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Don’t overlook the obvious

With the economy essentially put on hold from the pandemic and sales being affected, it is natural that we all are looking for ways to sell more products to more customers. Some of us are looking at new product lines we can expand into, others might be looking at new market segments. Either way, we all are looking for ways to grow our business during a time when we see demand decreasing. Sometimes the answer is right in front of us.

How often do we look at our business from the data that we know and make a judgment, when it is the data that we don’t know that may change our minds? Our company was relatively satisfied with the inquiries we were getting from our website. We looked at the volume of inquiries and our total consumer sales and quickly judged them to be okay, but not something to get excited about. We figured we were not in a segment that would do a lot of consumer business online, so we didn’t pay much attention to it.

Once the COVID shutdowns started affecting our employees, I found myself receiving all of the web inquiries. I worked out getting them to the right people, but I decided to keep getting copies of the inquiries because they were a fascinating view of what people wanted to buy while we were cooped up in our homes. I started asking questions about how we handled the inquiries and found out that while we tracked how many came in, we did not track how many became orders. When I started talking to the employees who had been in contact with the customers, I was informed that on certain lines we always seemed to be priced too high. So, I dug a little deeper and concluded that while we spent a great deal of time worrying about our builder pricing, we had not really reviewed some of our consumer pricing since the system was first set up. Turns out, some of the products we sold competitively all day to builders were, when priced for consumers, 60% higher than what could be found online from a home center. An obvious mistake.

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We had been content with getting a little consumer business when it turns out we could have been getting a great deal more, if we had spent some time maintaining our consumer pricing. We knew how much business we were getting, but we had no idea how much we were NOT getting, even when we had the customer essentially inside the store. Our problem was we did not know what we did not know. Now that we had an idea of the problem, we could start tracking our web quotes to validate the opportunity. It has become a project that I am personally involved in because I want us to focus on getting this right. We all know it is easier to sell more to customers you are engaging with than it is to find new customers to sell to. This is one of those instances.

Many of us will have “share of wallet” initiatives with our salespeople. We usually point out what our existing customers are not buying from us, then encourage our salespeople to try to sell their customers on those products. When was the last time we went out to our good customers and asked them why they don’t buy certain products from us? I found out that, while our deck builders were very loyal to us for the decking and railing, some were buying their hangers and post bases in bulk online because they used a lot of just a few products and they paid a lot of attention to the price of something that was a blind item to many of our customers. So, we plan on putting in special pricing on those few items to those customers, and with the increased sales, we can buy those products more effectively in bulk.

We may be spending a lot of time and brain power trying to figure out how to sell more stuff, but are we asking the questions about why our existing customers don’t buy our stuff? Often, it is not about price. Sometimes it is perception, other times about service. It can also be about convenience. Ask anyone planning a picnic, and they will tell you that if they can find the baker who, instead of selling hot dog buns eight to a pack, packages their buns 10 to a pack to match up with the 10 hot dogs to a pound packs that we buy, they will have our business. Sometimes it just means asking the right questions and not overlooking the obvious.

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Russ Kathrein is the president and CEO of Aurora, Ill.-based Alexander Lumber, which operates 12 locations throughout Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa. He is also chair-elect of the National Lumber & Building Material Dealers Association. Reach Russ at


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