We had an opportunity to sit down with two higher-end retailers, Deb DeGraaf, owner of DeGraaf Interiors in Hudsonville and Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Dean Howell, owner of Moda Floors & Interiors of Atlanta, Georgia. We asked questions about the finer points of creating an exceptional experience for customers. This was a most interesting interview. The following are some excerpts from the conversation—catch the entire interview here.

TF: Share with us your attitudes about offering consumers a positive retail experience in this environment. 

DeGraaf: All of us realize that the customer experience today starts well before the customer comes into our stores. Our webpages and social media platforms must be engaging; it cannot always be about offering the best sale. It must be something that piques customers’ interest. That could be “Love Your Dog Day” or “National Donut Day” or several other things. There are certain things retailers need to respond to, acknowledge, and take part in just to achieve engagement from our audience. 

It has to start there, and from there, into our showrooms. I think it is important that whatever image we are portraying on our social media platform and our webpage is easily transitioned into the in-store experience. 

Howell: It is important for us to connect the dots from the experience we offer on our website to the one inside the store. Our average ticket is $6,000, so people are not just walking in on a whim. Consumers are doing research and we have to be on our game and engage them on our website all the way through to the transaction. If we are successful, I would like to think the customer will have a story to tell. In my opinion, if we are successful, the customer has a story to tell, they come back for future purchases, as well as refer us when the opportunity arises. That is my definition of success. 

DeGraaf: Conveying that story is very important and we even do a little bit more of that. In between the initial engagement on our website or social media platforms or advertising, we encourage people to call us and schedule a measure. When our estimator goes into the home, we always have him leave a gift. We have done anything from a pizza cutter that says something about being a “slice above the rest,” to hand sanitizer, and several things that we leave with the client just as a thank-you for allowing us to come into their home. This shows them right out of the gate that they are important to us.

TF: You said through your website and social media you want consumers to have a good feel about you. Is personalization also a strong factor? 

DeGraaf: Following up on that, we have bios of every one of our people on our website, including our sales staff, our team working in the warehouse, and myself as the owner, just so people can see the faces behind the retail front door before they even come and visit us. They can see that we are a family-owned business, where the owners are very engaged on a daily basis, setting the tone as to who we are even before they visit the store. That is key.

TF: How important is it that you are locally owned and not a chain? 

Howell: There is data out there that says younger generations actually prefer dealing with local retailers, but we still have to find our strength. We do not have the dollars big retailers have to spend on lead generation, so the specialty retailer has to leverage their strength, because we’re local, we’re engaged, and we have high-caliber people on our staff that care and are well-trained. Who does not like that message at the end of the day? We really must learn how to better get people into our store. I think people would prefer to deal with a local retailer. Our challenge is getting them in our door, getting connected with them.

TF: Who do you see as your competition? 

DeGraaf: We’re always going to be competing with the big box store. I think once a customer is in our store, they rarely will go to a big box store for a quote. Unfortunately, people that purchase at a big box store very likely never set foot in our store because they have a preconceived idea that they are saving money by buying at the big box store, which we all know is not the case in the majority of instances. We never have an opportunity to reach that customer. 

I go back to the medium where one advertises and their website because that is where an independent is going to compete with the big box store more so than the in-store environment. If a consumer goes to a big box store and does not get the answers they are looking for and then visits our store, that is where the experience that we offer—providing answers, peace of mind that they are not just another number, and that we are not going to farm out their installation—comes in. 

Howell: In Atlanta, which is clearly a major metropolitan area, we have over 100 big box stores and they collectively have the highest share. Our competition is not all 100 of them, we focus our lead generation dollars within a 15-mile radius of our store. Then we do a really good job with those leads. 

We all have walked into a big box store and no one talks to us. But if you enter our website, our store or engage with us in any way, we are going to capture that and treat it like it is a piece of gold.