By Bill Sendelback
People love to talk – especially salespeople. But most of us have never learned to listen – especially salespeople. Woodland Stoves & Fireplaces in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has turned listening to its customers into an art form, and that has been key to the success of this 39-year-old hearth retailer, a finalist for the 2016 Vesta Hearth Retailer of the Year award.
“We listen to what our customers say and then try to make things work,” says co-owner Peter Solac. “By listening, we know what the customer wants. Customers are often not well informed, and sometimes their requests are not reasonable, so then it’s our job to educate them and make the fire work for them in their home.
“Our goal is to give the customer all the information he/she needs to be able to make an informed decision about which hearth product is right for him or her. The biggest part is making the customer feel he/she is in the driver’s seat and letting them make informed decisions. That is more important than our being skilled in sales and closing techniques.”
Salespeople need to understand the features and benefits of the hearth products they sell, and make an effort to match those attributes with what the customer wants, he says.
|Woodland offers one of the largest selections of hearth products in the industry.|
Solac learned the value of listening while in high school and working in a small town hardware store. “The owner knew everybody, and he never sold a pound of nails without asking, ‘What are you going to do with these nails?’ Then he might make suggestions about a different way to do the project, or about using another product. He was asking questions, listening and really addressing what the customer wanted and needed.”
Solac graduated from college in the fall of 1977 in the middle of the energy crisis and in the heyday of wood stoves. He couldn’t find a job he liked, so he was driving a school bus when he and a buddy went to a local energy fair where he spotted a sign in the Woodland Stoves booth saying “Dealers Wanted.” He asked the salesman what the requirements were to become a dealer.
After taking a deep drag on his cigarette, the salesman answered, “Buy five stoves.” So Solac’s friend lent him $1,500, and the two started selling Woodland Stoves. “After 39 years, I was an instant success,” he says with a laugh. Woodland Stoves, the manufacturing company, is long gone, but Woodland Stoves & Fireplaces, the hearth retailer, is thriving. It’s now owned by Peter and his wife Jean, and located on the border of Minneapolis and St. Paul, a metro market of three million people.
Today, 90 percent of Solac’s business is hearth, with the remainder in indoor and outdoor pizza ovens. “We’ve considered grills, but they are really well represented in the Big Box stores,” he says. “There may be room for a grill specialty shop, but they are just so available in other marketing channels that we have not jumped into it.”
|Woodland was commissioned to supply two Montigo Custom C-View Peninsula fireplaces and a custom gas fire pit for the new US Bank Vikings stadium.|
While dealers in the area sell 90 percent gas products, Woodland Stoves & Fireplaces’ sales are 50 percent wood-burners. “We’re kind of unique in our market,” says Solac, “but wood-burning is our specialty, our niche.” While he works with homebuilders, 80 percent of his business is in remodels and 40 percent of his sales in fireplace inserts.
“In this market, we have fireplaces dating back to the 1890s, and these people want to make them more efficient and safer. More than 50 percent of houses in America are less than 30 years old, but 80 percent of the homes we work in are more than 50 years old.”
Woodland Stoves & Fireplaces found a growing business in commercial installations while working with contractors and architects. “I’m amazed at how popular fire features are in public spaces,” says Solac, “like restaurants, hotels, businesses, student housing and assisted living facilities. We’ve even put fire features in the new NFL Minnesota Vikings football stadium. It’s probably less than 10 percent of our business, but these (projects) can be really nice, big jobs.”
The Minneapolis-St. Paul economy never slumped as much as the national economy, Solac says. “Of course, we had a housing slump, and our business slacked off. But with the slow national economy, we still needed to restructure our debt and ask for wage concessions from our employees from 2009 through 2013 just to hang on. But then we rebounded more quickly, especially with the real trend of people moving back into the city.”
Woodland Stoves’ business started to come back in the second half of 2013, up 13 percent that year. In 2014, sales exceeded pre-recession totals, up another 25 percent, and 2015 sales were “up slightly.”
|Woodland has more than 35 working models of hearth products, representing a great variety of sizes and styles.|
Those sales increases were achieved even though Fireside Hearth & Home outlets dominate the Minneapolis-St. Paul market. “We can’t compete with them on price,” says Solac. “We have to compete on product variety and service. We do everything they don’t. They try to sell what they manufacture, and we try to sell what the customer wants.
“The art of integrating hearth products into buildings and lifestyles doesn’t work well on a large scale,” he says. “Larger businesses may be able to purchase better and make some profit with lower margins, but they have no advantage over small shops when it comes to integrating hearth products into peoples’ lives. The skill of fitting hearth products to the customer and then realizing it in the home is very often the most important feature we can offer to the customer.”
Woodland Stoves works with architects, and is used by them as a resource. “That’s really what we want,” says Solac. “We’re not everything to every builder, but when somebody wants something special, or to be handled in a special manner, we want to be that resource.”
Woodland Stoves doesn’t have sales commissions for its “excellent” staff, according to Solac; instead, there is a profit-sharing program in place.
“Perhaps sales commissions would motivate more sales, but my belief and experience are that profit sharing encourages and rewards everyone in our business to be helpful both to our customers and to each other.”
Solac purchases both dealer-direct and through two-step distributors. “We’re all trying to add value to our products,” he says, “and a good distributor certainly adds value by having inventory and good sales representation. We have a number of distributors in our area that we work with very successfully.”
With Woodland Stoves’ hearth business both successful and growing, Solac has no firm plans to expand. “I’m interested in solar because my first interest was alternative energy,” he says. “But solar is such a different business model. Now that hearth has rebounded and is keeping us as busy as can be, that whole solar learning curve is a little daunting. We have been amazingly busy just with hearth in the last two and a half years.”
Solac tries to be a problem solver for consumers, and he uses his showroom and product displays to show solutions to his customers. “The focus of our displays is to show our customers how we can help them have a successful place for a fire that fits their contemporary lives,” he says. “We try to display what our customers are looking for.”
Designed and built by his in-house staff, the showroom layout is by product type with fireplaces separate from inserts and from gas and wood stoves. “Because we have such a large variety of brands and product types,” he says, “our staff listens to our customers and then brings them to the product displays they are looking for to demonstrate and explain how we can make that product fit and work in their home.
“Although we feature more than 35 working models, we can’t show the entire lines of all our manufacturers. So we try to create displays that illustrate how we can solve the detail challenges inherent in fitting these diverse hearth products safely and elegantly into the home. We try to show how attractive a hearth product can be.”
That includes showing tools and accessories that will “add to the experience of making, maintaining and enjoying a fire.” Along with its hearth products, Woodland Stoves also displays the work of local artists and crafts people, such as stonemasons, tile makers, blacksmiths and wood workers. “Their work complements and adorns our products,” he says.
Solac has advice for retailers. “Yes, we listen to people, but if you also pay attention to your job, do your job right and are fair with people, then they will buy from you. All you have to do is be responsive to them. We have a culture here where we listen to our customers. It’s incredibly rare nowadays when people are not trying to sell you something but actually let you buy what you want to buy. We just try to be helpful, and our customers appreciate that.”
He also has advice for manufacturers. “I encourage manufacturers to make new offerings. We, as retailers, want new products that entice people to buy, and we want real improvements. The Vesta Awards have really inspired manufacturers to do new stuff instead of simply doing ‘research and duplicate.’”
Store Name: Woodland Stoves & Fireplaces
Address: 2901 East Franklin Ave.,
Number of Stores: One
Owners: Peter and Jean Solac
Year Established: 1977
Web site: www.woodlandstoves.com
Phone: (612) 338-6606
Fax: (612) 339-3301
Number of Employees:
Full time – 12
Part time – One
Sales % by Product Category:
Hearth – 90%
Outdoor ovens – 10%
Showroom – 6,000
Warehouse – 6,000
Outdoor display area – 900
Hearth – Ambiance, Aspen Industries, Breeo, Bernard Dalsin, Blaze King, Condar, Copperfield, David Kimberley, DaVinci, Dimplex, Fireplace Xtrordinair, Hearthstone, HPC, Hwam, ICC, Isokern, Jøtul, Kozy Heat, Lopi, Meeco/Rutland, Minuteman, Modern Flames, Montigo, Morsø, Ortal, Portland Willamette, Rais, RH Peterson Co., RSF, Sólas, Stellar, Stoll, Stûv, Town & Country, Tulikivi, Valor, Vermont Castings, Vestal, Wilkening.
Outdoor Ovens – Fontana Ovens, Forno Bravo
Advertising % of Gross Revenues: 2%
Radio: 30%, Magazines: 30%, Television: 18%, Newspapers: 13%, Direct Mail: 9%