Service with a Smile
By Lisa Readie Mayer
Photos: 2014© Jackson Photography & Design. www.gillianjackson.ca.
Common courtesy may be a lot less common at many retail stores today, but not so at Topfire Fireplace & Barbecue. For this Canadian specialty hearth and barbecue dealer, the secret to success starts with a smile.
“Everyone has experienced going into a store and feeling like you’re intruding or imposing on the salespeople,” says owner Ron David. “You don’t want to give your business to someone who treats you that way. That’s why we feel it’s so important to greet customers with a smile, be pleasant and simply acknowledge them, even if you’re busy. It doesn’t take any extra effort to be nice, but these simple gestures can mean the difference between a sale and the customer walking out the door to buy somewhere else.”
This focus on courteous customer service has been a guiding principle since David opened his first Topfire location in Ajax, Ontario, 10 years ago and continues at the retailer’s second location in Aurora, Ontario, opened this year. They take the personal touch seriously in this family-run operation. David and his son, James David, are the only full-time employees, with part-time salespeople and trusted subcontractors hired as needed. David oversees the Aurora store, while his son manages the Ajax location.
|Ron David, owner of Topfire in Aurora, Ontario, Canada.|
“We are burning the candle at both ends now, but we really emphasize and enjoy personal customer interaction,” he continues. “We spend a lot of time with our customers and educate them so they can make informed decisions. We try to be friendly and teach people without pressuring them. It all comes down to whether they are comfortable with you; if they are, you will get the sale.”
Clearly, the approach is working. According to David, after a “tough go” in the first few years after opening and a slight slow-down during the U.S. recession, business has really taken off in the past couple years, with sales doubling in 2014. He credits the opening of his second location in Aurora as contributing to the boost in business, but believes it’s primarily due to his stores’ stellar reputation, high customer satisfaction and growth in referrals over the last decade.
David says having the two stores now expands his territory and draws shoppers from a wider swath of the Toronto region. While he notes that customers tend to be more price-conscious at the Ajax store, those shopping at the Aurora location – one of Canada’s wealthiest communities – are generally willing to pay more for quality and service.
As a Napoleon Alliance dealer, Napoleon-branded products account for approximately 80 percent of sales at the stores. Currently, the stores’ sales are split 75 percent hearth to 25 percent barbecue and outdoor living products. In addition to Napoleon indoor and outdoor hearth products, Topfire carries Dimplex, Marquis, Montigo, and Stellar brand fireplaces, and Outdoor GreatRoom Company fire pits and fire tables.
While gas grills from Napoleon and R.H. Peterson (Fire Magic) are the biggest barbecue sellers for the retailer, Topfire also sells Big Green Egg and Traeger Pellet Grills for his customers interested in cooking with charcoal and wood pellets. A line of outdoor furniture made of recycled materials from Canadian-based CR Plastics, decorative air purifiers from Lampe Berger of France, all-natural cleaning products from Universal Stone of Germany, and ErthCoverings natural stone veneers, round out the company’s product offerings.
Outdoor kitchens are a growing area of business for the retailer, who sells Napoleon Oasis modular grilling islands, as well as Fire Magic built-in grills and components such as ice makers, range hoods and power burners. The company does not offer outdoor kitchen design or construction services, but instead forms alliances with landscapers, contractors and design professionals, who supply product and advice for their projects. “With 10 years in the business, we have become a trusted source for landscapers building outdoor kitchens,” says David.
Limited indoor showroom space and a lack of outdoor display space at both stores, restricts outdoor kitchen displays to one Napoleon Oasis modular island at the larger Ajax location. Instead, the retailer relies on area home and garden shows and street fairs and festivals to expand exposure and showcase its outdoor kitchen offerings.
“We do a lot of home shows, including landscaper shows, the Interior Design Show, National Home Show, Cottage Life Show and others,” says David. “They’re very successful for us. Based on interest at the shows this year, we expect we’ll be very busy with our outdoor kitchen business next spring,” he says. Average outdoor kitchen sales run about $30,000 for the retailer.
Participating in home shows also serves as a networking opportunity. Relationships with designers and landscapers, developed and cultivated at home shows, have yielded significant business for Topfire. According to David, landscapers handle most of the outdoor kitchen business in the Toronto area, but Topfire has become a go-to supplier of grills, appliances and other equipment for building into the island.
Besides home shows, Topfire markets its business through a combination of traditional advertising, social media and innovative promotions. Ads in a glossy home design magazine, mailed directly to area residents, have been particularly successful, as has a summer promotion on a local radio station that helped drive customers into the two stores to claim prize tickets and giveaways. Son James David handles the company’s social media efforts on Facebook and Twitter.
Big-event demos and sales have been hit-or-miss for the retailer. “We have done events at the Ajax store where we’ve invited our vendors’ sales associates to come and demo product. Sometimes they are very successful, and sometimes no one shows up,” he says with a chuckle. That has not deterred the retailer from continuing to explore avenues for building business. Next up could be cooking classes.
|At present, Napoleon products account for 80 percent of sales at both stores.|
“People are asking for classes at our Aurora store,” he says. “I like to cook and I’m always sharing recipes and tips with customers, so we may try to bring in a chef from Napoleon and make a big event out of it.”
Of course, not everything about specialty retailing is something to smile about. According to David, competition from Big Box stores is one of the biggest challenges he faces.
“Typically a customer would only be able to go to a store like ours to find a specialty product like a kamado, pellet grill or fire pit, but now Big Box stores have them,” he says. Case in point: despite past success selling Traeger Pellet Grills and a growing customer appreciation for the flavor and convenience of wood pellet cooking, David says it’s harder to sell the grills and fuel now that consumers can find them considerably cheaper at mass merchants.
“We offer a program in which customers get a free bag of pellet fuel after every tenth bag purchased,” he explains. “My customers used to love the program, but it’s tough now because they can get it for much less at the Big Box store. As a result, we’re considering changing pellet grill and fuel companies.”
On the gas grill front, he says it’s increasingly confusing for consumers who buy what they think is a good brand at a Big Box store only to find it’s an inferior product made offshore and the quality is not the same. “The challenge for us is trying to point out the differences and explain that you get what you pay for,” David says.
The membership buying service DirectBuy has also diverted sales from the specialty retailer over the years. The service charges a sizable upfront membership fee for the ability to purchase home furnishings, home improvement, entertainment and outdoor products directly from manufacturers at greatly reduced costs.
“Initially it took business from us – particularly if customers were building or renovating a home – but it’s becoming less of an issue as people factor in the administrative fees and long delivery wait times,” David adds. He says customers who consider DirectBuy are coming to realize they prefer shopping at a brick-and-mortar store that offers service and installation.
“We can offer the customer the opportunity to have a new fireplace
in one day,” David says. The retailer works hand-in-hand with its subcontractor carpenter and cabinet-maker
to tear out an old fireplace, install a new one, and then install the finish and a custom mantel that was prebuilt to the customer’s specifications in the carpenter’s workshop, all in the same day. “You can’t get that kind of service at a Big Box store or internet provider,” he adds.
Ultimately the best way for a specialty retailer to compete and succeed, according to David, is a back-to-basics focus on service, kindness and respect. “How hard is it to put a smile on your face, be friendly and treat your customers the way you would want to be treated in a store? These are the most important parts of retailing,” he says.