Independents Seek Branding Power

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From the yellow tiled floor up to the "lifestyle" promotional signs hanging from the ceiling, one of the ballrooms of a local Hyatt was transformed into a Best Brands Plus model store during the group's meeting here earlier this month.

The buying group's leaders wanted to showcase what they call a "banner store" — a concept they hope a majority of their members will accept and adopt.

The main purpose of the banner stores is to "give the independent Best Brands Plus dealer the edge" to compete with the big-box retailers by giving customers the same sense of the familiar they get when walking into a national chain, said executive director Pat Reed. "Ultimately, where this takes us is a chain store look," he said. "Pretty soon you look at a Best Brands Plus store in one town and it looks the same as another one in a different town."

Out of the group's 1,450 storefronts, 96 have been transformed into banner stores and seven more should be completed within the next couple of months. In some cases, the change involves remodeling, and in others building anew. In one instance, a member dealer reported his property value had doubled after the remodel, Reed said.

"The success has been just one after another after another," he said, adding that the model stores have experienced increased sales volumes and better margins.

Merchandising manager Rick Bellows said he thinks the concerted effort to improve the appearance of its member stores will impress upon manufacturers that the group is trying to improve sales numbers.

"If you want me to buy more," he said, "I've got to sell more," and the objective of the remodeling is to draw more customers.

And simply hanging the same sign on the outside of every store is not enough to accomplish that, Reed said. The banner store concept includes everything from a similar interior design to standards for product delivery to a dress code for sales staff.

When a member store decides to become a banner store, Best Brands Plus provides blueprint mock-ups of floor plans as well as the same interior designer.

Simply put, it is a way of fighting the nationwide CE and appliance retail chains by adopting some chain-like business approaches. However, each independent store retains its original name as well as many business practices.

"As [the independents] disappear, the people who are buying appliances don't go away, they go to Sears. Whether you like it or not, you've got to mimic what's out there," said Karl Credeur, Best Brands Plus field marketing manager. "And that's what [customers] want — something they're comfortable with."

In coming years, when a larger chunk of Best Brands Plus stores have been transformed into banner stores, the group will have more marketing leverage. What the group is doing now is "building a foundation for a national advertising campaign," Reed said.

"We've got three real objectives," he concluded. "We want to increase our profitability; we want to build equity into the stores; … and we want to build transferability into the stores."

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