floor, again. So, and that does cause some hardship with consumers. Obviously, they see something there and they want it, it’s back ordered, but unfortunately that’s what we just have to do right now. But in a normal world, it’s not too bad. Our managers, we have a pretty good system when stuff leaves, they have to generate transfers and our buyer enters them in.

When there’s new product that comes, that’s where I get involved and deal with the cabinet companies around the area and deal with our manufacturer friends as far as figuring out what they recommend and stuff like that. Actually right now I am doing… I just did a couple of kitchens up in Green Bay. I’m going to be doing another one. I was just up there yesterday, again. We’re going to put some new flooring in and going to be putting in a whole new Bosch display up there. So excited about that. But overall it’s kind of like a well-oiled machine. Once it’s going, it kind of maintains itself, not COVID though, obviously.

Rob Stott: Kind of threw a kink in everyone’s system, right. It’s just been crazy. And now all three stores, are all three stores relatively the same size square footage-wise and things like that?

Scott Brynjulfson: That’s a good question. Our Appleton and Green Bay store are similar. Our Green Bay location is the largest location. We actually do own the strip mall up there. So, over the years, we’ve kind of taken on other stores. Appleton we’re kind of landlocked where we’re at. Unfortunately we could definitely expand our furniture display here. And Oshkosh has got a pretty nice sized store too, but it’s probably the smallest out of the three locations, as far as that goes. And then Howie Voight, depending on… We sell used appliances over at that company. And, that can range from having tons on the floor to none. We do sell stuff online. You can go to howievoight.com and actually view the reconditioned product that we do have. And, that’s been a whole other avenue for us that we started probably about five years ago.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. And this all kind of relates. You mentioned the digital tags and getting Dave… I know he must be excited. He’s got a whole rig that he comes out with and goes through…

Scott Brynjulfson: I was actually the test when he first got the camera. I think when he showed up, it still had the plastic on it and he did do our store, but at that particular time, those Google tours were just done. So we left them that way, but he is going to be kind enough to come back in here and shoot our Appleton store at least next week.

Rob Stott: It’s kind of a cool mixer the way the presentation of those for if you’ve seen at other locations that he’s done, it kind of mixes. You mentioned the digital price tags that you have, and you’re able to actually have some of the pricing and product information videos. I think he’s even, with the platform we have him up and running on, where you can… It’s still kind of that Google street view experience where you’re walking through the store, but price tags appear on products and you can click for more information, things like that. Talk about that transition to digital price tags, and sort of that experience of being able to have all that information there for the customer.

Scott Brynjulfson: Yeah. There’s bumps, when you do it, obviously when you switch over, but it’s well worth it. If you don’t have digital tags, anytime when we go to prime time and stuff like that. If I talk to other dealers that don’t have it, I definitely recommend it. It is so worth your time or worth your money, excuse me. Our managers, and even when I was a manager, prices could fluctuate all the time and you have to stay on top of that, when you’re not using digital tags. It could cost you a lot of money one way or the other. So it is a real nice feature to have. We also do have the QR codes on there too, where you can bring up the phone and then it takes you directly to our website and then it displays that product.

So, that’s been a home run getting those. And, honestly it wasn’t that big of headaches. It was more just networking stuff that we had to make sure that was right, but other than that, it’s been great. Something else digital-wise that we switched to, too, recently was we used to have live chat. We had live chat way before a lot of other people did, but it was always kind of one of those tough things to monitor where we don’t have a designated person doing that. It is our entire sales staff. So if anybody’s ever used… If you’ve ever used live chat, you expect it now, where if you’re not doing that, it was you can lose a consumer right there. So we did switch to Podium. With Podium, that’s such a better platform.

And, what I mean by that is the consumer doesn’t have to sit on the webpage. It’s that text that goes to the phone. So say they jump on our website, they ask a quick question, they put in their phone number. If they put their phone in their pocket, you know what I mean? It could be a minute, could be five minutes, maybe. Our sales staff gets back to them in minutes in a text form. And then I can actually, and other key individuals here, we can actually go in to that website and we can view the conversations. And I’ll tell you from comparing to what we have for live chat, comparing to with Podium, way more detailed conversations. That’s been an absolute home run, getting on the Podium platform.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. One quick follow-up to the digital tags. Was it relating to how expansive your stores are? Are you guys all in everywhere or did you kind of pick and choose departments to put them?

Scott Brynjulfson: That’s a great question. We did appliances a hundred percent at all three locations. Furniture, we did not. I don’t know if we’ll ever get there with furniture, as far as that goes, but on appliances and we no longer carry televisions. When we did have televisions, we did it there too, but a hundred percent as far as on appliances.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. And, obviously, the addition of partnership with Podium bringing a lot to the table, is it… All these changes that are happening pretty recently, right? Is that correct?

Scott Brynjulfson: Within the last… Well, the Podium one was relatively in the last, maybe five months. We’re in the middle right now of switching a website provider. Our new site, I believe, is going to go live maybe next week, but it’s always been changing, with the virtual appointments, that was added during COVID.

Rob Stott: Yeah. That’s kind of the… The follow-up there is that with all these changes constantly happening, what’s that learning curve like getting up and making sure you’re getting the most out of these services as you’re using them.

Scott Brynjulfson: Well, Nationwide does a great job though. They really do. When you do have questions on stuff, you can get an answer right away. I can’t say enough for everybody that does work on that stuff. And I’m not just saying that because I’m on this podcast. I truly think everybody… If you got a question you could find out right away, but the transition for all this stuff, with everything it’s… I guess one of the bigger challenges is it’s hard to train an old dog, new tricks. Some of the sales staff may have had some… It takes some badgering to get them to do it, but the key individuals that are using those separate platforms that we do offer digitally, they’re making a lot of money doing it. It’s just going more and more that way, and that’s… Anybody that listens to this is going to know that already, but I mean, it’s definitely a huge difference.

Rob Stott: Oh, that’s awesome. And kind of looking down the road a little bit, things are slowly… I think we’re seeing, I won’t even call it normal, but a return to whatever, somewhat normal, what is moving forward, what’s the outlook for you guys kind of the back half of this year and into 22?

Scott Brynjulfson: If availability gets better, we can still be pumping out some stuff, but just try to tread water, I guess, every day is different. I joked with my wife that I come every day into work. I don’t know what landmine I’m going to step on. You know what I mean? It’s been quite a learning experience, but, and I hope I never have to go through this again, when it’s all said and done, but at the end of the day though, I think it’s made everybody stronger. You definitely see true colors in… across the board with, and I’m talking consumers and employees, you know what I mean? When stuff gets tough like this, and I can tell you, I can’t thank our employees enough for everything they’ve done. They’ve just done a fabulous job navigating these difficult times.

Rob Stott: It’s awesome to hear those kinds of stories too, where things that presented with, I don’t want to call it an opportunity, but challenges like these, things could go one way or the other. And I think more often than not in this space, we’ve heard so many stories like your own, where you found ways to kind of navigate through it and come out the other side better for it. And you know what, just to wrap up, where is your focus? Is there one area you’re focusing on outside of… I know availability is something everyone’s struggling with right now, but I am hoping that comes back around here sooner rather than later, but you know, where are you focusing as we head into-

Scott Brynjulfson: Yeah. We preach all the time, the personal edge, I guess we’ll say, you know what I mean, talking about that we’re local and that we have service. And, if something does go wrong, the consumer can get right ahold of the person they bought it from. You know what I mean? It’s definitely making that whole experience better for the consumer, I guess. Ultimately from what we’ve invested… I didn’t even speak about this, the couple of new positions we added in our warehouse, the power dollies for dealing with these Subzeros and Thermadors, we now have power dollies that can actually climb stairs. There’s been a lot of stuff in the backside that no one even sees, but then again, it makes everybody’s job a little bit easier and hopefully it makes the consumers end, the end-user a more enjoyable experience.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. Well, Scott, I appreciate the time and look forward to continuing following your story. Tell Dave when he swings by that, that we said, “Hi.”

Scott Brynjulfson: I will. I will.

Rob Stott: And hope all goes well there, but appreciate it and look forward to catching up again soon, maybe in person before we know it.

Scott Brynjulfson: Absolutely. And I appreciate it too. Thank you so much for making the call today. So, thank you.

Rob Stott: You got it.

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