Good Folks Who Care
By Bill Sendelback
Photos: ©2015 Nick Grier Photography. www.nickgrier.com.
Some retailers rely on large stores, fancy showrooms and costly advertising to attract customers. A smaller number have found that strong community involvement generates the word-of-mouth referrals and, ultimately, the sales that lead to success, particularly over the long term.
The poster child for this novel marketing approach is Morton’s Stoves, Pools & Spas in Vancouver and Battle Ground, Washington. Even in this improving, but still soft, economy, Morton’s Stoves has been enjoying steady annual sales growth, including a 12 percent increase over the last two years, and is headed toward even stronger growth this year.
“We call it partnering with our communities,” says co-owner Heather Porter, “by things such as sponsoring youth groups and youth sports. Our goal is to constantly get our name out in our communities and to put (the name) Morton’s in the customer’s head. We want people to see us as good folks who care. If you take care of your community, your community will take care of you.”
The business began in 1976 in Vancouver, Washington, under the name Clemmers; it sold swimming pools and spas. Heather’s father, Jerry Morton, bought the store in 2001 and changed the name to Morton’s. He had a background in servicing hearth products, so he introduced stoves to the product mix. When Jerry Morton decided to retire in 2006, Heather and her husband Rob purchased the business, then added the Battle Ground location the following year.
|Both the Vancouver and Battle Ground locations have showrooms of 2,000 sq. ft.|
“There really was no logical explanation as to why we bought the business,” Heather explains. “My background is in health care, and Rob’s is in automotive mechanics. My father was very proud and passionate about the business, so we did it more for our family, not so much because we were passionate about it. That came later. We were looking for something that we could do together, and to help my parents retire and move on to the next stage in their lives.”
The young Porters may have been novices in retailing, but their business sense was obvious from the start. “When we purchased Morton’s in 2006, the economy was starting to change for the worse,” she says. “We had to take a look at what we were doing, what services we were offering, and figure out what our strengths were, and what our niche was so we could survive where others could not.”
The Porters figured they were good at stoves and good at service, since they had added in-house service and installations early-on. “We were not good at selling, but we were good at educating customers,” says Heather. “From the very beginning, we taught our employees that we are not selling products, we are educating customers and building relationships that will keep us in the community for years to come.
“We promote buying local. We educate customers that we’re here to take care of them in a way that the Big Box stores cannot. We’re here to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to make our customers happy.”
Morton’s sells hearth products, grills, aboveground pools, spas and saunas, as well as chemicals and accessories, but almost half of the sales are hearth products. Sales are almost equally split between the original Vancouver store, run by Rob, and the newer Battle Ground location, managed by Heather.
Vancouver, although a city, is really a suburb of Portland, Oregon, just across the Columbia River. Battle Ground is a much smaller, rural community, almost a suburb of Vancouver. Hearth sales are predominantly gas and pellets in Vancouver, while the Battle Ground store sells mostly woodburners and pellet models.
|The hearth business represents almost half of Morton’s total revenues.|
The Porters’ son, Casey Sawyer, is operations manager, overseeing purchasing, receiving “and a lot of stuff that helps to keep the day-to-day operations running smoothly,” adds Heather. Morton’s service manage is Chad Carter.
“It’s very challenging finding good service personnel,” says Heather, “ones who can relate well with the customer, can work well with other employees, are good at their job and maintain a good, safe, clean working environment. It will be difficult to replace Chad if we ever have to.”
A good, strong, in-house service department is one secret to Morton’s success, according to Heather. “It’s a good income source, if you have the right people in place,” she says.
The Porters put taking care of their employees at the top of their secrets to success. “Your employees are your first point of contact with the community, whether it’s a phone call or when a customer walks in the door,” says Heather. “You have to educate your employees to take care of your customers. We teach them that it’s not only information that we spew at these people – it’s about how you make them feel.
“People will shop on average three to four months before making a decision on very large purchases. You want to make sure they spend that money in your store by making them feel comfortable with your operation.”
Heather points out that she has even changed how she advertises for employees, in order to increase her chances of getting, and keeping, the right employees. “We changed from the traditional, ‘Now seeking full-time employees to sell wood stoves,’ to looking more for personalities and work ethics,” she says. “We can teach and train the knowledge and skills to work in our industries, but you can’t teach and train the compassion or work ethic or sensitivity needed to take care of your customers.”
|“We promote buying local,” says Heather. “We educate customers that we’re here to take care of them in a way that the Big Box stores cannot.”|
Morton’s doesn’t pay commissions to its salespeople. The Porters actually give a percentage of their net profit every month to their full-time employees. “If you’re taking care of your employees, if they feel like they are directly having an impact on the success of your business, they are motivated and work harder,” says Heather. She also gives gift certificates to employees anytime they are complimented by a customer online, on Facebook or in an email.
Again, applying good business sense, the Porters survey their clientele and have found their hearth products customers to be between 50 and 60 years old, and most are college educated and in executive positions, especially those making large dollar purchases.
Before opening their second store in 2007 in Battle Ground, the Porters did extensive research to track population shifts in Clark County to see if that location made sense at that time.
“It was a huge gamble,” admits Heather. “Do we open a new store location when the trends show that we were heading into a recession? But the numbers we saw supported that move, and we’re grateful we did it because that store has become such a huge asset.”
The Porters consulted population trend reports on the Internet and other information in local newspapers and the Chamber of Commerce. “This information is free,” she says. “Look at the numbers in your area to see what’s happening with your population, your community, and what your customers are interested in. You’ve got to figure out how to tap into the revenue sources that are all around you.”
The Porters almost shun traditional advertising in favor of being totally involved in their communities. About the only paid advertising is done in the local newspapers, and that is only because customer feedback indicates those ads are working. Internet search engines and Quest Deck also are working, and Heather would like to get more involved in the Internet.
“We spend very little on traditional, physical marketing,” she says. “We do any type of thing we can do to get our name out in the community, such as sponsoring local football teams and supporting fundraisers for local food banks.” As an example, Morton’s recently put a coupon in the local newspapers. When a customer brought in a coupon along with five cans of food for the food bank, they received a discount on their purchase.
People walk in almost every day asking the Porters for donations for auctions or fundraisers. Employees have permission to hand out Morton’s gift certificates for these purposes.
“Usually only about 30 to 35 percent of people actually follow through with a gift certificate,” says Heather, “but my goal is to get new people in our doors. These types of community activities get our name out there, and they show we care about the community, because we do.”
Other activities include grilling food in front of the stores with proceeds going to local charities. Morton’s recently gave away grills for a local veterans charity. The Porters also sell products made by local small businesses – handmade fire starters, mantels, artwork – to draw in customers and again show that Morton’s cares about the community.
|“We taught our employees that we are not selling products,” says Heather. “We are educating customers and building relationships.”|
Last year was Morton’s best sales year since the Porters purchased it in 2006. In fact, the last two years have seen the strongest sales growth and positive changes in consumer buying patterns.
“We’re definitely seeing more expensive items selling,” says Heather. “People used to look at the least expensive stove, but now they’re starting to purchase the more expensive cast-iron models. People are starting to purchase spas again, more of the ‘I want’ items rather than just the ‘I need’ items.”
Although new home construction is not a market the Porters chase, they see a lot more new construction in their area, and their contractor accounts are starting to come back. “Contractor business is not a strength of ours,” says Heather, “but we do have small builder accounts because they know we will take good care of them.”
The Porters don’t pay much attention to their competition, but do attempt to maintain good relations. “We feel that the product lines we have are unique and different from what our competitors offer,” says Heather. “If a person walks in our door looking for something very specific that we don’t have, we refer them to a specific competitor and even a specific contact so we can help them as much as possible. I hope the same courtesy is extended by our competitors. The key is making sure that the customer, every customer, is happy and that they get what they want. Otherwise, they are going to come back and be your worst nightmare for the next five years!”
Both stores are in rented buildings, but the Porters have tried to do the best with what they have. “Part of the struggle is how much money do we put into these buildings that we are renting. We’ve tried really hard to make them as appealing and as comfortable as possible for our customers,” Heather explains. “We want people, when they walk in the door, to say, ‘I love it here. It’s so comfortable.’
“We want to present a place where people can sit down, relax, think about things and not feel rushed – just kind of step away from the chaos of the outside world.”
Each store showroom is divided by product, about one-third hearth, one-third for pool and spa, and one-third for grills. Display space for hearth is then divided by fuel type – gas, wood, pellet. “It’s very important to have as many burning models as possible,” says Heather, “so people can see them in operation, and so we can educate them in the store.”
Surprisingly, the Porters feel that sometimes the best thing you can do is to give somebody their money back. “When you know that no matter what you do, you can never make them happy,” Heather advises, “they can spread negativity.”
Fortunately, the Porters don’t often have to refund a sale. Their business sense and community involvement are steadily increasing the success of Morton’s Stoves, Pools & Spas.
Store Name: Morton’s Stoves, Pools & Spas
Addresses: 8318 E. Mill Plain Blvd., Vancouver, Washington, and 711 E. Main St., Battle Ground, Washington
Number of Stores: Two
Owners: Rob and Heather Porter
Key People: Chad Carter, service manager; Casey Sawyer, operations
Year Established: As Clemmers, 1976; As Morton’s, April 2001
Web Site: www.mortonsstoves.com
Phones: (360) 944-6010, Vancouver; (360) 666-1177, Battle Ground
Number of Employees: Full Time, 9; Part Time, 1
Percent Sales by Category: Hearth 48%; Aboveground Pools, Spas, Chemicals 35%; Hot Tubs 15%; Grills 2%
Sq. Ft. of Building Space:
Showrooms: Vancouver, 2,000; Battleground, 2,000; Warehouse: Vancouver, 1,500
% of Annual Gross Sales for Advertising: 1%