by Mike Matthews, Editor
Not much has changed in the typical K&B showroom in the years since grandma remodeled the kitchen in her starter home. Despite several decades of technological and market research innovation, a present day consumer could expect to be treated to the same retail experience as if they'd just driven to the store in their '65 Rambler.
In 2005, Taja di Leonardi decided she wanted to change that.Early in the process of writing a business plan for Ecohome Improvement, di Leonardi and business partner Nina Boeddeker knew they'd need to make their company stand out from the competition. In 2005, just offering a wide selection of green products would be unique, even in Berkeley. “But I knew there would be a time when conventional home improvement centers would be offering many of the brands that I carry, so I needed a way to maintain a competitive edge in more than just the products,” di Leonardi noted. “So I began looking for ways to differentiate Ecohome Improvement from the standpoint of the customer experience.”
Rather than force customers to meander around uninformative aisles of merchandise, or cope with unhelpful salespeople, Taja decided that a visit to Ecohome should center around two primary comfort zones: the Paint Bar® and the Design Bar®.
The Paint Bar, which came first, is a uniquely built structure that telegraphs a clear message to visitors: this ain't Sherwin-Williams. The bar itself is constructed of old-growth reclaimed redwood topped by a Vetrazzo glass countertop, and illuminated from elegant pendant lighting fixtures. “We serve tea, we serve cookies, we have magazines out, we have all the color chips out. And our deeply knowledgeable paint barrians are always on hand to facilitate color choices for our clients,” di Leonardi described.
The Paint Bar thrives on activity. There's a basket of toys nearby for the kids as well as some dogbones for customers who bring their best friends along. “On a typical day you'll see customers – who are most often women – lined up at the Paint Bar, talking to each other, eating cookies, drinking tea, giving the dog a bone, checking on their kids, playing with colors, talking with the paint barrians,” said Taja. “It's very lively.”
Because color is a major driver for paint sales, di Leonardi invested early on in the MatchRite Color System. “Then I joined up with American Pride Paint, and that became one of our most successful offerings, because they were part of the MatchRite system. That allowed people to bring in their color samples or their national brand paint colors and we could make those same colors in our zero-VOC American Pride Paint and our zero-VOC pigments. We now sell Mythic Paint and Yolo as well. ”
Since making paint can get a bit noisy, the kitchen and bath department is housed next door in its own building. di Leonardi recognized that a client looking to invest $15,000 to $30,000 in their kitchen would prefer a somewhat calmer experience.
The Design Studio features some complete life style displays utilizing sustainable, non-emitting products. For instance, their Sujo kitchen features Euro-modern styled bamboo cabinetry complemented by matte black Richlite counters, Oceanside Tiles, and eco-efficient Fagor appliances. For contrast, there's a Craftsman-inspired kitchen using shaker style Wainright Cabinetry in cherry wood, with a Vetrazzo recycled glass countertop and handmade Bedrock tile. But the Design Studio also allows customers to visualize how a mix of kitchen elements might work together in their own homes.
The Design Bar features compact vignettes built around 4 different styles of cabinetry at standard depth. The 2' wide by 7' high upper/lower units are in 4 different wood styles: a paint grade, a bamboo, a cherry shaker, and a flat panel maple.
By switching among a mix of easily interchangeable countertops, customers can decide first hand which combinations might work best for them. At present, the Design Bar showcases 30 of Ecohome's most popular countertops from the 12 brands they carry. An array of pre-designed interchangeable tile boards furthers the process, and the sales associate may also introduce some floor samples to the process. “This gets the client incredibly excited,” said Taja, “and it creates a relationship with the customer that is incredibly important – because people buy from people.”
Before the customer leaves, the associate takes pictures – ecophotos – that stay in the customer's record, complete with a line-item description of everything that's been discussed. “We'll send the customer an e-mail with the picture, but we keep the brand and color data in our own database because I don't want them to replicate that somewhere else.”
A customer relationship database is created in a step-by-step manner by the sales associates throughout their interaction with the customer. It may qualify as Ecohome's most impressive innovation. “I've constructed a robust database called Yodel™ and it does all our customer relationship management,” said di Leonardi. “It generates automated ballpark estimates or quick quotes, and it automatically follows up with the client after we send the quote out via e-mail so we do not lose a customer touch point.”
Yodel generates its quick-quote ballpark estimates using historical costs and pricing data. That enables Ecohome to produce a ballpark figure that is plus or minus 10 percent accurate.
Yodel contributes to the sales process from the minute a consumer enters the showroom… if not sooner. Web users can start out from home by downloading the ballpark estimate form, and also get directions on how they can sketch out their own plans for projects such as countertops.
Once the customer is in the store, Yodel suggests an appropriate set of questions to help the sales associate learn more about the homeowner's interests and needs. “Customers love to talk about their project,” said Taja. “Give them that opportunity and you will be able to better advise them on what product or option to choose.”
Asking the right questions can even help cross-sell customers into a related project, she added. “Maybe they came in for flooring and they end up talking about their bathroom; that gives you the opportunity to offer a bathroom solution as well.”
If the consumer does bring in a countertop sketch, Yodel is formatted to instantly generate an installed price estimate for any product they might choose. It can also help a salesperson give good advice by activating on-screen product information.
Once the customer expresses interest in a product, Yodel integrates that data into an automated e-mail with the appropriate message within 24 hours of their visit. Yodel is programmed to follow up with customers at pre-set intervals with a somewhat personalized message. For example, if a customer takes home a sample product from Ecohome's lending library, Yodel will send out a reminder when it's time to return it to the store.
“The system manages a series of pre-established customer touch-points,” said Taja, “both via e-mail and by way of spoken commitments about when we will get back to the customer and when that customer is expected to get back to us. That way every single customer is receiving those pre-established touch-points and we're fulfilling our commitments with the client.”
While Yodel manages the busy work of following up with customers, the staff is free to work with other customers in the store. “They're establishing new relationships rather than worrying about quotes they sent out the past month and who they've heard from and who they haven't heard from,” said di Leonardi, “…or not worrying about them at all and having a touch-point breakdown, meaning we just don't follow up with the client.”
The system generates ongoing activity reports so the sales associates remain attuned to their clients. The process continues until it progresses to a sale, or until the sales associate determines the customer is no longer interested.
Selling green products in Berkeley may sound like shooting fish in a barrel to some folks, but there are still plenty of places to buy home improvement products. “Certainly the Bay Area has a concentration of very well educated people with a middle to high income,” Taja observed. “We have a fair number of people who tell us they're buying something from us because it's eco and that's what they want. Yet there are also a fair number of people who tell us, ‘I get the eco story but why I should buy it. I'm here, I'm listening… sell me.' So we still need to provide the right experience, provide outstanding service, and we need to provide all the right customer touchpoints in order to make the sale.”
Ecohome is specifically oriented towards the homeowner rather than the contractor, for a variety of reasons, according to Taja. “They're the ones who choose the finishes, they're the ones who are willing to spend a percentage more on green, and they are quicker to adapt new products than the typical contractor,” she noted. “In very specifically pinpointing my customer base, I was able to very specifically design a store from products, to pricing, to customer experience that matched those clients.”
Most of those customers profile as either DIY or Do-It-For-Me. “Over 95 percent of our countertop sales are complete installations,” di Leonardi revealed. “People don't buy countertop slabs, they buy installed countertops. People don't buy floors, they buy installed floors.” Customers for other products such as paint and finishes can access a list of preferred contractors and handymen.
Now in its 4th year, the company generates over $2 million in annual sales. At present, the Ecohome showroom covers about 4,000 square feet and is staffed by 5 full time associates plus the partners. As for the future, di Leonardi promises ever more innovations. “With our replicable and scalable systems, our strong regional brand recognition, and the growing home improvement market, Ecohome Improvement is uniquely positioned to successfully increase its position in the Bay Area,” she said.
Until then, the Bay Area's reputation for hip bars and restaurants has two hot must-see additions: the Paint Bar® and the Design Bar®.
A Sustainable Management Model
Ecohome co-owners Taja di Leonardi and Nina Boeddeker bring an uncommonly valuable mix of talents to their business. Boeddeker, who holds a PhD in chemistry, is exceptionally well qualified to assess a manufacturer's eco-claims in deciding which products to stock. di Leonardi has an M.B.A. in Sustainable Business Management from the Prisidio School of Management. She developed the business plan for Ecohome Improvement in her final semester of studies, which gave her the added benefit of peer and faculty feedback in fine tuning the details behind her new enterprise.
That gives di Leonardi some unique management insights. “You need to clearly know your market and design your product selection and your services based around who your target market is,” she emphasizes. “Try not to be all things to all people because you will not be able to serve your target client in the best possible way.
“From an operational standpoint, look for ways to create replicable systems in your business so you can spend more time working with clients, or working with your employees,” she adds. “Understand the difference between working in your business and on your business. Most owner-operator people work in their business every day but they don't spend enough time working on their business, and that's where developing operational efficiencies and creating structures and systems come into play.”
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