It's important to have a game plan when advertising.

Okay, listen up! This is a first from the pen of this old showroom guru. Wholesalers are starting to get the showroom message! They really are! Their numbers are increasing and they're significantly better showrooms. They're finally starting to diversify their product mix - both in products offered and vendors represented. More and more are figuring out that the plumber is not in charge of their destiny ¿they are! showrooms are becoming more customer-friendly. Wholesalers are really starting to learn some important retailing basics.

I can't tell you how good this makes me feel. During the 10 years of writing this column, I've been pretty darn tough on the wholesalers and their approach to showrooms. As I'm writing this article wholesalers are being asked to participate in the SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES showroom survey which is done every three years. I really hope everyone takes time to respond. It's the only benchmark information on showrooms available. My September and October articles will share the results of the 2003 survey. I'm hoping that the results prove my opening paragraph correct!

Trust me, I know it's been a long hard transition. I know there's a long way to go, but at least there's a strong trend in the right direction.

As I travel the United States and Canada giving my seminars and doing my consulting I am continually asked about showroom advertising and promotions. This is a new area for wholesalers - and if they really want to operate successful showrooms they have to become proficient in both. This is part of running a business that wholesalers haven't had to do much. Sure, there's the occasional open house, barbecue, fishing or golf outing, but no running ads or retail oriented promotions. So let's talk about it.

First, you have to determine what audience is going to be targeted. Who do you want to put your message in front of: homeowners (what price range?), new construction, remodel customers, custom home builders (what price range?), remodel contractors, interior designers, architects or all of the above?

Next, what message do you want to tell? Do you want to use a specific product or idea or something more general? What image do you want to project: high end products and services or more moderately priced? Always be consistent with your image in your advertising. It's repetition that makes the biggest impact.

The type of media, messages and events you use to advertise and promote your business will continually be evolving. When you first open a showroom you want to tell people who you are, where you are and why you're in business. As you become better known, you will transition into more specific messages about products, sales and services.

Most wholesalers have no experience in the areas of advertising and promotion. Don't be afraid of it - get educated. There are books, tapes and seminars on the subject. I'd urge you to get professional help. There are some very talented people who make their living helping people like you. Seek them out. Ask your favorite retail business who they work with. Interview several. Make sure they understand your business and what goals you want to achieve. Many of these people will work on a per job basis or on a monthly retainer. I personally always liked to pay for results (per job)!

Many of your suppliers spend a lot of money developing and running ads to promote their products with the hope of pre-selling your ultimate clients. Kohler, American Standard, Eljer, Jacuzzi, Delta, Moen, Price Pfister, etc., all have beautifully done ads ready for you to use and they all offer co-op dollars to help you promote them and you! Take advantage of both their ads and their money. Again, maintain a consistent message. You want to be identified with these "winners." Let your ad agency do all the work. Find out what ready made materials they have available. Then tie your creative tag lines, logos, address, directions, etc. to them.

A very, very important piece of the puzzle is to establish a plan and a budget. Identify what products, services, image you want to advertise. Determine how often you want to run the ads. Select the type of media to be used and then how many dollars will be budgeted. A good rule of thumb is that you should budget about 3% of your total annual sales. Then add any and all vendor co-op dollars that you can negotiate. As an example, if your sales are $10 million, then you should budget $300,000 for advertising, promotions and public relations. Plus, in this scenario you should be able to average about 1.5% of total sales in co-op vendor dollars. That's another $150,000 for a total budget of $450,000 for the year. But, there are also a lot of opportunities to spend this money. Without a plan (who, what, when, where, why and how) you won't achieve the biggest bang for those dollars. Be sure and track your results as you experiment with different methods.

So now you have a plan. You know the answers to the above questions. You know how many dollars are to be budgeted. (In all of this I'm talking about an annual plan, broken out by month and week.) You have a timeline for when the activities will take place. Using the above example of $450,000 budgeted dollars, you can develop an annual calendar that allocates $37,500 per month to advertising and promotions. But, you don't have to break it out in even numbers. You may want to hit Spring and Fall heavier so the dollars and your schedule would reflect this.

The hardest part for me in my business was trying to decide what media gave me the biggest bang for the buck. They all have their pros and cons - and you should learn them.

When I started my business I wanted to create an impression of high end products, a superior showroom, terrific service and one-stop shopping. I was more interested in creating an image that the client could see and purchase anything and everything for the bath and kitchen - and that we were the best company in town to do business with. As the business matured and grew and we became fairly well known, we changed from the "shotgun" approach (small pellets scattered in a wide range) to a "rifle" approach (single bullets, more directed). We never totally abandoned the "shotgun" because of the repetition theory, but learned that a combination of both seemed to serve our goals best.

Now that you have your plan and budget (you have to have this) let's talk more specifically about what media are the most productive. These are my opinions and they will certainly vary by area of the country, demographics, media available, costs and what your goals are.

Yellow Pages advertising is almost a must. Consumers do use them. But when my business grew to three stores covering all of Northern California and we had diversified into bath, kitchen, hardware, etc., I found that trying to do meaningful ads in 27 different telephone directories and in all the applicable categories became prohibitive. We could have spent our entire budget (and more) in just this one area. We cut back to smaller, well designed, bold print ads, which were extremely effective.

I always liked the high-end "city" publications. Most larger cities have one or more. Nicely produced, four color, co-oped ads with your major vendors work well here. The association of your name with a well known brand name adds credibility to your business and will help drive people through your doors. My strategy always was to do everything possible to get people to visit our showroom. Once they came in we didn't want them to leave until they had purchased everything we could possibly sell them. You may be waving well known brand name flags to attract customers, but it doesn't mean you always have to sell them these products. Sell them what you want to sell them!

If I had to pick one media that was the most effective, both in results and cost, I'd select direct mail. There are several ways of using it effectively. If your local area dictates that building permits have to be "pulled," both for new construction and remodeling, then get the information on these permits and send a mailer to the builder or the home owner. Tell them who you are, what you do, etc. This has to be done in a very timely fashion. Also, you can buy zip code mailings for higher end neighborhoods where you know nice remodeling projects are happening. Develop a message for this. We offered a series of educational seminars (How to Plan Your Remodel Project, What's New in Kitchen and Bath Products), and gave discount coupons at the seminars. We used both printed ads and mailers to promote these.

Cable television has been effective for some businesses. Again, selecting the appropriate channels and time slots for your target audience is very important. When we had specific promotions, for instance our Annual Summer Tent Sale, we used a combination of local television, local radio and local newspapers. We know this was effective because the turnout was always terrific. We also had a catchy, professionally done "jingle" that we used for all of our sales and promotions and it was what people recognized first and foremost. When they heard the jingle, they knew we were having our sale!

Finally, whatever means of advertising and promotion you do, learn how to track the results. This can be done in a number of different ways. Ask your clients how they heard about you. When they "sign-in" on your showroom registry, have a place where they can write down how they heard about you. You can offer a special discount, gift or other "perk" for responding to certain ads. Develop a system to document the results so you can determine what works best for you. You may be wondering if it's possible to track exact results for the advertising and promotions dollars you spend. The answer is no. No one can guarantee you a certain amount of return for the dollars spent. The only gauge that I'm aware of is that more folks will be visiting your showroom and the sales will increase.

Each type of media works to some degree. Some are more expensive than others; some work better than others. You just have to experiment to find out what works best for your business. It would be impossible to cover such a broad and important subject in a mere 1500 words, but I hope you are ready to make a commitment to learn more and put it to work for you! Learning a new phase of your business can be both fun and rewarding. Good luck!