Counter areas have come a long way since the days when products were hidden away in the warehouse, but many electrical wholesalers would be wise to periodically re-evaluate strategies when it comes to counter-area display and design. Sure, most have moved products out of the warehouse and into the counter area, but have they really thought about which products deserve shelf space and why?

Granite City Electric Supply, Quincy, Mass., wants its top 500 products — which account for 80 percent of sales — in front of the counters at its 19 branches and is working toward that goal. When Granite City builds a new branch, it installs wide-open counter areas and plenty of product-display space. With the most popular products up front, customers can self-select their orders.

“It helps us,” says Dave Zelandi, Granite City's marketing manager, “because most of the contractors choose to just get in and out with those top 500 items. They might have to go up to the counter to ask for one item.”

About half of Granite City's counter customers pick their orders themselves at the dozen locations now configured with the top 500 items in the customer shopping areas. Granite City has remodeled its older branches to utilize as much space in front of the counter as possible.

The first step in figuring out why customers buy what they buy — and from whom — is realizing once customers are off the job site or plant floor, they are consumers, just like the rest of us. That's why it's important to borrow the best merchandising, promotional and marketing ideas from the retailers that have it down to a science.

For instance, grocery stores and hardware stores place impulse-buy or seasonal items near the register. And, don't forget to utilize the valuable promotional space on the front of your counter with add-on items that an electrical contractor always needs but may not have on his or her list on a particular day.

Counter-area workers know which displays attract the most interest, and they can also often point out if any patterns exist in how customers walk through a counter area. Purchasing personnel may detect some not-so-obvious seasonal variations resulting from counter-area business. This is valuable information, and should contribute to decisions surrounding your merchandising strategy.

Pay attention, too, to customers' interests beyond the job site, and tie promotions to those interests. Granite City capitalizes on its Boston market's baseball enthusiasm. Each branch's television is always tuned to the New England Sports Network (NESN), the station that carries Boston Red Sox games. NESN replays games during the day, so it gives customers something they enjoy watching while waiting for orders.

Plus, Granite City runs commercials during the games. “We're the official distributor of electrical supplies to the Boston Red Sox,” says Zelandi. “We try to promote that quite a bit. Every Red Sox day game, we have hot dogs and popcorn at every branch.”

Coordinating merchandising efforts with product manufacturers is also imperative. Vendors and distributors should work together to generate customer demand.

Granite City gives 12 vendors prime real estate when it comes to the placement of special merchandising displays.

“We have what we call a focused vendor program,” says Zelandi. “We have 12 vendors in the program, and we really pay all of our attention to those 12 vendors when it comes to marketing time and merchandising. We get the best displays from all of them because we're giving them so much floor space and so much marketing time.”

Merchandising Basics: 10 Tips

  1. Keep your shelves stocked. “There's nothing worse than walking in somewhere and seeing three empty spots,” says Dave Zelandi, Granite City Electric Supply's marketing manager. “You could have $2 million in (inventory in) the back of your warehouse, but if a customer walks in and sees empty spots on the Klein display, he thinks you have nothing.”

  2. When stocking displays, remove one item. Customers looking at the display will think someone else purchased the product. This product “endorsement” can stimulate impulse sales.

  3. Keep product displays clean. “If they're full of dust, the customer's going to think it's junk that you have out there,” says Zelandi. Replace damaged or dirty merchandise.

  4. Display the most profitable products at eye level.

  5. Let customers play with products. Electricians and other tradespeople love displays and promotions they can get their hands on and play with while waiting for order. “We use slat board and hang a lot of product,” says Zelandi. “We try to concentrate on our tool lines to get them out in front of the counter so customers can touch them and try them.”

  6. Run sales. Distributors' customers enjoy the thrill of a sale on electrical goods as much as with the consumer items they buy for their home.

  7. Use end caps to feature items that are on sales, impulse products or seasonal items. Keep end caps simple for maximum impact by limiting the number of different products on display.

  8. Use dump bins to create a “sale atmosphere.” Dump bins are also great for high-volume products and bulky items.

  9. Put gondolas on casters or rollers for easy cleaning and restocking. Ask manufacturers about gondolas that allow you to change shelf configurations while still loaded with merchandise.

  10. Cross-merchandise products by grouping them according to function or system of application. For instance, place add-on products like connectors, wire lube and fish tape near a wire and cable display.

Remembering a Merchandising Maven

Jolynn Rogers, who taught countless electrical distributors how to redesign counter areas and promote their companies more professionally by drawing from merchandising strategies from the retail world, died June 27, 2005, from colon cancer. She was 49 years old.

Rogers served as merchandising manager for Ideal Industries, Sycamore, Ill., in the late 1980s and 1990s. She later joined Square D as sales operation manager.

“Jolynn came to Ideal at a time when we were struggling with the merchandising program,” wrote Vince Nall, Ideal's former president, in a recent e-mail to Electrical Wholesaling. “She understood and shared the vision of stemming the tide of professional products from distributors to the box stores by creating customer areas in the distributor counter areas. She helped to create the expansion of merchandising within the electrical industry and became the best-known merchandising expert sought out by presidents of leading electrical distributors to help them establish their direction in merchandising. This was one of the milestones of change in electrical distribution.”

Jolynn Rogers made a valuable contribution to the electrical wholesaling industry. She will be missed.