SACRAMENTO, Calif. — BrandSource buying group opened its digital doors earlier this week to host its first-ever all-virtual convention Aug. 29-Sep. 1, and, much like the group’s past few months, it proved to be fruitful despite the new challenges posed by COVID-19.
“Conducting this event virtually is not what we had hoped for,” said Jim Ristow, CEO of BrandSource parent AVB Inc., about moving the convention online due to safety concerns about the pandemic. “Nevertheless, it is a wonderful opportunity to share, learn and grow our businesses, just as we would if we were meeting in person.”
Among those opportunities was the chance to bring affiliate Mega Group (BrandSource Canada) as well as the New England Appliance Group and Intercounty Appliance Corp., all independent dealer organizations, into the convention’s folds, making it simple to share things lie its virtual product expo, one-on-one meeting and networking capabilities, and live webinar and question-and-answer sessions.
Ristow took the digital stage on Aug. 30 to kick off the convention, originally slated to be hosted in Dallas, with his own state-of-the-union address.
“We’re doubling down on technology. Doubling down on solutions for you all, and you’re going to have to double down as well,” he said. “We cannot hit the brakes; we cannot slow down. In fact, we need to hit the gas pedal.”
Despite his emphasis throughout his talk on continued work, Ristow did confirm that the work that the group has already done has paid off.
Citing numbers and predictions given in March, just days before the impact of the pandemic began to shut down cities and states, Ristow noted that he and others in the group were wrong on many fronts, like the growth of e-commerce for members. Originally predicted to grow 600% over the next three years, Ristow said the pandemic had helped members shatter that prediction, with comparable online sales growing 825% in just the past six months.
With the inclusion of new dealers and dealers who recently got e-commerce functionality into totals, the prediction was even more incorrect, with online sales for members actually growing an estimated 1,300%.
“COVID is a great accelerator,” he added. “Trends that had been slowly evolving are now booming.”
Another early prediction that Ristow said BrandSource was wrong about? The overall impact of COVID-19 on sales totals for members, which was initially estimated at a loss of 20% to 30%. Instead, Ristow said members are “outpacing the industry by 10% to 20%.”
In his talk on the second day of the virtual event, AVB Vice President of Merchandising Chad Evans compared the past few months to a hike through Bryce Canyon in his home state of Utah.
In March, before COVID-19, he said the group was excited about the adventure of the hike, but soon after, they were all looking at coronavirus, or “this huge wall in front of us,” that discouraged many from continuing and slowed members down. But, he said, they scaled the worst of it, climbing to the top of the canyon and overcoming quarantine store closings with quick thinking and an e-commerce focus. Now, he said, members just have to find the energy to make it back down and finish out the hike.
To keep up that energy and finish strong, Evans had a few suggestions, such as ensuring that retailers have a transactional, merchandised website set up ahead of retail holidays and a true marketing plan.
“I’ve heard many of you say ‘Why do we need to market we can’t get product anyway?’ And I’m going to tell you that we’ve taken share from the big box stores because of our marketing plans, the marketing plans you have put in place,” Evans said. The big box stores “are not going to let up, so we need to make sure we’re out in front of it with a strong marketing plan.”
He also said that retailers were going to have to find a way to make the best out of promoting and keeping products in stock, with AVB’s help, by aligning selling tactics and promotions with whatever they have available.
“I will tell you inventory is not going to clear up in the near future,” Evans warned. “This is going to be an issue as we go throughout this year and in the next year, so continue to do what you’re doing. We are getting product, and we as a merchandising team will continue to fight for you.”
Ristow shared similar sentiments, applauding members for the work done so far but noting that “we’re not out of the woods yet.” To keep seeing success, he emphasized foundational parts of BrandSource’s teachings on surviving COVID-19, such as technology and digital marketing. He noted that BrandSource plans to assist members with the rollout of new programs and offerings, including the new Kiosq.
An in-store continuation of BrandSource’s earlier-introduced AVB Marketing Services Linq online merchandising portal, Kiosq is a physical interface that presents an “endless aisle” of offerings for sales associates and consumers to access via mobile devices or an AVB-provided big-screen monitor. Bundled discounts for members are available for the Kiosq, the Linq4u assisted merchandising service and the turbocharged commerce version of the group’s Alta 360 e-commerce platform.
In addition to that launch, Ristow said BrandSource will follow the convention with a complimentary vendor and business training series this fall under the AVB University umbrella.
Ristow reminded the convention attendees of the hundreds of educational articles posted to the BrandSource YourSourceNews site and distributed through YourSource magazine over the past few months, the estimated 45,000 dealer consultations the group had completed and the more than 100 regional calls it had hosted.
Taken together, they make up what Ristow described as a winning equation: “Entrepreneur (the store owner) + information + buying right + technology = Success.”
“COVID-19, this great accelerator of trends, is not slowing down,” Ristow concluded. “We need to get on top of the wave to ride it and not get crushed by it.”