I had the opportunity to visit a local HVACR supply house branch lately. It was a lot like many others I've been in over the past 30 years - nothing special. Several showroom light fixtures were out, making the place a bit dark, and the paint on the walls was dingy and peeling in spots. There were some pieces of residential HVAC systems on the right over by the window. And as I walked up to the counter, I looked at the shelves on both sides of me and noticed some very unexciting stuff, new-construction duct material (in an area where there is little new construction). The counter itself was rather high, strewn with catalogs, two cash registers, a computer, boxes of hand tools that were on “special,” and a coffee machine alongside a box of doughnuts on the far end. No, it was nothing fancy, but it was familiar.

At the counter, two clerks were very busy. Who was next? Nobody seemed to know. You had to wait, then hang close to the counter to get someone to check out your purchase - and just hope that the guy ahead of you isn't having a problem ordering the right part.

A few days later, I had to stop by an auto parts store to pick up some oils and an oil filter. The store was part of a national chain, and I noticed quite a difference between the way they do things and the way we typically do them. The painting and the signs out front were colorful and attractive. Inside there was plenty of good light, and most of the products they offered were attractively arranged by type on several rows of showroom shelves. In fact, almost anything a person would need could be found there. Hundreds of little parts such as fuses, connectors, screws, nuts, bolts, washers, etc., were all there and easy to find in bulk packages.

There was a whole row of tools of all types, which is hard for me to resist - I usually pick up something, no matter what else I have gone in to purchase. Everything was perfectly laid out to encourage people to walk all the rows to see if they had forgotten anything, and to encourage impulse buying.

Of course, they had rows of unattractive parts that were kept behind the counter, so customers wouldn't pick up the wrong one. A couple of “experts” work there, but they aren't in charge of checking customers out. That is handled in a lane at the store's only exit, by a pretty young woman. And if you have to stand in line for any period of time (which you usually don't), there are shelves of smaller tools and interesting items all along that lane for you to look at and keep you interested.

I also noted that to prevent pilfering and theft, large mirrors that could be mistaken for decorations were mounted overhead, and the more expensive parts (such as the tools) had those stickers on them that, if they aren't deactivated by the checkout clerk, set off an alarm as you leave the store.

I realize that there is quite a difference between an HVACR supply house, which caters to a select few customers, and an auto parts store that caters to consumers. You don't necessarily want your stores to look inviting from the outside when you don't want to attract consumers, but I wonder if the auto parts stores have something to teach us.

Here in Florida, most HVACR supply houses try to attract customers with free coffee, soft drinks and doughnuts. Then, usually on Fridays, they might offer free hot dogs or something. I wonder why the national auto parts chains haven't thought of that. Well, somehow they have found ways to make their displays interesting enough that I like to just go in and look around for a while. What is new and how does it work?

Anyhow, what I'm suggesting is that you periodically take a hard look at your showrooms with a critical eye toward making improvements. Also, visit one of those national auto parts stores and take a look at how they are doing the job. Can pilfering be reduced in your stores? Can checkout be speeded up? Can you sell more tools by carrying more and offering them in attractive displays? Would your stores attract more customers if they were better lighted, better maintained, more colorful, and laid out better? Can impulse buying be improved?

You know, back when I was a kid, one of my first part-time jobs was as a salesman in a national shoe store chain. It was there that I learned one of the first rules of salesmanship. That company considered the best salesperson to be the one who sold the most handbags, stockings, shoe polish, etc. The company's reasoning was that people came there to buy shoes, and when anything else was sold, that was salesmanship. Well, the days of store salespeople have pretty well fallen by the wayside in modern supermarket-style supply houses, but salesmanship still exists in the way items are displayed and packaged. Can we become better at it? I think so.