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Kristen Elder of Ferguson Enterprises: “Nurture your relationships”

We have always encouraged our customers to book showroom appointments due to the consultative nature of the showroom experience. We are not an appointment-only business; however, during COVID, there was a period when we were. Many retailers continue to require appointments to manage in-store headcounts. Similarly, retailers like Target are offering an option to make […]

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We have always encouraged our customers to book showroom appointments due to the consultative nature of the showroom experience. We are not an appointment-only business; however, during COVID, there was a period when we were. Many retailers continue to require appointments to manage in-store headcounts. Similarly, retailers like Target are offering an option to make a shopping reservation via their app when there is a queue at your local store.


As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ferguson’s Kristen Elder, VP of showroom and builder.

Kristen is the Senior Director of Appliance Business Development at Ferguson Enterprises. She is an established consumer product sales and marketing leader with hands-on experience in launching, developing and growing profitable multi-million-dollar businesses for leading consumer and retail brands. Before joining Ferguson in 2017, Kristen spent 20 years in the retail industry with many notable brands including Sony Electronics and Monark Premium Appliance Company.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

As Vice President of Ferguson’s showroom and builder business, my priority is driving business solutions that place the customer in the center of every solution we consider and provide.

Initially, I started in the consumer electronics industry, I held roles in buying, marketing and merchandising. I even moved from retail to the manufacturer side of the business, where I brought new products to the market. My transition to the home and appliance industry occurred after a colleague recruited me to lead a regional appliance company working with builders, designers and remodelers focused on renovation and new construction projects.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

When I worked in Beverly Hills on the sales floor, we had every celebrity walk through the doors. At the same time, you might have someone who was homeless or living in their car visit. You find quickly that the old adage, “you can’t judge a book by its cover” is true. Every customer coming in has a different story. And while they may not purchase today, they may do so in the future. Circumstances change quickly.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

Starting out, I was eager to learn and asked all sorts of questions. There were times where I felt like my curiosity might have been inconvenient. But it was never a mistake to ask a question or share a thought. Over time, you do learn the best approach.

Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

Several years ago, Ferguson acquired Build.com and invested in the platform to provide an online solution to project-minded consumers. Although the two companies worked closely together to share insights and best practices from each business model, the two businesses functioned as two separate companies for several years.

When COVID-19 hit and physical locations were closed, it was a great time to bring these two parts of the business closer together when there was an increased need for people to shop digitally. As a result, we updated the logo on Build.com to show the closer relationship. On the site, we now display the relationship as Build with Ferguson. That work is nothing short of remarkable. Build with Ferguson’s focus will remain on building a digital relationship with project-minded consumers, as well as the trade community.

This comes at an ideal time to address homeowners’ needs. Home renovations, especially kitchen and bath remodels, are at an all-time high. Data tells us that this is due to the amount of time people are spending in their homes due to the pandemic. Whether they are now working remotely, cooking more meals, engaged in virtual learning or trading the gym for a backyard workout, they are maximizing every aspect of their living space. The bottom line is that customer behaviors are changing, and we now have multiple options to meet their needs and help them create beautiful spaces that make living through these complex times a little more enjoyable.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

It is probably more pronounced now than ever, but I say connections matter. Nurture your relationships. Find ways to keep the connections open with people who may not be in your direct circle. Schedule virtual coffee breaks and make sure you turn your camera is on when meeting on Zoom or Teams. Surrounding yourself with a solid professional and personal network will always serve you well.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

It is hard to pick just one person because so many people played a part in my career. I’ve lived by the principle that I will only work for companies and people who believe in me. I’ve never applied for a job, meaning I’ve never found success submitting a cold resume to a job ad. You could say my career history is based on six-degrees of Kristen Elder; every position throughout my career was either found through a connection or an introduction.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

It’s important to support industry organizations and currently, I am on the national board of directors for the National Kitchen + Bath Association. NKBA promotes professionalism in the kitchen and bath industry and is considered the premier association of designers, retailers, remodelers, manufacturers, distributors, fabricators, installers and other industry professionals. There’s so much positive energy within our community because it’s more than a livelihood for most; it’s a lifelong dream.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share five examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?

COVID-19 has produced major shifts in consumer behavior that evolve as the pandemic continues.

Ferguson, like so many retailers, must advance alongside our customers to remain relevant. When the shelter-in-place orders were instituted, construction was deemed essential. Projects may have slowed, but our customers’ work did not stop. They had to face insurmountable hardships to keep projects running. As people came together to work through these challenges, several trends emerged:

Almost immediately, touchless retail was front and center to maintain social distance. Our counter locations offered online ordering via a website or app with curbside pickup, which was a straightforward solution to implement. Today, everyone from Panera to REI offers digital shopping with curbside pickup and other touchless transactions. Hygiene will continue to drive customer behavior. This trend also will endure because it offers convenience.

We have always encouraged our customers to book showroom appointments due to the consultative nature of the showroom experience. We are not an appointment-only business; however, during COVID, there was a period when we were. Many retailers continue to require appointments to manage in-store headcounts. Similarly, retailers like Target are offering an option to make a shopping reservation via their app when there is a queue at your local store.

More and more, you will see companies find ways to deliver in-store customer service online. For a while, we completely transitioned to a virtual world, adopting video conferencing and virtual showroom consultations in record time. We discovered that virtual consultations are an excellent way for our showroom customers to connect with us, especially for follow-up appointments, and to confirm product selections. This is a trend to watch because the creativity and innovation will be endless.

Prior to the pandemic, our Ferguson Ventures Innovation lab explored and prototyped augmented reality showroom shopping. The option to incorporate a virtual showroom was considered but not adopted. After the pandemic, we rapidly built the digital experience out of safety for our customers and associates. During the deployment, we learned customer preferences for using the virtual showroom platform. For example, shortly after introducing the virtual showroom, we saw the immediate need for customers to view inside appliances and we built this functionality. As more retailers, including luxury clothing labels adopt the technology, it will become increasingly more sophisticated.

Even as we transition to a digital world, people crave connection and want to engage. Brands must cue in on their customers’ wants and needs and nurture them. It is as simple as Walmart sharing what’s trending to help suggest activities to pass the time like puzzles to AirBnB’s curation of online experiences for people who love to travel. Ferguson recently hosted a virtual concert with Darius Rucker as the headliner for our Showroom Insiders, our customer loyalty program. Even though the event was virtual, customers still felt connected to Ferguson and were able to enjoy a unique experience. We even surprised an interior designer out of Southern California and her five-year-old daughter (who described themselves as Darius’ biggest fans) with a virtual one-on-one meet and greet.

In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?

So when you ask, if “malls will continue to exist?” the question actually becomes, “in what form?” For Ferguson, when we use the term “showroom” instead of “store,” it is more than semantics. When customers come to our Ferguson showrooms, they’re truly seeing and experiencing the product. And they are collaborating with a product expert to find the right solution based on lifestyle, needs, wants, budget, vision, space and specs.

When we recently conducted a consumer poll, we learned that seven in 10 (70%) Americans say it is extremely or very important for them to be able to touch and feel the appliances/fixtures in person before making a purchase decision. Additionally, we found that the top reason Americans say they would visit a home design showroom is the opportunity to see products in action (74%).

There are certain products such as clothing and home furnishings that need to be experienced in person, and to meet this necessity, more retailers may embrace the showroom model. The layout and how you shop a showroom are different from a traditional retail store. Shopping is elevated to an experience where the consumer can touch and feel design elements and materials; they can find the correct fit and finish. Finally, this model offers more options and convenience such as ship-to-home. The consumer is able to validate purchases in person before buying online.

The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?

Knowing your customer and what drives them, their values and the products and experiences they most appreciate is key to surviving the “retail apocalypse.” If you lose touch with your customer, that is when things start to go south and you lose your relevance. Everyone who has been a victim of the “retail apocalypse” did just that.

Lululemon is about the community experience. Stores hold in-store events and find ways to engage their communities whether through social media or other channels. Regardless of how their ideal customer shops, they find ways to surprise and delight their customer. Lululemon’s established relationship with their customer has allowed them to listen and respond throughout the pandemic. Right now, they know their customers are conflicted. Their target customer wants to stay healthy and fit, but they can’t go to the gym. Their acquisition of Mirror, a home gym, is an excellent example of knowing your customer and evolving with their changing needs.

Our customers were concerned about the safety of their clients. Since a sizable number of our customers are builders and designers who work in clients’ homes, it was imperative to consider the downstream impact of every business decision. We transitioned our TASTE event, cooking demonstrations where we simultaneously share product innovations and industry news, to a virtual platform. Celebrity chef Fabio Viviani streamed a demonstration from our Highland Park showroom. Our customers across the country were shipped full meal kits with all the ingredients needed to follow along and make fresh, homemade pasta and his mom’s marinara sauce. During the event, participants learned about product categories such as connected cooking and wine refrigeration in a virtual environment without sacrificing safety to them or their clients.

Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise to retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

If you are only competing on price, then you are at risk. You need to distinguish yourself in the market through the services you offer, differentiation of product and the value you bring. Consumers are increasingly savvy when it comes to direct-to-consumer companies. They realize that the photos online are different from what they are purchasing.

Our showrooms differentiate on quality and service. At a time when many things are disposable, many consumers are beginning to see the benefits of investing in products that last for a substantial time. We carry an extensive selection of kitchen and bath products from today’s notable brands that consumers trust. Brand still matters. When consumers build trust with a brand on quality, it is easier for them to engage in an eCommerce transaction.

Service is the other value we bring to our customers. We make sure there is a real person at Ferguson who is working on your project. In many ways, our product experts are lifestyle consultants. They are learning about your family, your needs, your wants, your habits and more so that they can recommend products that best match your lifestyle. For example, if you have small children, you probably need a different laundry machine in terms of size and features than if you are single and love to workout. These are things that most people don’t often consider when making major home purchases.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Being in the home renovation industry, I am interested in how design can create happier and healthier lives. Recently, there have been stories about redesigning cooperative living spaces for people with disabilities to foster community and balance interdependence with independence. If I could start a movement, it would be that designers and architects — and everyone in our industry — look at ways to use our skills to inspire and foster social engagement by rethinking our spaces.

How can our readers further follow your work?

FergusonShowrooms.com

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!


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