Clay uses the exterior of the store to showcase his larger outdoor power equipment. Financing and sale signs with font visible from the road entice passersby.
Clay's Power Equipment
Year founded: 1965
Owners: Jerry and Phyllis Clay
Employees: 8 full time, 5 part time
Annual sales: $1-3 million
Sales mix: 60% wholegoods, 25% parts, 15% service
Customer mix: 55% consumer, 45% commercial
Shop labor rate: $75 per hour
Major lines: Ariens, Giant Vac, Gravely, Honda, Ryan, Stihl, Toro
The doors to Clay's Power Equipment opened in 1965, originally as a garden and hardware store, by Hoyle and Margaret Clay. Son Jerry Clay was an active participant in the store's operation throughout his schooling, and was named the business's general manager after obtaining his degree in business administration. In 2004, Clay and his wife Phyllis, the store's office manager, became the exclusive owners, and made the decision to transform the garden center into a go-to-retailer for the outdoor power equipment customer.
"We did not feel we could grow our business any further with plants and nursery items because of the local competition, especially the box stores," explains Clay. "We also saw a trend in the marketplace towards landscape contractors doing more lawns in our area." Clay saw the need for a retailer that could successfully provide for the landscape contractor market when several customers came to him inquiring about heavier-duty commercial equipment. He decided that this was the direction in which the company would expand.
According to Clay, the company's background made for an easy transition. "We had already experienced being in the consumer equipment business since 1970," explains Clay. The company name was changed to Clay's Power Equipment, Inc. in 2001 to signal the new product offering and service focus. Already known in the area as "Clay's," they were able to hold onto their existing customers while welcoming the potential new shopper.
DIFFERENTIATE FOR SUCCESS
Now a dealer of outdoor power equipment, Clay still faces the challenge of competing with the big box stores in the Raleigh, NC, area. They have set themselves apart with their unique service and product offerings. Programs like the Clay's Cutter Club, for example, offer customers convenience and value not found at the big box stores. The Cutter Club provides customers with priority repair and maintenance, free unlimited blade sharpening, and free initial delivery, just to name a few. In addition to this consumer customer service, the larger commercial customers enjoy the convenience of Clay's parts delivery system.
At Clay's, they feel that the relationships they build with manufacturers and distributors, as well as their customers, are key to their success. With customers, they strive for a friendly and respectful approach. "We treat our customers like we want to be treated, with honesty and respect," explains Clay. "We take an interest in them personally as well as professionally. Our employees are instructed to learn the customers by name and greet them by name as soon as they come in the door."
Clay works hard to maintain the support of manufacturers. He prefers to team up with manufacturers who continue to offer products only through independent dealers rather than cashing in on the lure of the big box stores. "We feel we have a partnership with these manufacturers, because their entire interest is on the well-being of the independent dealer," says Clay. "I feel the independent dealers need to support these manufacturers, so they will continue to do business this way in the future."
One way that Clay's has grown their customer base is through aggressive advertising. Clay realizes that in order to be successful with a complex customer base, they have to utilize different forms of advertising. "In our market, as a consumer and commercial dealer, we do a combination of various types of advertising to reach our target customers," explains Clay. "Some forms work for both, but we have found that newspaper ads zoned to target zip codes, along with newspaper inserts, tend to work better for the consumer, and direct mail works better for the commercial customer."
As part of their advertising efforts, they have begun branding all of the riding mowers sold. On the back of the seat on all riding mowers, you will find a 6x8-inch color Clay's logo. Clay says this really works well for increasing the company's visibility. "These decals can be seen when the mower is on the trailer going up and down the highway as well as when the mower is being used," explains Clay.
The aforementioned Clay's Cutter Club consists of many services already provided by Clay's with the purchase of equipment. The idea is to market all of these services together. "We were already offering a lot of these services, but were not actively advertising them," explains Clay. "We decided to put them all together under one name and market them with the sale of equipment to our homeowner customers."
The advertising doesn't stop there. They also advertise through their local radio station with on-hold advertising (people put on hold listen to Clay's advertising), TV advertisements, and weekly calls to customers conducted by sales staff. The calls help in building relationships with customers and forecasting future sales. "We have a goal sheet set up for each week to record phone calls made and conversations that took place," explains Clay. "The goal sheet and notes are reviewed at the end of the week. That way everyone knows if a customer is looking to buy in the next few weeks or months."
Possibly the most cost-effective way Clay has begun to advertise is with the help of their commercial customers. Commercial customers are asked to support Clay's by placing a sign with the store logo stating "Provider of Commercial Equipment" on their work vehicles. "This is a low-cost way to get our name in front of a lot of people and encourages loyalty from our commercial customers," says Clay.
This year, they are also getting the company name out there by supplying Honda Generators to cool the NC State football team during games. This affords them the opportunity to pitch a tent, in plain site of the 60,000 fans, displaying the generators. Their service is reiterated with an ad in each of the game programs, and during the radio broadcast.
At Clay's, they understand the ever increasing use of technology as a means to obtain product and service information. To accomodate, they have a website that features product information, service capabilites and the company mission. The website offers a lot of information, including 10 reasons to buy from Clay's. "We made a new domain, whybuyfromclays.com, to use on all marketing information," explains Clay. "It contains reasons why people would want to buy from us. We think it creates curiosity so the customer would want to go online to find out more." The domain address, which can be found in the Yellow Page listings and other advertising, has been receiving a lot of hits.
Depite the success of the website, Clay says there are still improvements to be made, including the possibility of hiring out for the site maintenance. "Our website is managed in-house, explains Clay. "We are considering outsourcing it in the future, and expanding it." They currently offer Internet sales for certain manufacturer lines, but hope to expand their offering in the future, realizing that it has been good for business. "It gives us an opportunity to expand our business without the overhead, creating another business within a business," says Clay.
EFFICIENCY A PRIORITY
With business growing daily, Clay was in search of a more efficient way to handle customers as well as equipment repairs. When handling repairs, techs now rely on the newly installed computer system. Computers in the shop eliminate much of the paper that changes hands in ordering service or parts. Upon a customer's arrival and request for service, the repair order is entered into the computer system immediately. The technicians also have the ability to search the computer for a part, and place it on order. A ticket will then print in the parts department, cueing the parts counter employee to pull the part and deliver to the appropriate technician. "This allows us to keep our inventory totals correct while our technicians continue working without having to search for their own parts," says Clay.
In addition to the computerized parts ordering system, Clay implemented a phone system several years ago that directly connects a calling customer to the desired department. "I have found that the phone system works great, because it gets the customer to the person they need to talk to faster, and makes us more efficient," explains Clay. "The customers listen to advertising messages if they are put on hold, and are given the option to leave a voice message."
At Clay's, they provide quality products with a well-trained staff to match. "Training is very important to us," explains Clay. "We send all technicians to as many service schools as possible and highly encourage our technicians to become industry certified." Many of the technicians at Clay's are Stihl Gold and Silver certified as well as EETC certified.
Customers and suppliers have noted the service quality provided by Clay's employees. "The customer service at Clay's is second to none, with extremely knowledgeable parts personnel, multi-certified mechanics and speedy turnaround times," says Jaline Fromme of Stens.
Weekly service goals set for technicians and sales goals for salesmen are made and evaluated each week. Clay also continuously evaluates business practices to prepare for growth and improvement, something that will be fundamental if they follow through on plans to open a second location. "Evaluating the results at the end of each week allows our technicians to see what we are trying to accomplish and gets them more involved in the growth of the service department and the business," says Clay. "We are all on the same page, working towards the same goal."