By Jamie Swedberg
Some shops make a good living selling retractable awnings. They have managed to make retractables their bread and butter, while others simply maintain a thriving retractable awning trade as part of a larger custom awning or patio furniture business. Yet across the specialty fabrics industry, many sellers find retractables troublesome. Some say there’s virtually no awareness of the product on a nationwide level; others have tried to create that awareness locally but have given up.
“Right now, I don’t think anyone’s successfully marketing them [on a large scale],” says Dan Fouratt, director of Solair® Shade Solutions, the lateral-arm retractable awning division of Tri Vantage LLC, Cleveland, Ohio. “That’s why the market is not that penetrated. There were articles written 15 years ago that said basically the same thing.”
The public image of retractables may go back to the 1940s, says Fouratt. “When you say the word ‘awning,’ [people] think of the aluminum things that used to be on houses,” he says. “Everyone has a preconceived notion, and it’s really not what an awning looks like today. You need to get it in front of the consumer and let the consumer experience it. Every time you put an awning in front of a consumer, it helps raise the awareness of the product.”
So what differentiates the shops that can sell retractables from the ones that do not have that same success? It appears that some have managed to create local marketing campaigns that really work. But what are the best strategies when you’re trying to sell a product that many potential customers still misunderstand?
Larry Bedosky, marketing manager at Eclipse Awning Systems® LLC, Middletown, N.Y., says many end customers have a hard time understanding why a piece of fabric with metal arms should cost as much as several thousand dollars. “We find that with a retractable awning, you have to experience it in person to see its value,” he says. “Seeing the mood that it can create seems to really help. And then it’s kind of ‘birds of a feather.’ If the neighbors like it and enjoy it, we usually start to see additional sales in that vicinity.”
Unfortunately, a retractable may not get a neighborhood buzzing simply because passersby can’t see it. Some of Bedosky’s dealers put up yard signs the way painters or builders do, but the signs sing the praises of an awning that is usually on the back of the house, hidden from view. To get the awnings in front of more eyes, his company places retractables and exterior solar screens in model homes, and Eclipse has also participated in the television show “Extreme Home Makeover: Home Edition.”
Don Reinbolt, general manager at Marygrove Awning Co., Perrysburg, Ohio, says his company probably spends two to three times the normal percentage on marketing retractable awnings. “We use just about every form of media imaginable,” he says. “We do electronic billboards, newspapers, direct mail pieces and home shows. We do a great deal of radio. In each of our markets, we find a dominant local personality who does live reads. We like that sort of advertising.”
The common thread, Reinbolt says, is to personalize retractable awnings for consumers so they feel more familiar, and if that doesn’t work, the company takes its show on the road. “We have a small fleet of Ford transit vans with full [graphic] wraps on them, and two retractable awnings that are mounted to a roof rack,” he says. “The retractables are powered by an inverter, so you can go right to the customer’s house, extend the awning, and they can touch and feel them, and see exactly how they work and how they’ll match the house.”
The vans are hard to miss. “It’s a little like driving the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile,” Reinbolt says, laughing. “You feel pretty conspicuous.”
Bedosky says any marketing campaign should take into account the value of referrals. Many of his established dealers, he says, find that more than 50 percent of their retractable awning business comes from referrals.
“On the dealer side, we’ll co-op almost any marketing effort,” he says. “But obviously one of the best [strategies] is to try to focus on creating that user or purchase experience—from the time the product is sold to the time it’s installed and the time a service issue comes up. If some dealers actually understood what it costs to make that phone ring for a new lead that’s not a referral, they’d probably fall off their chair. It’s really better to build a legacy for referral business.”
Vatche Azirian, vice president of Alpha Productions Inc., Los Angeles, Calif., tries to teach his dealers to focus on customer service the way he does when he sells retractables directly. “I clean their windows before I leave,” he says. “I fix their door handles on their gates before I leave. I change light bulbs on the second-floor walls. At the end of the day, an awning’s an awning, right? They paid for it, they got the awning. So what have you done to go above and beyond their expectations so that they’ll refer you? Show up early, finish before they thought you’d be done and do things that will blow them away, that no other awning company would do.”
Partnerships with suppliers and manufacturers can be key in dealers’ marketing efforts. Sometimes suppliers will discount certain parts or products, freeing up money for an ad campaign; in other circumstances, they’ll buy ads in tandem with dealers, featuring both parties’ names. In both cases, deeper pockets mean greater reach.
But just as important—perhaps even more so—is when individual dealers take ownership in their own retractable awning business. Suppliers want to affiliate themselves with end-product sellers who commit to marketing in their own areas and who will be around for the long term to provide excellent customer service and drive referral sales.
Dealers are often encouraged to market the brand name of their retractable awning manufacturer in brochures and other materials that they pass on to prospective customers. But Azirian says it can make more sense for dealers to focus on building their own brand. They don’t have to make retractables their number one focus, but they can certainly give it equal billing with their other products.
“The most successful dealers are the ones that take pictures of their own jobs and market the retractables themselves,” he says. “They don’t just simply hand the manufacturer’s brochure to the client. They’re not trying to have the product brand sell the retractable. They’re utilizing their installation crews, the quality of their service and the quality of their management. They’re basically selling themselves, not the awning.”
If you’re a dealer in New Jersey, Azirian asks, how can you create a personal experience with a customer if you hand them a brochure where all the photos have palm trees? “I actually tell my dealers, ‘You don’t even have to mention Alpha. I don’t care if you bring up my product name at all. Let it be your product, you know?’”