By Stephanie Allemann
As a retailer, are your suppliers giving you the tools you need to compete with big box stores? If you answered yes, then congratulations. If, however, your answer is no or you are not sure, read on. Thanks to the Internet, retailers and suppliers are more tightly integrated than ever before. This integration enables you to access up-to-date information from your suppliers when and where you need it. And that instant access to information gives you a competitive edge over big box retailers.
Specialization is key
As a pool and spa retailer you have a significant advantage over big box stores in that you provide a specialized product/service. Pool/spa products are by their nature, technical and require customer education and service. Specialization means you are better equipped than a big box store to guide a consumer through the purchase process.
Then there is the service component. This includes scheduling installations, keeping the customer informed of potential issues and getting new staff up to speed quickly so they can deliver exceptional service. This is an area where big box stores often have an advantage. Consumers know when they go to such a store, they will leave with the product they want or they will get an immediate answer as to when they can expect to receive it. Big box stores have huge warehouses for storing lots of product and computer systems telling the sales staff what is currently available or when it will be available.
Having said that, those of you that excel at both product and non-product related customer service will, in the end, become the provider of choice for consumers. Many people prefer to shop at local businesses rather than big box stores, but only if the experience is a positive one. If the consumer can not get the information and service they want from you, they will go elsewhere.
Information at your fingertips
The key to providing excellent customer service is having access to information you need, when you need it. For example, when you have a customer interested in a particular spa, one question they will ask is when can it be installed. If you do not have that spa in stock, how do you answer that seemingly simple question? How do you get your hands on the information you need? Does your supplier have this spa in stock? If not, when will they be able to ship one to you? And once you know when that spa will arrive, how do you go about fitting the installation into your own schedule?
The key to answering these questions, and in doing so providing that exceptional shopping experience, is access to external information (inventory availability) from your supplier and internal information (scheduling) from your service department. To do so requires tools that connect you instantly with your suppliers as well as each aspect of your business. This is called external integration.
What is external integration?
Essentially, this is how information flows between you and your supplier. In the old days, this took several forms—a printed product catalog, phone calls to your supplier’s customer service reps, or perhaps weekly faxes from your supplier showing their current stock levels. This level of integration is outdated, to say the least. It requires phone calls back and forth to your supplier to obtain the required information. Unfortunately, many suppliers still provide this type of service, and it often forces you to tell your customers you will have to get back to them with the answers they seek, and that means a potential loss in sales.
The Internet has changed all of that. Many suppliers now provide websites whereby retailers can view current inventory levels as well as order status, including expected shipping dates. If you are working with a supplier that provides this sort of web-based information, take advantage of these tools and make sure your staff knows how to use them as well.
Having web-based access to information allows you to immediately answer many of your customer’s questions without playing telephone tag with your supplier’s customer service team. Plus, it gives your customers a positive impression of your business, thus increasing their confidence in you.