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A Water Retailer offers More Than Clean Water
After opening its doors seven and a half years ago, The Home Environment Center, a family-owned store that offers air and water purification solutions for allergy relief and healthy living products for home and office environments, is constantly in search of creative ways to evolve its business. Water Quality Products asked Gayle Englof, president of The Home Environment Center to share some of her experiences, lessons learned and marketing ideas used to grow her business.
“Who would come into a store to buy self-served purified water? That’s ridiculous.” Statements like these did not stop my husband and I from opening the Home Environment Center (HEC) in Rockford, Ill., in November 1996. After 20 years of working as a designer of interiors, fabrics and dinnerware, I was ready for a career change. My husband was working as a manager for a large aerospace company. We wanted to start a little “retirement” business which I would develop. Eventually, my husband would join me in the business when our daughters were out of college.
To start, we offered our customers in-store purified water, water coolers and drinking water systems, and miscellaneous water products such as bottles and shower filters, and our shelves were sparsely stocked. We thought that customers would like reverse-osmosis water and would quickly convert to the convenience of in-home systems—we were wrong. Our customers absolutely loved the taste of our water and were content to keep buying it.
Our store produces reverse osmosis water in bulk using city water, which goes through more than 10 purification stages, including ozonation and ultraviolet light. Customers fill their own bottles from eight filling stations. We also sell what we consider the most effective air purifier available on the market.
Over time, our customer base grew, but slowly and we found that water sales typically do not generate healthy profit margins. However, we had a lot invested in the business so we needed to increase traffic in the store. The answer came one day when I was listening to Paul Harvey advertise a product on the radio. His endorsement and testimonial was totally convincing, and I decided to offer local DJs an opportunity to evaluate our air purifiers in a similar format. They could only do radio commercials for us if they really liked the machine. I started paying for “live” ads in which the DJ talked about the air purifier and all of the great things it did. I did not tell them what to say; I just encouraged them to talk from their own experience. Radio advertising was very successful for us, and eventually I began doing my own half hour weekly radio show. Today, this is still the primary advertising medium for our business.
As time went on, we were shocked at the growth of our bulk water sales. What was originally intended as a lead generator became a key component of our marketing plan. We noticed that our customers were buying our water for two reasons—taste and health. Besides the taste, they liked the idea of healthier water for their families. And, they were buying all types of health-related products while getting water.
Soon we had to face the cold, hard realization that our physical location was not working with our evolving business plan. It was difficult to get carts in and out of the front door, and we were running out of water on a regular basis, but we had no space to install a second storage tank. We struggled with the decision of moving to a building that had better parking and easier access for big water loads transported through the front door. However, we knew that in order to grow the business, we had to relocate.
After spending months looking for a new location, a space just two blocks away became available. The greatest challenge was to find a way to minimize the shut-down time for the water room equipment, as we were determined to inconvenience our water customers as little as possible. Fortunately, our original equipment installers were able to prepare the new location. In sub-zero temperatures we disassembled the water room equipment modules, which were then lifted onto a trailer. We actually pushed the trailer by hand the two blocks to the rear of our new store. It was quite a sight! Reinstalling the system took time, but even our customers were impressed with the short amount of down time.
More and more people came through our doors looking for solutions for their indoor environmental problems. Chronic fatigue, multiple chemical sensitivities, allergies and asthma are just some of the conditions affecting many of our customers. Our HEC became known as “The Healthy Living Store” and we began adding non-pharmaceutical allergy relief products and plant-based cleaning solutions. To better serve our customers, I researched dustmite control products and developed a great business relationship with a major supplier of allergy relief products.
Looking back on seven and a half years in this business, our biggest challenge was to find a way to combine a service business with a retail store. We provide solutions to our customers—whether it is an indoor problem that deals with mold, pollen and pet dander, or water problems such as iron, hardness, nitrates, etc. We offer advice on air purification and most of the other retail products that the customer can purchase and take with them.
However, customers often come in to price our water equipment. They expect us to have price tags on everything like the big box stores. Estimating an installed price is usually risky, and the challenge is to convince the customer that we cannot give them the best solution for their water unless we test it in their home and actually see their plumbing requirements.
We take our customers’ needs very seriously, but as a society we are developing a mentality of “buy lots of things as cheaply as possible.” The Internet has fostered a philosophy that it is unfair to pay a retail price for anything. Consumers often lose sight of the value of service and knowledge. The do-it-yourself mentality does not work well for water problems. For example, we quoted an iron removal system and a softener for a customer who had problem water. He purchased, instead, from a big box store. In a year, the iron removal system stopped working and the quoted repair cost was high. The customer called us in frustration and asked what he should do. We offered to install the correct system for his water problem along with a money back guarantee. The price we offered was the same we quoted the previous year.
As business owners, we sometimes lose sight of the value involved in standing behind our products. Often, we are ashamed to charge a premium price for our services. This customer would have been money ahead if he had purchased our equipment in the first place.
As most business owners discover, the business has demanded a lot more commitment than we ever imagined. Our marketing plans are constantly being modified to reflect current consumer demands, most important, we keep going and are constantly learning. Additional training and seminars as well as staying in touch with the Water Quality Association has helped us evolve our business to continue to meet our customers’ needs.