Open Houses vs. Strategic Selling Events

The "secret is in the sauce" for All Pro Equipment & Rental in Tallahassee, FL.

More than 150 customers enjoyed the March cookout. The total cost of the event was approximately $1,500 and it brought in $90,000 in equipment sales.
More than 150 customers enjoyed the March cookout. The total cost of the event was approximately $1,500 and it brought in $90,000 in equipment sales.

Robin Barber doesn’t spend precious time and money on "open house" events anymore. The owner of All Pro Equipment & Rental in Tallahassee, FL, recently switched gears and instead hosts strategic cookouts three times a year. “Open houses are expensive and unpredictable, and some attendees will never be your customers," Barber says. "Our cookouts are exclusively for customers and we promote only to them.”

All Pro holds a cookout in March, sometime during midseason, and at season’s end. They are held midweek and food is served from noon to 4 p.m. or until it’s gone. More than 150 customers enjoyed the cookout this past March and the store brought in approximately $90,000 from equipment sales.

The cookout wasn’t directly responsible for every sale, as a few customers took advantage of event discounts to close a deal previously in the works. As an added bonus, customers were entertained by a Wisconsin chainsaw sculptor who, wintering over in Tallahassee, practiced his art in the All Pro parking lot.

“We’ve experimented with different cookout formats,” explains Barber. “In March, a caterer pulled up with a trailer and served 150 plates of barbecue chicken. My staff truly didn’t have to lift a finger like they’ve had to for previous events. The total cost, approximately $1,500, was also far less than we ever spent on promoting and hosting an open house.”

Depending on the supplier or manufacturer, Barber notes that co-op advertising dollars can be used to cover the food costs, but he advises fellow dealers to check on available dollars prior to scheduling an event.

Getting fired up

Barber became a dealer only after spending several years getting to know the business from the ground up. He was introduced to the green industry in 1989 while working as a firefighter for the City of Tallahassee. During his Wednesdays off, he would mow lawns with another firefighter. This went on for a few years until, with more than 20 years of service with the fire department, he retired. Now, able to devote full attention to a second career, Barber quickly grew his lawn maintenance business, All Pro Landcare, and launched a second business entity, All Pro Landscaping, for larger installation projects.

The two companies targeted a commercial market composed primarily of multi-family complexes and large retail establishments. Projects won by the landscaping company more often than not were passed along to its sister company for yearly maintenance. All Pro Landcare also started a parking lot sweeping service (now subcontracted out) and has since entered the lawn care market.

All Pro Equipment & Rental was born in 1997 when Barber started selling Snapper commercial mowers and Husqvarna handheld equipment. As the retail business grew, it was moved to a rented facility downtown. In 2004, Barber purchased and completely renovated a steakhouse, All Pro's current location.

The company’s diversified customer list includes homeowners, municipalities and area schools, as well as several landscape maintenance and construction competitors. “Most landscape contractors don’t have an issue doing business with us even if they happen to be in competition with our other business operations,” Barber points out. “No matter who the customer is, building sales is about building relationships.

“People do business with people they like," Barber continues. “We have seven store employees and I impress on all of them how important it is to be friendly and have a smile on their face. That goes for the delivery person just as much as it does for the person behind the parts counter.”

Beyond a cookout

A friendly smile and cookout are just the appetizers for customers. The main course involves helping them make the right purchase for the job at hand and providing timely service. Today’s customers can choose from popular brands such as Grasshopper, Scag, Hustler, Echo, Billy Goat and Husqvarna. The store also stocks a wide variety of commercial-quality pressure washers, wheel barrows, and other construction-related equipment.

As Barber points out, customers will never be happy with you or your store if the equipment they purchase won’t do the job. As a landscape contractor, he can make recommendations based on real-world experience. Having a rental department adds another dimension, by giving customers the opportunity to rent or lease equipment for a “one-off job” or to fill in for something of theirs that's in the repair shop. The store also offers financing for qualified customers.

Providing timely service is especially important for landscape contractors, but other customers also appreciate good service and accessibility. That’s one reason the store stays open until 1 p.m. on Saturday. The other reason? To be able to compete more effectively with big box stores.

Selling slower-moving parts on eBay is one way All Pro Equipment competes for internet sales. It also allows the store to move some of its older inventory.

People and places

The retired firefighter admits to being busier now than he ever was when fighting fires. Big installation jobs this spring coupled with challenges associated with the country’s H-2B guest worker program have monopolized much of his time. “Our maintenance and landscaping companies rely on the guest worker program, and we’re not alone,” says Barber. “It’s unfortunate that our lawmakers don’t understand how essential the program is.”

Barber doesn’t have the same challenge at All Pro Equipment & Rental. “One of our strengths is that we have the right people in all the right places,” Barber remarks. “That includes a controller who keeps an eye on our business's financial health. It’s so important today for dealers, as well as landscape contractors, to know their numbers.”

The numbers weren’t adding up for the store’s open house like they currently are for strategic selling/cookout events. The secret to their success, however, lies less with the cookout and its attendant chicken and barbeque sauce and more with the relationships Barber and his team have built with customers.