The three-year-old Home Technology Specialists Nationwide (HTSN) buying group launched its first-ever Summit conference this past week with a whiz-bang opener that treated 27 of its dealer members to a unique, daylong whirlwind tour of host city Chicago’s iconic venues which were skillfully - and memorably - used to drive home object lessons in sales, management and leadership that dealers enthusiastically carried back to their businesses to put into practice.
Chicago’s Ritz-Carlton at Water Tower Place served as the home base where, energized and propelled by the momentum of that tour, dealers hunkered down for more networking, discussions with vendors and educational sessions – all aimed at solidifying their newly forged bonds and making them evangelists for HTSN.
“I’m a big fan of crawl, walk, run – learn, study, understand things and start the process,” explained Hank Alexander, director of HTSN, about why the timing was right now for this conference, which happened in the wake of Nationwide Marketing Group’s first PrimeTime conference in February, which followed its late-2017 merger with MEGA Group USA. Around 10 percent of HTSN dealer membership was represented at this inaugural event – and Alexander said they are all forward-thinking leaders in their markets who he is confident will act as “‘sneezers’” – meaning they will be the ones “who are going to infect the group and spread the message,” not just to fellow HTSN members but also to dealers as yet unaffiliated with a buying group in the marketplace – “that this is something going on you have to be a part of.
“This event is not so much us talking as it is us listening, and facilitating the opportunity to both grow in share and to learn,” Alexander said. “The PrimeTime event is also education and a lot of buying. This is even more sharing, education and one-on-one time with vendors. There are some orders that are going to occur here, but it isn’t ‘Come with your P.O. book and write a bunch.’ This is ‘Come and figure out the business, and if you’re not doing business with somebody, figure out what the opportunity is – and if you are doing business with them, what the opportunity is to grow that business.’”
“It’s important to make clear that we’re a marketing and services organization to our membership, besides being a buying group,” added Doug Wrede, Nationwide Marketing Group’s director of Consumer Electronics, “To have these dealers in one sitting get educational opportunities, get member peer-to-peer discussions going, get vendor engagement, is a tremendous value we can provide. When you look at the vendor roundtables going on here, we’re creating that handshake between them and members…We see dealers at PrimeTime and CEDIA and at CES, at multiple touchpoints and workshops. But this was the first setting where Hank had his like-minded integrators together in a room discussing business practices and where they can really elevate the conversation without the other distractions that go on at trade shows, and without having to run to another meeting. Here, it isn’t 30 minutes – they have a couple of days.”
A vote of assent also came from Jon Robbins, executive director of Home Technology Specialists of America (HTSA), HTSN’s partner. “HTSA and HTSN complement one another,” he said. “Hank has done education in the CI space to reinforce the steps we need to take to remain mindful of getting customers for life. It’s a culture; we’re not just doing tech master classes or brand-specific classes but we’re spending time together, comparing notes and learning best practices. We’re excited that HTSN is embarking on these things.”
Hot-Topic Presentations – & Vendor Support
Besides vendor meetups, the Summit offered a forum for vendors to present on hot topics including Networking, Lighting and Luxury Audio Selling. Both Alexander and Wrede noted the overall high level of vendor support for the specialty/custom installation channel served by HTSN.
“I think, holistically, business is good,” said Wrede. “I told the guys out there that I’ve never seen Tier One TV suppliers put so much investment toward our channel than in this year – there’s great independent retailer and custom installer support – dedicated resources and programs. They’ve taken a look at the high-touch story we can tell, and they see the value we bring.” He noted that vendor investment in this channel was rising – an extraordinary development even as sales forces were being downsized in other areas. “They’re creating resources to support the channel,” he noted.
Attendees Weigh In
None of the efforts expended in making the HTSN Summit a memorable first was lost on retail attendees.
“The takeaway for me was that this kind of event helps me to refocus on customer experience and on what drives the business,” said Rob Kujath, general manager of appliance and electronics retailer Albuquerque, N.M.’s Baillio’s, which recently became part of the Builders Source store network. “We’re driving our custom installation business now, and this helps us put a bigger focus on it… It’s all about ‘Show me, don’t tell me.’ You can sit in a boardroom with PowerPoints presentations, but retail is about reinventing yourself and creating the customer experience, and this type of event cements that.”
Shawn Worst is president of Evolution Home Theatre in Lakeside, Calif., in the San Diego area. A retailer who focuses a community-minded service approach at the military families that populate his region, he said he hadn’t been part of a buying group before Nationwide and decided on joining “because of the brands they align with.” And gravitating to HTSN within the Nationwide family, he added, made sense for his business. “What struck me was how their program matched up with our company name: Evolution. We’re always changing, pivoting to see what’s coming, just as we did in 2008 when the economy was down. We changed what we did, and even expanded into custom cabinetry building. Right now, about 95 percent of our business is referrals, and we think we can most benefit from the marketing programs helping to get the word out.”
Jim Wilhite, principal of the longstanding retail business Love TV Sales & Service in the St. Louis area of Bridgeton, Mo., had been a MEGA Group member, and his attendance at the HTSN Summit provided exposure to the array of benefits now accessible to him in the post-merger period with Nationwide. “Coming to this HTSN event has given me perspective. Our process and systems area good to a point, but we won’t be as defensive about them when back [at the business]. And in terms of customers, we’ll now look at everyone as an opportunity. I’ll carry it with me for a long time.”
State of the Merger
Doug Wrede also provided Dealerscope with a few reflections about the progress of the marriage of Nationwide and MEGA Group USA into a synergistic entity. “It was a massive undertaking for the industry and for us, and the majority of feedback from that experience has been positive,” he said. “We had a leadership change also, and Tom [Hickman] did an unbelievable job assuming that role with the handoff from Dave Bilas. It was very well received. We also made a major investment in digital strategy… the MEGA merger, leadership change, digital – we couldn’t have had more on our plate, but we couldn’t have been happier than we are as a group, going forward.”