All new roles come with learning curves, and Nationwide Marketing Group’s Tom Hickman wasn’t about to get off easy.
The former Toshiba exec thought he had an accurate view of the day-to-day challenges of the modern independent retailer when he took the helm in February as president of the $18.5 billion marketing and merchandising group for electronics, appliance, furniture and bedding dealers.
He also thought it would be a good idea to reveal, on stage in front of 5,000 members at the group’s biannual PrimeTime show, his personal cellphone number, encouraging them to call him with any of their problems.
Recalling the story to TWICE in a phone interview on the eve of Thanksgiving, Hickman said that while he received fewer calls than one might imagine, the gesture provided a unique window into the world of today’s independent retailer.
As the son of independent retailers in Florida — his family owned a trio of CE and appliance stores forced to close their doors when he was in high school after being unable to compete with the likes of Circuit City — Hickman joined Nationwide in 2012 with an already-held deep empathy for indie retailers. Before spending 16 years at Toshiba, several of which as the sales director for CE retail sales, he was a department manager at indie chain BrandsMart USA. It didn’t take long in his new role as Nationwide president, however, for him to realize he wasn’t quite as familiar with it as he’d once thought.
For one thing, being an independent retailer today is hard. Really hard. And Hickman isn’t too proud to admit that he might have initially underestimated the challenges.
Other things he might have underestimated: How many hats they wear. How much help they really need. How they’re operating in an environment with a deck stacked against them.
It is these challenges, however, that Hickman said drive him each day in his role, serving as his source of enthusiasm and inspiration. “I’m energized by helping those guys compete,” he said. “They really are the backbone of the economy.”
And if these dealers do require a lot of aid, Hickman said, “there’s so much we can do to empower them.” The slew of changes the organization announced in 2018 were borne out of trying to help its members thrive and compete in an always-evolving environment, he noted.
About those changes: Hardly a month went by in 2018 that Nationwide didn’t mark with an announcement. In addition to acquiring Site on Time, which helped NMG achieve Google Premier Partner status, it also made a significant investment in Retailer Web Services, a provider of e-commerce, digital marketing and web design solutions for indie dealers.
It further leveraged its partnerships with Netsertive and Centricity — bolstering its digital advertising solutions with a programmatic ad tool for YouTube with the former, and launching a new extended service contract program with the latter.
For its custom-installation members, the organization developed a new program with distributor AVAD that gives dealers access to restricted product lines.
Oh, and it also finalized that merger with Mega Group USA, resulting in NMG growing to over 5,300 members and more than 14,000 storefronts.
While 2017 was spent exploring what needed to be changed in order to empower its members, 2018 was devoted to laying out the groundwork to leverage their scale and build the digital platforms necessary to compete against Amazon.
2019, meanwhile, is slated for activation and deployment of these platforms. Nationwide is committing to having 100 percent of its members running on a fully operational e-commerce site in 2019, Hickman said, and not just a domain parking lot — a well-oiled site its dealers will be proud of.
It’s a hugely ambitious goal for the group, but one Hickman knows is crucial for member success. “We have a lot coming our way and we’d better be ready,” he noted, acknowledging the once-in-a-lifetime share opportunities for major appliances should Sears indeed cease operations.
Helping drive these initiatives, NMG is expected to be well served by PrimeMedia, its state-of-the-art video production studio located just outside of Atlanta that, among other things, maintains the MemberNet TV platform providing retailers with customized video content and digital signage for in-store displays. Creating original content is also critical as part of the group’s ability to maintain success with Google, said Hickman.
“They’re going to have the most chaotic but probably most important year of our partnership,” Hickman said. “When you’re looking at how much custom content we’re asking them to create for our dealers … they’ve got a massive year coming their way.”
PrimeMedia also operates as the foundation for Nationwide’s Learning Academy, which the group intends to continue to grow. Nationwide slotted in additional educational days in both PrimeTime conventions this year, resulting in a combined 9,000-plus session attendees.
“All that’s driven from their efforts,“ Hickman said. “It’s a pretty critical part of our business and it’s unique.”
“As video continues to be king,” he added, “we’ll leverage that unique advantage in all parts of our business in every way we can.”
Something else Hickman isn’t too proud to admit he underestimated: The power of the dealer network.
During the two PrimeTimes, Nationwide members packed a total of more than 320,000 meals for No Child Hungry, the food distribution program of Orlando, Fla.-based My Neighbor’s Children.
“If you had told me they would take time out during their business at the show to pack 300,000 meals, I would have got that wrong,” he said. “I did get that wrong. I thought there was too much to do.”
Nationwide now prioritizes giving back to communities whenever the company comes together. While these acts were already being undertaken by members within their local communities, bringing the motivation to the senior leadership team is helping change the DNA of the organization as a whole, Hickman said. For example, a recent senior leadership meeting resulted in 55 bicycles being built for Toys for Tots.
Beyond altruism, such acts also serve as indications of how powerful the massive Nationwide group can be when mobilized, and they also provide a buoyant indicator for the year ahead. “It gives me a lot of hope that we can do something great for the channel, and that the channel can act as one.”