Many electrical distributors have been refining the merchandising in their counter areas for more than a decade now. Electrical manufacturers have been eager to help out by offering their distributors product displays, signage, rugs, counter mats and so forth to make sure their products and brands are well featured in the merchandising mix. It's up to the distributor to find the right way to use the displays to create a counter-area setting that will leverage merchandising's mythic “silent salesman.”

That final step — turning the disparate displays into an environment that encourages self-service and impulse purchases — is where many distributors drop the ball. Without someone paying constant attention to the other side of the counter, entropy sets in quickly, turning an area that started with attractive and eye-catching merchandising into a clutter of dusty, half-empty cardboard displays, grimy gondola shelving and a riot of cobweb-strewn banners and signs fighting so hard for attention that the customer might find it easiest to just ignore them all.

Taking stock of this reality, the marketing people at Eaton Corp., Cleveland, last year hit on an idea: instead of just inundating distributors with merchandising materials, why not also provide some knowledge to help them make better use of the materials they have? Thus was born the Eaton Merchandising Makeover sweepstakes.

Authorized distributors were automatically entered in the sweepstakes each time they logged onto Eaton's distributor Web site for ordering merchandising materials. Two distributors would be chosen to receive the prize: $10,000-worth of merchandising fixtures and consulting services to help implement the very latest thinking in good merchandising practices in the branch of their choice.

“We really wanted to get distributors to start thinking about their stores — how could they improve their stores, how can they improve their customers' experience, and in turn how will that affect their sales and their ability to turnover inventory,” says Sonya Kohnen, Eaton's director of channel marketing.

The contest wasn't just a scheme to get more Eaton branding in front of the distributors' customers. “We're Eaton/Cutler-Hammer, and of course we want to highlight our products, but we wanted to give the space a uniform, kind of even look so the products themselves stand out. It wasn't just about highlighting our products. It was about the entire store,” says Kohnen.

The sweepstakes was also an effective way of driving distributor traffic to Eaton's merchandising site, which had just been launched. The site features a shopping-cart ordering and checkout system to make it easy as possible for distributors to browse the company's various counter goodies, ranging from posters and counter mats to clocks and stools.

Womack Electric Supply Co., Danville, Va., and State Electric Supply Co., Huntington, W.Va., were picked as the sweepstakes winners. Womack selected its Greenville, N.C., branch for the makeover treatment, while State Electric chose to remake the counter at its Huntington headquarters location.

To provide merchandising expertise, Eaton called in Big Red Rooster, a consulting firm based in Columbus, Ohio, that does retail and merchandising design as well as product design and engineering. The consultants first did a conceptual store design for Eaton, which involved selecting fixtures and designing a graphics package that coordinates with Eaton's logo.

Marie Haines, director of merchandising for Big Red Rooster, led the remodeling at both locations. Haines brought insights built over many years of working in display and store planning for department stores as well as providing merchandising expertise to banks, coffee shops, tire stores and a host of other businesses as a consultant.

Haines began the makeovers with a thorough review of each location's counter business. She looked at how the merchandise was laid out in the existing stores and evaluated them in terms of traffic flow, sight lines and overall condition.

She was pleasantly surprised the first time she saw the existing counter areas at both locations. “Both had paid some attention to merchandising, and the counter areas were clean and well stocked — much better than many I've seen,” Haines says.

All the same, both had plenty of opportunity for improvement. Decisions about the makeovers were based on the customers who use the counter area most. At Womack Electric Supply, for instance, the company does a huge volume in commercial and institutional construction, but most of the customers coming in the door were from the residential contractor side of the business, so the design was tailored to their needs and expectations.

“The idea is to make it look as much as possible like a typical retail establishment you would go into,” says Haines. “It's important that you don't disrespect your customer. Just because they're coming in in workboots and they're all dirty, you still want to keep it nice. Look at it from their standpoint. How would you want to experience the space?”

Haines provided drawings of the changes she proposed and the distributors were able to approve or suggest further changes. The basic design used features from the original conceptual design Big Red Rooster had prepared for Eaton — black Lozier gondola fixtures standing no more than four feet high, with consistent white-on-black signage identifying products on the shelves, black three-foot-by-three-foot pedestals for stacking large boxed items and new Eaton-branded counter stools.

At both locations, the makeover was done basically overnight. Starting at the close of business, teams including Haines, employees from the distributorships, local Eaton distributor sales specialists and Eaton corporate marketing people gutted the spaces, pulling down signs, breaking down old gondolas, moving all the merchandise, displays and fixtures out of the way, scrubbing every surface applying a little paint.

Having created a clean slate to work with, they began assembling and positioning the new fixtures. The makeover experience didn't include any sit-down, workbook-style training, but as Haines worked with the employees setting up and stocking the displays, she talked to them about principles of good merchandising — how to select which products to put on display, how to face them out and keep them stocked, how to use pedestals and end caps most effectively, the importance of changing displays frequently, and most important of all, how to look at the counter area from the customer's point of view.

In both locations, Haines found thoughtful touches the companies were already doing, and looked for ways to build on them. “Both of them have ice machines and provide ice free of charge to contractors on their way to the jobsite. A lot of those customers will come back at lunchtime and refill their coolers. That's a nice customer service, something nice to do for the guys.” In the makeovers she grouped these with soda machines, snack machines and coffee carts to make a sort of refreshment center.

The overall effect of Haines' changes was to open up the spaces and remove clutter wherever possible so the merchandise itself takes center stage. The State Electric Supply location, at 3,000 square feet, was more than twice the size of Womack's 1,400-square-foot counter area, but there were so many banners, posters and cardboard displays that it had become visually overwhelming and felt cramped.

Many distributors have lost control of how their stores look to customers. Haines' rule on vendor displays is, “If you don't need them, get them out. It's nice to get all this fun stuff, but if it doesn't improve the experience for the customer, it's not helping you.” Banners and posters should be restricted to your major vendors and important special promotions and events, and even then they need to be controlled and confined to specific spots in the counter area where they'll do their job without compromising the visual impact of the merchandise, she says.

(Eaton's marketing people also used this opportunity to extract and destroy all examples of the old Cutler-Hammer logo, which has been retired in favor of a new Eaton/Cutler-Hammer branding effort.)

The shorter fixtures opened up lines of sight, and the low black pedestals provide an organizing structure for stacks of bulky items such as load centers and large products such as generators. Positioning the fixtures perpendicular to the counter further enhances the sense of openness and organization, making it easy to look down the aisles from the door and from the counter, and providing end caps in both directions for seasonal items and special promotions.

Womack Electric Supply had paid some attention to merchandising, but saw the Eaton makeover as the perfect opportunity to revitalize those efforts, says Greg Bullock, branch manager for Womack Electric Supply of Greenville. The makeover project gave him a new appreciation for the importance of traffic flow.

“We talked about traffic flow and how to position stand displays so that, as customers come in door, it directs them around the things you want to draw attention to,” Bullock says. “Now we try to put displays so they can be viewed from counter as well as coming in the door.”

He also discovered that the counter area can promote more than just impulse purchases. “We put up signage in the showroom featuring Eaton generators, motor control starters, pushbuttons — things you don't normally put in a showroom, because it's not an impulse or convenience item. We've had customers say, ‘Oh, you've got pushbuttons, too. I'm going to come back later and do some pushbutton business.’”

Haines keyed on the Greenville location's residential business to enhance displays of security systems, lighting, controls, central vacuum systems and other upgrade products, creating an inviting space off to one side where contractors could send their customers to experience the products first-hand. On the other side, she grouped day-to-day supplies such as cable ties, extension cords, batteries, rags, cable lube — things contractors would pick up on impulse. In the warehouse, she found an old metal bin display, which she pulled out and painted. Small items that some customers would buy one or two at a time and others would buy by the box were dumped in the bins, with full boxes next to the bins. This arrangement keeps counter employees from having to go back to the warehouse to restock.

Womack installed an LCD video monitor on the wall above one of the doorways to the warehouse and keeps a constant stream of promotional and instructional videos playing.

“We have sold some products just because the customer saw it on the video,” says Bullock. “We just asked our vendors and they sent us all they had. We have a pretty good collection going now and we're anxious for more. It gives the customer something to do — while were in back pulling their orders, the customers can stand there and watch a demonstration. It helps make the counter as interactive as possible.”

State Electric Supply already had a pretty well-developed sense of what merchandising could do for counter sales, says Mitch Webb, the company's director of marketing. “We began merchandising in 1990. We were one of the first in our market to focus on it,” he says. But there was still much to take away from the intensive merchandising session Haines conducted while assembling gondolas.

“They did a better job of getting the displays organized and marking them with consistent signage. It has a more uniform look with all the fixtures being the same color and the same type of signs,” Webb says.

The 3,000-square-foot counter area gave State Electric plenty of space to create an island of gondolas with pedestals of larger products such as generators and load centers grouped on the sides. Whole gondolas are devoted to plugs, receptacles, fixtures, lightbulbs and other high-volume items, as well as many end caps for special promotions on tool boxes, flashlights and batteries.

Haines suggested a change to the laminate on the counter to create a fresher look and coordinate with the new color scheme. She also added an electronic leader board above the counter for promotions and other messages that customers could read while waiting for their orders to be filled.

“It's one thing to sit in the office and dream up display ideas, but it's different in the real world,” Webb says. “You have to look at it from the perspective of the walk-in customer.”

Both distributors were grateful for Eaton's help in revitalizing their merchandising efforts. “The residential and commercial construction markets in Greenville are very robust, and our showroom now mirrors the latest trends in these markets,” says Bullock of Womack.

“We really appreciated all the work and ideas from the folks at Eaton and Red Rooster,” says Webb of State Electric. “My advice to other distributors is, ‘Do it.’ It really is like a silent salesman.”

Eaton's Merchandising Makeover program has elicited interest from the company's other distributors, who've read about the project in Eaton's internal Distributor Newsline publications or heard about it by word-of-mouth. Some have asked whether they could spend some of the co-op marketing funds they've amassed over the years to do a similar job on their own counter areas, an idea that Kohnen is eager to explore. Clearly, the more distributors who cultivate their counter areas as an enjoyable shopping experience, the better it is for all their vendors.

The changes don't have to be radical to be effective. “The biggest change is that there was a change,” Kohnen says. “These spaces were typically kind of dusty, they always had the same things or the appearance of the same things on the shelves, and now you walk in and there's new paint, everything's cleaner and brighter, everything is displayed better. That in itself was the change. You felt like you'd walked into a new fresh space.”

The impact of simply rearranging the existing merchandise can be substantial. Haines tells of a candle shop owner she met at a convention who challenged her team. “He said, ‘If all you do is rearrange what's there already, do you really think it will make a difference?’ We took two days to rearrange his merchandise, rearrange his floor fixtures,” she says. “He saw an immediate 20-percent jump in sales. It was the same stuff.”