True Understanding of Bricks and Mortar

Monday, August 9, 2021

I’ve touched on “Bricks and Mortar” in the past, and I’d like to expand on that in more depth now. I’ve told you this story before...Going back twenty five or so years, I frequented the local Sears and Roebuck store...A lot! At the time I was buying quite a few Craftsman tools. Whenever I went there, I’d seek out this one young woman. She was not only passionate about the tools and the Craftsman line, she intimately knew all of them. I never left that Sears store disappointed that I’d bought the wrong tool--either with hand tools, or power tools. So, one day I went into the store and my lady was gone. She was replaced by college types working part time. These particular young people didn’t have a clue what they were selling. I have to admit, they were pretty good at “pointing,” and then saying “I think you’ll find that ‘X’ somewhere over there.....” To just point! And kind of the same story with clothes, shoes, etc..Sears, in their wisdom, had figured out that two “cheap” college types made more “bean counter” sense than one well paid sharp, enthusiastic employee!

I can imagine how the management at Sears decided to cut corners on wages and instead professed ...“Just make a product presentation ‘pretty’ and folks will impulse buy it!!” Now I know many things brought about the ultimate demise of Sears. But I’m very sure that when the real “people thing” changed, they just became another cheap storefront. A cheap, empty suit, if you will! For me, and surely for many other customers, the reason for going to Sears...the people, the pizzazz...the ambiance...had left.

So, we in the lumber business are in what I might deem a kind of ultimate “Bricks and Mortar” kind of environment. I’ll “paint” three quick pictures...First, the lumber yards of old (and some of these still exist by the way!) where you go in and approach the thirty plus year employee at the counter, a guy named Riley Proctor. He was great at lumber/hardware, but his “claim to fame” was an incredible knowledge of locks. And Riley could re-key, master key, and grand master locks for a project. He could also “pick” locks and re-key when someone had “lost” the keys. Incidentally, Riley was a real person that worked at Orange State Lumber in Sarasota for many years till he retired. The second model of a fair amount of lumber yards around the country...Just what I call “down and dirty” sticks and plywood types. They sell a narrow line of commodities, buy high volume, sell at low margins, etc...And there are a number out there that survive well just doing that. The customer contacts/service part is not there...But they’ve found a niche and are good at it. Then there’s the third, present day model...That sweet spot where many (to this day) call themselves independent, local building material dealers. They tend to carry a pretty broad line of building materials...Are usually very good at certain things, like stocking and selling a wood specie like Cypress. Now they are now struggling with the question...”How do I compete with the Big Boxes?”... “How do I stay viable as more folks shop online?” What can I do next year that will infuse excitement into my building supply program?”...And it goes on.

Now we all know “we can’t be all things to all people.” But boy do we have an advantage. There is something magic that happens when a person walks into a “retail” lumber yard...And let me be clear here...Although most of us really make our living with the builders, there is a growing niche of those “walk-in” types...And they are ripe for a real lumber yard experience. Many times I’d be showing a walk-in through the lumber yard...Which incidentally was always clean, uncluttered, and a safe place to be in. But hearing comments like ”Boy, I just love the smell of wood!” Or, “Boy that Cedar is beautiful!”...and so on...It’s pretty easy to have a real “organic connection” with the whole lumber yard experience. This kind of “buzz” between the walk-in and that lumber yard is a kind of priceless organic element that needs to be recognized and maintained. And most of us that have vibrant, viable operations understand the “Community basics”...We (including our employees) are wired into the communities we work in. We give back in many ways.

An independent retail building material dealer that is truly “Bricks and Mortar” is mindful of customers as people, not simply a sales figure. So although some lumber yards might do a fairly good job of discouraging folks from walking around, or being given the nickel tour...This is something that I feel should always be encouraged. And it’s not that hard to do. If your operation is always neat, clean, organized and safe...Why not encourage (or even insist) that you give folks that tour? This could include that first time in-the-store builder, a “walk in,” or someone sent in by their contractor. And the frosting on the cake would be when folks got to see and meet happy associates (staff) throughout the operation. Don’t just “point and disappear,” or you could end up like Sears!

It’s pretty obvious I’m as passionate as ever about Independent Lumber dealers...My theme today is simple. We may just have the ultimate “Bricks and Mortar” experience happening in our stores. And it may be more challenging than ever. But if we decide to be the best local building materials company around...Our basics are already there and in place. I’ll end with this...There are many independent building material dealers around the country that get it and are doing fine...In future articles, I’ll give you some thoughts/ideas on things you might try to add to your Bricks and Mortar experience/opportunity, which I believe continues to be alive and well!

Continued good luck and good selling...

Al E. Bavry, President Emeritus, Kimal Lumber 8/9/2021

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