IT'S THAT TIME of year in the northern states. Autumn has arrived, the nights are getting crisp, and people are anticipating the first snowfall and pondering what to do about it.
All a distributor has to do is open the front doors and let the clamoring throng gobble up snowplows, right?
There's a method to the marketing and selling madness, and a number of shops are enjoying success with their snowplow-demo strategies.
“I noticed that there were too many places that were shoving a catalog in front of your face and going, ‘Here, go ahead and pick the one you want,’” says Tim Wallace, owner of Tim Wallace Snowplow Supply in Bollingbrook, Illinois. “I'm more into displays, just because of my other business — landscape supply. We show everything we sell. We build displays so people can see it, instead of looking at a pallet, trying to figure out what it's going to look like.”
Wallace purchased some Chevrolet four-wheel-drive truck frames, cut them down, sandblasted them and painted them. Using a two-foot section from the front axle forward, he installed a mounting kit and snowplow on each one and put them in his showroom.
“We hooked up a wiring harness and controller to the battery so a customer can come in and physically work them,” he says. “He can see how fast they go up and down, left and right, and how slow they come down. That way, the customer has a feel for it, which makes his purchase easier.
“Over the years, we've added all the options a snowplow can get, so you're looking at a unit that has the deflector, the marker, all the kinds of lights you can have. We made the controllers so they can plug in and out. Some customers like handheld controllers, others like push-button, and others a toggle switch. We're trying to make it as real-life as possible — like the customer is in his truck. It works pretty well. We sell a bunch of them.”
Up to eight a day
Wallace says he sold 13 snowplows in the first 12 months after he opened nine years ago. Now, without revealing specific per-year numbers, he says “we're in the hundreds and hundreds.” Starting in mid-September, Wallace's shop typically installs between one and eight snowplows a day.
Wallace says 75% of his 3,200-square-foot showroom is devoted to snowplow demos. He has 12 snowplows mounted on the cut-down truck frames and six salt spreaders attached to the back of cut-down pickup truck beds in a variety of mounting positions.
“Nobody is doing it in our area,” he says. “Nobody wants to spend the money like I did, but it has paid off. I've seen a guy who put a snowplow together and put it into his showroom. But nobody's gone to the extent of the mounting kit, wiring, and all the other things that go with it.”
Other key components of Wallace's strategy:
Taking the customer directly to the shop or to the lot.
“We install so many of them that there usually are a bunch of trucks here with snowplows,” he says. “We take the customer and show him, ‘Here's a Western we did yesterday. It's on a Ford similar to yours.’
“Plus, I plow snow for a living, and my trucks are set up. We'll have some of the ones we're not using in the (landscape) business sitting here with snowplows, just in case we didn't have a snowplow we're installing at that moment. That helps because they see what we have on our own trucks. They'll ask, ‘Why do you have a Blizzard on your truck?’ We'll tell them, ‘They're big time-savers.’”
Stocking eight different brands of snowplows, with Western being the top seller.
“There aren't many other guys in the country who are lucky enough to have a relationship with all the manufacturers,” he says. “Everybody wants you to have just theirs. Some will let you have another. But I'm up to eight different manufacturers. Each one is unique in its own way and geared toward a specific kind of customer.
“We have inventory. When I speak, I can back it up. Right now, there are 300 units waiting to be put on once the season starts. My theory is, ‘If you don't stock it, you can't sell it.’”
Wallace says Western has been the most popular because of its innovations.
“The UltraMount has an easy on/off — it can be done in under 60 seconds,” he says. “The V-Plow is a big time-saver, because of its scoop position. By having it in scoop position, you're cutting the time down by one-third. That's what customers are looking for.”
Every member of the sales team plows snow.
“We all know what works and what doesn't,” Wallace says. “Where we differ from others is that we'll tell the customer what he needs to know and not what he wants to hear. We're always showing the current model and how it is improved over last year. Everything's right in front of the customer. You can show him how the blades have been braced better. Anybody can talk and say anything. We want to point it out and show it to them.
“We'll ask the customer, ‘What kind of snowplowing are you going to be doing? Are you plowing for yourself, or are you working for somebody?’ We do that because if they're working for themselves, we ask another question: ‘Are you getting paid per time or by the hour?’ Around here, it's generally per time. If it's that, we'll direct a guy toward a specific unit because the plow will do 50% more work over this other one. If you can make $200 in half the time, that gives you extra time to earn more money.”
Posted evidence of care for the customer.
“We have a sign in the showroom saying that when it snows, we're open 24 hours, and if it snows on Christmas Day or New Year's Eve, we're here,” he says. “So if you have a problem, come by and we'll fix it. We really cater to the guy who's plowing snow better than most others.”
“We're not really closers,” he says. “We'll tell people, ‘OK, we're showing you this one and that one. You know the snowplowing you're going to be doing. Here are the pros of this one, the cons of that. Whichever one you want, we'll be glad to put on the vehicle.’ We're not pressuring anybody, because if I don't sell to this guy, I have a good chance of selling to the next guy. Not many walk out of here without buying something.”
Bright-yellow drawing card
At Lang's Corner Garage in Rye, New Hampshire, owner Paul Chase has constructed a 750-sq-ft showroom in a renovated 66-year-old building that used to be part of a two-bay gas station. He put in new sheet-rock walls, a 10' ceiling, and lighting.
When a customer walks in, he immediately sees bright-yellow parts bins stacked 7' tall, with labels that are computer-generated and categorized by parts numbers. The bins, installed two years ago to replace cardboard bins, contain almost every replacement part Fisher makes. The showroom also includes a Low Pro Hopper Spreader and a monitor that continuously displays a DVD on Fisher snowplows.
“We have been told by people who come in for the first time that when they get two or three feet inside, they stop in total awe,” Chase says. “Everywhere you look, 360 degrees, is nothing but Fisher. That is a huge selling tool when a customer comes in and is not sure what he wants. He just knows that something is broken or bent. He gives you a vague idea, and you have to narrow it down to one, two, or three parts. I put them all on the counter, and he points to the one. So it's an advantage to have the stock readily available and accessible, dust-free, nice and clean. We're neat freaks here. We go around the showroom at least once a week and dust all bins and shelves with an ostrich feather duster.”
Outside, Chase has between 250 and 300 off-truck Minute Mount snowplows assembled and stacked three high in rows, ready to be installed.
“If there are any questions the customer might have regarding what something looks like or how it operates, we walk them outside and show them the snowplow product to try to get them closer to understanding,” he says.
He sells only Fisher snowplows.
“The names speaks for itself,” he says. “The only time you have to explain what a Fisher product is if somebody has never plowed snow in his life, has bought a new piece of property that is 500 feet off the road, doesn't want to pay someone to plow, and already owns a four-wheel-drive vehicle. In New England, you don't have to sell them on a Fisher snowplow.”
Chase encourages his customers to roam freely in the building to observe the mounting process.
“They can go from the office to the old two-bay room, then down the stairs to the large work area that was built in '94,” he says. “They can watch through a large window as their snowplow is put on. And if they're real cool and we know they have street smarts around equipment on the floor, we'll let them down into the bay to watch the snowplow being installed.
“After it's completed, one of our installers will spend as much time as needed to get the customer 100% familiar with how the plow is removed from the truck and put back on the truck, how it angles and raises, how the controller works, how the lights work. Plus, the customer gets a full package with Fisher brochures, a cover letter from us telling them who we are, what we do, and how long we've been doing it, information about our employees, how long they've been here, and that they have gone to the Fisher factory two-day school ever year since its inception.”
About 150 miles northwest of Rye, hard by the Vermont border, owner Allen Haggett of Ash Supply Co in Littleton says he was so impressed with Chase's showroom that he did virtually the same thing with his 400-sq-ft area.
All the packaged parts are on one wall, all the non-packaged parts on another wall. There are brochures and parts posters on the counter. A 13" monitor continuously plays a Fisher DVD.
Haggett says Fisher is 98% of his business, and he sells only Fisher snowplows. He doesn't view Lang's Corner Garage as a competitor.
“We pull a lot of business out of New England, like he does, but I don't take business per se from his area, and he doesn't from my area,” Haggett says. “The only way I'll get a sale from him or he from me is if somebody bought a truck at one of the dealerships in between.”
Haggett says newspaper advertisements and TV commercials have not measurably impacted his business.
“You have to get them in here,” he says. “Mostly it's brand recognition. You can tell when somebody comes in and says, ‘I want a Fisher.’ There's no negotiating. It's done. Most people are going by price, so we have to bring them in.”
He says the most effective way is to display regularly at state fairs. He typically displays at three each year — including one in Lancaster that draws 80,000 people.
“This year, we're going hog wild, just because of the competition that's out there,” he says. “We borrow car-dealership trucks to show the snowplows. But most people know how the plow works. Most all of our customers have used a plow or seen a plow used.”