Lots of CEOs say they know their customers. Steve Crowder REALLY knows his customers.
Earlier this year, Crowder, president and CEO of GuildMaster, the accent furniture and decorative accessories resources, set out on a cross-country odyssey to meet the company’s retail customers, find out how business was and generally get the lay of the land.
Some 15,000 miles and 32 states later, Crowder had 152 retail notches on his belt, giving him one of the most special perspectives on business conditions and what makes good retailers good—and bad retailers bad.
At the High Point Market here in the spring, Crowder was ceremonially welcomed back to the GuildMaster showroom and got a chance to talk about his travels.
“Mission accomplished,” he said, echoing the words of another president, though Crowder’s accomplishment seems to have been somewhat more genuine.
Crowder said he had three goals when he set out and he feels he met them all over the nearly three-month trek, which was done in stages.
“First off was to give encouragement,” he said, both to the company’s own employees as well as its retail customers. After all, how many times does a vendor CEO get to see smaller and medium size accounts on their own turf?
“Social networking,” was the second goal and Crowder certainly did a lot of that, charting his trip on Facebook and Twitter, attracting some 300 followers and fans.
Finally, Crowder hoped to discover trends and design ideas for future products, as well as to share with other customers. He collected a wealth of such ideas (see sidebar) and hopes that stores will adapt some of them for their own operations.
Crowder said that a key finding of his visits was that stores need to do a better job of showing decorating ideas to their customers. “Customers just can’t envision these products in their homes. I found that if we can get it in their homes, it will never come back.”
That means retailers have to change their methods. “Too many stores are doing it the way their parents did and even the way their grandparents did.”
There were a couple of surprise discoveries too. “There was a lot more sensitivity to price than I expected. I found that stores were putting more price-sensitive stuff at the front of the store versus ‘wow factor’ products.
“I also found more stores negotiating on price than I expected.” One more thing: “Shoplifting has increased.”
He said retailers told him they could use help, requesting more dating and sales training.
As for GuildMaster’s own showing, he said, “People that have made a statement in GuildMaster”—creating a dedicated area of company product—“do better with our line than if the products are scattered throughout the store.”
Now that he’s had a chance to settle back in at home here, Crowder says it’s time to start putting what he learned into action. “Soon we will begin to share our top 10 ‘Aha’ moments, those moments when we saw something that caused the light bulb in our head to turn on,” he recently wrote on Facebook. “Stay tuned.”—Warren Shoulberg