Adapting to the Customer MO

I've noticed a gradual change in the way used building-materials retailers respond to customer expectations.

Twenty-five or thirty years ago, retailers could put anything anywhere and it would sell - in fact, many outlets for used materials were simply open yards. But as the number of stores and resulting competition have increased, customers have grown more demanding. Successful stores have upped their emphasis on the customer experience, with better service, improved lighting, attractive signage, clear price-marking, competitive pricing and better merchandizing. We're not trying to match Nordstrom, or even Target, but the old "junk yard" image is, thankfully, a thing of the past.

The key is to recognize and understand the balance between being well organized and merchandized on the one hand and a bit disorganized and scrambled on the other. Based on information obtained from other retailers, plus conversations with TRP customers, I've developed two basic merchandizing theories.

First, most shoppers come looking for a specific item or group of items - six paneled doors, kitchen cabinets, 2x4s, hardwood flooring. However, once in the store, and because collections of used building materials are pretty intriguing, customers begin to prowl. Prowl, as opposed to shop. Shopping is driven by intent, while curiosity propels prowling. A prowling customer moves things and digs through stacks of materials to find hidden treasures. Discoveries often lead to larger than intended purchases.

A couple of years ago I consulted with a new store whose manager had been hired away from a large, well known retailer. Walking in the front door, I was struck by the uniformity. Like materials were lined up like soldiers for inspection. It was almost comical. The manager was intelligent and skilled in big-store merchandizing, but had no concept of how prowling works. In this manager's world, materials needed to be clearly visible and readily available. Figuring out what to do when a truck showed up with a mix of materials was daunting. After a six-month struggle that included visits to other stores, it dawned on this manager that a little chaos was okay, maybe even desirable. The secret was achieving the right balance between order and disorder.

There's no question that disorganization can be a turnoff. I recently took an office floor lamp to a small lighting store for repairs, and the disarray in the place literally scrambled my senses. I enjoy lighting design and would normally have spent some time looking around, but in this instance quickly deposited my lamp and left, mumbling to myself.

To avoid assaulting customer senses, some organization and effective merchandising are required. You don't want people to be so overwhelmed that they turn around and leave. A few well-placed displays of key materials can help shoppers envision how items might work in their own projects. Furthermore, TRP and similar stores are often overstocked, and full displays can increase inventory turnover.

Several years ago TRP deconstructed an old garage whose wooden doors were mounted on a rail that curved back into the structure's interior. Prior to deconstruction, I took several photos of the doors and their mountings. Upon delivery to the warehouse, the doors, rails and hardware were neatly stacked and the photos mounted on an adjacent column. A month went by with no takers, so I had a crew build a small garage inside the TRP warehouse where we mounted and displayed the doors. Once customers could see how they operated, the doors sold within the week.

TRP has a designated kitchen-display area in which we recently installed a set of 15 base and wall cabinets, complete with appliances, replicating their original setup. The first day following installation a customer purchased the entire set of cabinets, including appliances.

WAIT - it gets better!

We quickly installed another set of cabinets and appliances. A day later, one customer purchased all the cabinets a second customer all the appliances.

Next, we displayed a beautiful full set of solid maple cabinets, with appliances. That same afternoon a customer came in and put the entire set on hold (we have a 24-hour hold policy). Assuming that customer completed the sale, TRP turned three full sets of used kitchen cabinets in less than a week.

Four customers, 39 cabinets, 11 appliances - in six days.

In summary:
Some degree of organization is beneficial to business and necessary for everyone's sanity.
Displays facilitate customer visualization and inventory turnover.
Strategic disorder encourages prowling - think tiger creeping through tall grass in search of prey.

Location and Contact Information

TRP ReUse Warehouse - Oakland
9235 San Leandro Street
Oakland, CA  94603
(510) 383-1983; toll-free 888-588-9490
Hours: Mon-Sat 9:00-6:00 Closed Sunday

TRP ReUse Warehouse - Los Angeles
3015 Dolores Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90065
Hours: Mon-Fri 10:00-5:00; Sat 10:00-4:00

Please visit our partnering warehouses:

Reuse Depot
50 West Madison
Maywood, IL 60153
(708) 223-0502
Hours: Wed-Mon 10:00-6:00p; Closed Tuesdays

Salvage Too - Rockford Reuse Center
907 S Main Street
Rockford, IL 61101
(815) 963-6236
Hours: Tue-Fri, 11:00am-4:30pm

The ReUse Warehouse
1400 East Geer Street
Durham, NC 27704
(919) 219-4913
Hours: Mon-Fri, 2:00-6:00; Sat, 9:30-5:00

Second Chance Building Materials Center
1423 West Grove Street
Boise, ID 83702
(208) 331-2707
Hours: Mon-Sat, 9:00-6:00; Sun, 12:00-5:00

Roaring Fork Valley Habitat for Humanity
7025 Hwy 82
Glenwood Springs, CO 81601
(970) 945-7733
Hours: Mon-Fri, 10:00-5:30; Sat, 10:00-5:00; Sun, 11:00-4:00

Stardust Building Supply
3901 E. Thunderbird Road
Phoenix, AZ 85032
(602) 459-9803
Hours: Mon-Sat, 8:00-6:00; Sun, 10:00-4:00

Habitat for Humanity ReStore, Salt Lake Valley,
1276 South 500 West
Salt Lake City, UT 84101
(801) 263-0136
Hours: Mon-Sat 9:00am-6:00pm; closed Sunday

Habitat for Humanity ReStore, Summit & Wasatch Counties
6280 N. Silver Creek Drive, Silver Summit, UT
(435) 487-9015
Hours: Wed-Sat 10:00-6:00; closed Sunday

Recycle Utah
1951 Woodbine Way Park City, UT 84060
(435) 649-9698
Hours: Mon-Sat 8:00-5:30; Sun 10:00-4:00

New England Reuse
400 Sackett Point Rd
North Haven, CT 06473
(203) 230-2638
Hours: Mon-Fri 9:00-5:00p; Saturday 9:00-1:00p

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