Peter Bolte didn’t think he would enjoy Leading Appliances first annual conference. He found the old Retravision meet-ups officious and tiring. Lots of dealers shuffled into cavernous halls to walk from stall to stall, too much like a monotonous trade show: everyone constantly checking their watches hoping it’s finally 3pm so they can head to the bar for a frosty.
But Peter Bolte did enjoy this conference — the Taree outlet he owns and runs with his wife Donna was named Store of the Year out of the 60-strong group — and there outstanding presentations and workshops, great guest speakers and the organisers “put on an excellent party”.
The Boltes came to electrical retailing quite late. Peter had been a rep for 15 years and while travelling around from store to store in northern New South Wales, he noticed that a lot of “really, really bad operators were still able to survive”. He met a lot of good operators as well during this time, learning their skills and these inspired him to purchase the Taree Retravision in 2009. Peter says it was “well-established but somewhat tired”.
The couple turned around the store’s flagging fortunes by focusing on excellent customer service, something that still counts in a very conservative area that acts as a magnet for retirees. This old-fashioned approach contrasts with the Bolte’s refreshing acceptance of social media tools.
“Within a 30-kilometre radius of Taree, there are 7,200 55-to-65-year-olds using Facebook,” Bolte said. “I spend $5 per day for seven days to those people. Absolutely ridiculous how cheap it is!”
Chatting about marketing reminds Bolte of his old group’s failings. Bolte had a front row seat to the collapses of Retravision NSW, the failed unification, the demise of Southern, the end of Northern and the eventual selling off in the West to Narta.
“We’re the smallest group and the smallest fish in the pond but I would suggest that it’s a much tighter knit group,” he says of the orphans that were wrangled together to form Leading Appliances in April 2013. “We have a simple way of doing business. We now have a marketing department with two people. Two years ago, we had a marketing department with 40 people: it was just a waste of money.”
The hardest part has been introducing the community to a new retail brand. Bolte still writes “formerly Retravision” underneath the Leading Appliances logo on his catalogues and he often it’s only until he explains the change to new customers that he gets a flicker of recognition. Facebook is helping with this. He recently ran a competition in which his son Henry was photographed in 20 different businesses in the area; users of the social media were then invited to identify the name of the business. The idea was the build strong relationships and awareness within the community.
“We had 19,000 people interacting over 20 posts,” he said. “And in not one post did we try to sell anything, it was just about having fun. It’s new way of getting to know people over a beer. They get to know you and you know them. Sometimes the worst thing you can do is try to sell something.”
Not everything is roses, though. When I ask about competition in the area, Bolte shudders like a veteran reflecting on a particularly heinous battle.
“I get flogged, I get bashed up! I have a Bing Lee company store 150 metres from me, I have a Harvey Norman, I have a Dick Smith, I have a Big W and I have a Masters,” and then a laugh and he says: “Welcome to my world!”
Even with this competition, Peter and Donna remain convinced that with the right attitude to customer service — and their #1 tip is learning each and every customer’s name — their Leading Appliances store, and the fledgling group in general, can survive and thrive in the long run. This positive attitude is a welcome ‘Bolte’ from the blue!
A version of this article first appeared in Appliance Retailer magazine.