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PARA Conference Confronts Tough Economy

4/04/2003 02:05:00 PM Eastern

Miami - International tensions and slow economic growth have curtailed traffic in audio/video specialty stores, restricted the flow of new jobs in the custom-installation pipeline and inspired PARA (the Professional Audio Video Retailers Association) to focus on survival strategies during its 24th annual conference here.

Association members, facing the most difficult economic climate in more than a decade, will get the opportunity to use the April 9-13 event to 'enhance their capabilities, focus their skills and plan for the good times that are coming,' said PARA president Charlie Bock. The event's theme, Survival of the Fittest, reflects a focus 'on how to reorganize your business and perhaps reinvent yourself,' said Bock, who owns Stereo Barn in Wyomissing, Pa.

The 'overwhelming' consensus is that the business 'is muted,' Bock said. 'The business is coming in, but it's slower. No one, however, is spiraling out of business.'

Many dealers, said PARA executive director Deborah Smith, say their business is flat, and they're 'nervous.' Nonetheless, 'people are holding on,' she said, and some dealers 'are doing very well.'

Many members, Bock noted, have already 'pared staff, reduced overhead, and are getting through it.' In past economic slowdowns, he said, 'I saw owners wait too long to adjust overhead.'

Members looking for additional ways to increase profits in a slow-growth economy, and position themselves to take the most advantage of a rebounding economy, can turn to the conference's expanded slate of management workshops, keynote speeches and other sessions, the association said.

Many of the seven management workshops, said Smith, will provide guidance in four areas that dealers must address during challenging economic times: controlling inventory, reevaluating staffing needs and job descriptions, cutting costs prudently without diminishing levels of service, and launching aggressive marketing campaigns, in part through direct mail. 'In fat years,' she noted, 'people forget about direct mail.'

As it did for the first time last year, PARA will offer management workshops for buyers, sales managers, and custom-install managers, not just for owners as it had done in previous years. 'No one is doing training for the senior management team,' said Smith. 'There's a big hole there.'

The management workshops will be nuts-and-bolts sessions that Bock said would be stepped up a notch from last year. 'We'll offer a higher level of education in these breakout sessions,' he said. 'It's not level 101.' Members can select from a menu of workshop topics so they can 'spend time focusing on a couple of disciplines that they need help in,' he continued.

Two workshops, conducted by consultant Robert Macfarlane, are targeted solely to owners. One explains the role of CEOs and how they can manage their time to pursue short- and long-term company goals. The second owner-focused workshop outlines steps to take to maintain profitability while sales decline. Topics include managing cash flow and inventory, cost cutting, personnel measures and more aggressive marketing. Attendees will create their own action plan to take home.

Other management workshops are targeted to all top managers. One, forecasting sales, will try to reduce 'a source of friction between dealers and vendors,' Smith said. 'Dealers don't forecast sales in a structured process. When they don't, the rep or vendor in effect does the dealer's forecasting.'

The forecasting workshop will help dealers analyze their product mix by vendor, category and SKU so they can provide forecasts to their suppliers and get the product they need on time. Select manufacturers will outline their own forecasting processes.

Another workshop will serve up strategies for matching the right people to the right job to reduce turnover and increase success. Another workshop will guide managers in creating a 10-step action plan to fill the pipeline of new custom-install jobs in 90 days.

A sixth management workshop will explain how to create an efficient direct-mail campaign to increase custom and retail sales from new, and existing, customers when referrals aren't enough to drive new business.

The seventh workshop, led by home building consultant Donna Boals, will help custom-installation managers manage relationships with homeowners. Attendees will learn how to create realistic expectations up front, anticipate what could go wrong before it goes wrong, and equip themselves with responses to the most predictable objections.

The lead keynoter on the first full day of the event will be author and consultant Seth Godin. His first topic will be reorganizing companies to thrive during changing times in a way that 'embraces change without pain.' In his second keynote of the day, Godin will explain the thesis in his book The Purple Cow, which contends that dealers must continually evolve their marketing strategies, no matter how successful those strategies are. 'If you keep doing the same thing, you become invisible,' Smith said.

Second-day keynoter Peter Sealey will stress the need for companies to create a brand identified with simplifying consumers' lives, reducing consumer stress, and exuding empathy for customers, said Smith. Sealy will outline strategies to create that brand image.

Third-day keynoter Polly LaBarre, senior editor of Fast Company magazine, will offer her insights on the best practices of companies of all types and sizes. During other general sessions that day, consultant Mike Heiss will answer dealer questions on effective ways to manage, merchandise, and promote new technologies, including how to compete with plasma-selling Wal-Mart stores. Dealers will also get an opportunity to share their success stories on the third day.

On Sunday, four optional concurrent training programs will be offered. They include custom management, the art of demonstrating products, and an update onb the rollout of new technologies.

Also during the conference, an HD Net executive will outline his company's plans to expand HD programming.

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