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Howard’s Spreads The Gospel Of Experiential Retailing

Giving consumers a personalized hands-on appliance buying experience has not only enabled Howard's remarkable recovery, but fueled its recent growth and expansion.

Howard’s Experience Center (image credit: Howard’s)

Howard’s, Southern California’s premier independent appliance retailer, has been on a buying spree of late. Last May, Howard’s merged with Victorville, CA-based Midway Home Solutions, one of the largest single-store appliance retailers in the country by volume. Then in early December, Howard’s merged with Riverside, CA-based Taylor’s Appliance, ranked the best appliance store in California’s Inland Empire.

These acquisitions are part of Howard’s aggressive expansion strategy, a somewhat surprising turnaround since less than four years ago the retailer was facing financial disaster. Howard’s rebound rocket has been fueled by the company’s new approach to retailing: RARE – Revolutionizing the Appliance Retail Experience – manifested in the retailer’s Experience Centers, which provides shoppers a hands-on shopping environment.

We had a chance to chat with Howard’s president and CEO John Riddle about the company’s creative new retail strategy, and its continued expansion.

TWICE: John, you have overseen an almost miraculous recovery and period of growth since becoming CEO of Howard’s, what did you do to start turning things around?

Riddle: Back in 2018, when I joined the board of directors, Howard’s was in bad shape; It became increasingly clear that we could not survive much longer with things as they were.

After I had accepted the role of CEO in 2019, I brought together a new leadership team made up of internal experts and external advisors with deep industry knowledge, insights, and ideas for bringing in new demographics, new manufacturing partners, and expanding Howard’s instead of contracting – even when faced with a global pandemic.

Today the company reports more than $100 million in revenue, almost doubling our revenue for the years 2019-2021, and we’ve been named one of the fastest-growing midsize private companies. There are now expectations for the business to triple in size in 2022.

With the Midway and Taylor’s additions, Howard’s now has 15 locations, with plans to continue Mergers and Acquisitions at a steady and deliberate pace.

TWICE: Howard’s survival and success during the pandemic seems to have been boosted primarily by your RARE strategy. What makes RARE work so well?

Riddle: From the time I was a kid in my dad’s family appliance store, I can recall the same complicated and manipulative experience for the consumer. That same basic process exists today across America in our industry. Most consumers are buying online because the retail experience in store is so crappy.

We studied Tesla for a year and concluded that Tesla has changed how a consumer feels and is engaged to purchase an automobile. We are doing the same thing at Howard’s.

RARE reflects the ways in which Howard’s demonstrates its commitment to the customer experience and turns the conventional sales model on its head. The company’s innovative Experience Center model, currently open in Long Beach and West Los Angeles, serves the appliance needs of homeowners, renovators, designers, influencers, and luxury shoppers. The debut of these high-tech, high-capacity centers in 2020 and 2021 has contributed to Howard’s extraordinary performance in the market and enhanced appeal among affluent customers throughout Southern California.

The Experience Centers are ideal for new discerning shoppers, offering them personalized, interactive, and digital shopping alternatives in immersive demonstration and display centers that invite engagement directly with fully functional, connected kitchen and laundry suites and other working product demonstrations.

TWICE: What’s the actual Experience Center consumer experience like?

Riddle: All our Experience Centers feature “live” product for the consumer to play with. Customers engage with our product advisors, who are all now armed with iPads and an ability to see and show the best ways their products can be used at home. We also offer solutions such as Zoom Call Shopping, ‘loaner’ products if the consumer’s choice of purchase is not available. We launched personalized appointments so that customers were aware that they did not need to go into a store to purchase their appliances.

Shoppers want to shop in a comfortable, attractive space where it is okay to touch the products and test them out. And they want to do this where friendly, knowledgeable, tech savvy product experts are available to not just answer their questions but to find out more about them, matching them to the right products for the way they live.

TWICE: With the addition of Midway and Taylor’s, both to be re-branded as Howard’s and presumably include Experience Centers, it’s clear you want to spread the success of RARE and Experience Centers – and the Howard’s brand – as widely as you can. What’s your expansion strategy and roadmap?

Riddle: Howard’s continues to expand its footprint throughout Southern California and beyond. We will soon unveil newly renovated and refreshed locations in Huntington Beach and Tustin, with five more Experience Centers to debut later this year through the opening of new locations or rebranding of the newly acquired stores.

The newly opened West LA Experience Center, situated in one of Los Angeles’ most exciting retail and urban lifestyle areas, provides an ideal destination shopping location for consumers.

And of course, Howard’s is continuing to grow at a steady pace by aggressively pursuing new acquisition opportunities. We’re looking primarily at opportunities near Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, San Jose, and San Francisco, as well as Arizona, Las Vegas and other points east.