One of the best-attended sessions last month at GIE+EXPO in Louisville October 23-25 was at The Dealer Experience, where long-time industry leaders Stihl Inc. President Fred Whyte and Ariens Co. President Dan Ariens took questions from the 100+ dealers in the audience and gauged the outlook for independent dealers in the lawn and garden industry.
Whyte emphasized Stihl’s business plan of selling only through servicing dealers: “It’s a market philosophy that’s served us well,” he said.
Whyte added that he believes dealers have an inherent advantage in the market through their knowledge and expertise. “Dealers have a tremendous advantage in being a resource for your customers, and you have the opportunity to build relationships with your customers that mass merchants cannot do.”
Ariens emphasized, “Now is the time to truly differentiate your businesses through service and expertise. People who come through your door have sought you out: They’re looking for help and they’re there for a reason.”
Responding to a question about dealing with the current downturn, Whyte noted the importance of staying in contact with current customers. “Keep after your customers with direct mail, and keep incentives up to take advantage of the relationships you have,” he said, adding that service and spare parts sales become even more important during a downturn.
Ariens cautioned: “Be as smart a buyer as you can with floor plans. Be highly cautious of overloading floor plans or ordering too much.”
Whyte added that dealers need to choose their business partners carefully. “You need to be doing business with people who will work with dealers through difficult times,” he said. “You have to buy right, and be cognizant of costs. Your best friend is your CPA, and not just at tax time.”
Dealers also need to see their true competition as the mass merchant more than the dealer down the road, Whyte said. “Get to know the other dealers in town. You have more in common than you might think, and there are opportunities there.”
An interesting exchange about new technology and trends for reaching customers also followed, with Whyte mentioning that Stihl sets aside a percentage of its marketing budget each year to basically experiment with new marketing technology. One example is the new stihlusa.mobi site for text messaging.
Ariens cautioned dealers to “never take your eye off new technology.” He noted the progress many dealers have made in implementing web sites, and advised dealers to seek advice on new marketing technology from local service providers and web designers.
“Those are important people to know, and you can learn a lot from them,” Ariens said.
On environmental issues, and the increased use of ethanol fuel blends, both Whyte and Ariens supported the OPEI position that there’s nothing wrong with ethanol, but lots more analysis needs to be done before blends higher than E10 are introduced into the marketplace.
Commenting that there’s been a lot of hype around the ethanol issue, and that “E10 seems to do well in our products,” Whyte said, “We need to do a lot more testing.”