Toe to Toe

Whoever said the independent dealer can't compete head-to-head against the big box stores must've forgot to tell Shaun O'Connor. His family's dealership is surrounded by the four largest outdoor power equipment retailers in the United States: Home Depot, Lowe's, Sears and Wal-Mart. But that didn't stop O'Connor's Lawn & Garden from selling more than 4,000 units last year, nor has it prevented the dealership from winning three straight awards for best customer service in Oklahoma.

The two go hand in hand. The big numbers O'Connor's puts up is a result of the customer service it has provided since its inception in 1948. Founded as a pest control company, the business branched into garden supplies in the 1960s, which is also when it began to dabble in outdoor power. As time went on, equipment became a larger part of the business. Today it's the focus of O'Connor's Lawn & Garden.

"I've never understood why a dealer says he's focused on consumer or commercial customers," Shaun says. "We focus on power equipment—period. We've been fortunate enough to grow both our consumer and commercial segments over the years."

Culture enhances customer service

Much of the dealership's business comes from long-time customers. To grow the way it has, though, has also required a continued influx of new customers. Shaun says he strives to maintain a company culture that encourages existing customers to keep coming back, and new customers from wanting to go anywhere else.

That's why O'Connor's Lawn & Garden is always taking employment applications. "I need the best staff I can possibly get," Shaun says. "We have a real need for people with computer skills, administrative skills and an understanding of what good customer service is all about. It's become even more important as we've grown and become more reliant on our computer system and retail financing."

Shaun says many of the dealership's younger employees didn't go through high school and/or college with aspirations to one day work at a lawn mower shop. What they did desire was a job where they could make a comfortable living, put their skills to use and feel appreciated. That's what O'Connor's tries to provide.

For instance, Shaun says he doesn't rag on employees when he sees them chatting for a few minutes. He wants O'Connor's Lawn & Garden to be a fun place to work where everyone gets along and is treated well—and as equals. "We don't go by titles here," Shaun points out. "Everybody does what they're good at."

By creating such a selfless, team environment, "employees chatting" doesn't become a real issue. When something needs to get done, it always does.
"You see that guy taking out the trash," Shaun says as a member of his shop staff races out the door with a bag over each shoulder. "Nobody told him to do that. He saw that it needed to be done, so he did it. He knows that everyone else here has taken out the trash before. And as he's taking it out this time, three other employees will thank him on his way out the door."

Making reality perception

As the old saying goes: "Perception is reality." At O'Connor's Lawn & Garden, the reality is that each employee has a critical job to do. Shaun says a strong company culture helps ensure that each employee actually perceives that reality, which, in turn, puts the dealership in a better position to accomplish its ultimate goal of total customer satisfaction.

Another reality is that an independently owned dealership, especially one like O'Connor's Lawn & Garden, is a great place to purchase a piece of power equipment. Unfortunately, that's not always the average consumer's perception, which is why O'Connor's has established a multi-faceted strategy to address it.

The strategy seems to be working. Last year, from its one location, the dealership sold more than 1,000 walk mowers and 800 riders. Another 2,200-or-so pieces of equipment—including handheld, blowers and tillers—also went out the door. O'Connor's Lawn & Garden even won a prestigious readers' choice award for "best lawn and garden store" from The Oklahoman, an Oklahoma City-based daily newspaper with a 215,000-plus circulation. The dealership had already won the readers' choice award for best customer service three years in a row.

Those honors have helped draw customers from all over Oklahoma, as has a consistent schedule of ads in The Oklahoman. Shaun concedes that the ads are a bit costly, and that most smaller to mid-size dealers probably couldn't afford them. But as O'Connor's has grown, the ads have become an important part of the dealership's strategy to face the big boxes head on.

"I don't think consumers really care where they buy from," Shaun says. "They don't necessarily want to buy from Home Depot or Lowe's. But they walk in and feel comfortable because it looks and feels like a reputable retailer. It's what most consumers are used to."

The O'Connor family's strategy to get consumers to view its store in the same way starts from the highly traveled road separating the dealership from the extremely busy Quail Springs Mall, not to mention Home Depot and Sears who are directly across the street. Lowe's and Super Wal-Mart are both within a mile.

Shaun says he loves their location. When Home Depot moved in a year or so ago, Shaun didn't panic like some dealers might. In fact, he began to lick his chops. "I knew people would come over here after they'd been to Home Depot," Shaun tells. "We just needed to give them a reason to want to."

Keeping up with volume

O'Connor's didn't have trouble coming up with a few reasons, much less one. You can chalk it up to wide selection, low prices and great customer service. Shaun says it all hinges on smart inventory management.

As the business has grown, O'Connor's Lawn & Garden has had to move four times, most recently in 1995 to its present location. The showroom was expanded to 10,000 square feet in 2003. The parts and service departments have also been expanded over the years.

Most recently, the covered outdoor storage area underwent a little makeover. In spring 2006 the flat, 10-foot-high roof was taken off. A sloping roof was put in its place, allowing crates to be stacked 15 to 23 feet high. It's an impressive sight from the street. "It legitimizes us in the eyes of the average consumer who's under the impression that places like Home Depot are what a retailer should look like," Shaun says.

Perhaps more importantly, additional storage space means O'Connor's can take on more inventory at a time, which helps the dealership keep up with demand. Keeping up with volume has been the biggest challenge over the years.

O'Connor's Lawn & Garden likes to place big orders, which helps earn more margin points. Sometimes the savings is passed on to the customer in order to keep the dealership's pricing competitive. Shaun says he doesn't fret over a couple points when a unit is basically ready to go right out of the crate/box. He's more concerned with closing the sale and turning the inventory.

"If something hasn't sold in two months, it's been sitting too long," Shaun says. "We like to keep one of every model on the sales floor. When we sell something, we get it from the storage area and set it up. The floor model stays in the showroom. The customer usually doesn't mind waiting a while for us to set their unit up. They know they're not going to find a better deal anywhere else; and by deal I mean a good price and even better service."

Kill them with competence

Dealers are told time and time again to "sell their service" because that's what sets them apart from the box stores. Shaun says O'Connor's has been selling its
service department for many years. "That's really a no-brainer," he adds. "We're trying to take the concept of service to the next level."

The first step is getting patrons to feel comfortable. Customers enter the dealership through automatic sliding doors. Lawn ornaments, chemicals and other garden supplies are merchandised on shelves directly to the left. Kites, garden flags and windsocks hang on the wall to the right and from the ceiling above. (See "Taking The Edge Off" for more on this segment of the business.)

The parts department is straight ahead, clearly marked by a large banner touting its "award winning" status. Just before you enter the parts room, two or more customer service representatives work the sales counter answering phones, ringing up sales and helping customers fill out credit applications.

Shaun likes to have as many employees manning the showroom as possible. Depending on how busy it is, six or more salesmen could be on the show floor at once. It's part of that strategy to make customers feel comfortable, while legitimizing O'Connor's as a top-notch retailer. A literature rack is also conveniently placed in the center of the showroom.

"A customer never comes in to just browse," Shaun says. "They are looking to buy something. When they tell you they're just browsing, what they really want is a little time to look around. That's why our salesmen will keep an eye on each customer, occasionally checking to see if any questions can be answered."

Thanks to the way equipment is efficiently displayed, questions are often answered for several customers at once. Models are merchandised left-to-right by "level." Lower-priced, entry-level homeowner units are parked to the left, mid-level homeowner units are in the center of the showroom and commercial equipment's toward the right. Salesmen lurk around their area of expertise. Sometimes, when walking a customer through a couple different models, other customers will huddle around and listen in. It's not unusual for O'Connor's to close several sales off the same presentation.

Don't promise what you can't deliver

Service is the cornerstone of the O'Connor's culture, not to mention its sales message. Nonetheless, the dealership is cautious about how it pushes its technical service. You don't want a customer thinking that the machine you're trying to sell them will inevitably fall apart.

"This is an especially touchy subject with our female customers, who we seem to be getting more of," Shaun says. "We simply remind customers that we have trained parts and service personnel who can help them with any maintenance or repairs down the road; no different than a car dealership."

Similarly, O'Connor's Lawn & Garden doesn't put a great deal of emphasis on perks such as "service while you wait" or free loaners. Shaun says he's had commercial cutters come to him because they felt let down by another dealer who couldn't deliver on his promises. A lot of times, it's not even the dealer's fault because a given situation is out of his control.

"What do you do if you've been telling your commercial customers that you'll service their machines while they wait, and one morning four of them stop in at once?" Shaun asks. "What do you do if you promise a cutter that you'll have a free loaner for him if you can't fix his machine while he waits, but all four of your loaners are already out in the field?

"It takes only that one time, even when you're bending over backwards to try and make things right, where a customer feels like you broke your promise so they decide to take their business elsewhere," Shaun continues. "You have to be 100% honest all the time."

You certainly can't fault him for adopting that line of thinking. O'Connor's Lawn & Garden has been voted Oklahoma's top customer service provider three years in a row. Now they've been named as Oklahoma's best lawn and garden store. That's an honor not even Home Depot has won.

Taking The Edge Off

Founded in 1948 as a pest control company, O'Connor's Lawn & Garden branched into retail during the 1960s. The focus was on lawn and garden supplies such as chemicals, lawn ornaments, water fountains and garden flags. The company also began dabbling in outdoor power equipment at this time. Now under the leadership of the third generation of O'Connors, power equipment is the focus of the business. Still, pest control and garden supplies continue to chip in.

Although it's a very small percentage of total sales, pest control brings in some additional revenue at a pretty good margin. Lawn and garden supplies play a larger role. This segment occupies about a fifth of the showroom and generates a fifth of total dealership sales. Garden supplies also help "take the edge off," as Shaun O'Connor likes to put it.

"Our garden supply sales have dropped off in recent years," Shaun points out. "This is where the box stores actually have stung a bit. It's still a viable business for us, though. Plus, it takes the edge off of being an equipment-focused store. It really helps with our female customer base, which is growing all the time. Children like to look around, as well. It makes for more of a family shopping environment, while also helping our bottom line."

To learn more, visit oconnorslawn.com.

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