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Credit: GRAPHIC BY NICK ORABOVIC

 

When she shops for home and garden supplies, Laura Minert has plenty of reasons to choose Orchard Supply Hardware.

“They go out of their way to have excellent customer service,” says the sales and marketing manager at Herb’s Pool Service in San Rafael, Calif. “They’re always greeting you, always helping you find product — and they know the product well enough to actually explain it to you.”

These are all qualities that Orchard — often known by its acronym “OSH” — actively cultivates in its employees, from the initial training process through the minutia of day-to-day operations. Combined with the company’s innovative approaches to store-wide promotion, this dedication to friendly, expert assistance makes Orchard stand out from a crowd of competitors, Minert says.

“Training our employees to be attentive and responsive to customers is a practiced, deliberate thing,” says Rick Saunders, director of marketing at Orchard Supply Hardware in San Jose, Calif. “Our associates also go through intensive training, both in terms of product knowledge and about how you should meet and greet a customer.”

Staff members are trained to greet customers as they enter, and ask what they’re looking for. Employees can then point a customer to the right place, saving shoppers the hassle of tracking down the correct aisle.

Many Orchard stores also feature “shelf talkers” — mounted displays demonstrating how to install, say, a light fixture or a sprinkler system. “Some stores even have a cutaway model of a toilet,” Saunders says, “so we can take customers over to that model and show them how to take it apart and repair it.”

Though other hardware stores might include these features, Minert says Orchard adds attentive customer service to make home maintenance shopping fun. Moreover, many home and garden stores evoke the feeling of a warehouse, but Orchard’s atmosphere is much more oriented toward the average homeowner — the person who might not know how to plumb a sprinkler system, but wants to learn. This emphasis on customer education marks a key difference between Orchard and many of its competitors, Saunders says. The company even offers free how-to’s on its Website.

Similarly, Minert trains her staff to be knowledgeable about every product in her stores — and proactive about approaching customers who may need tips or input.

“The way the staff always greet you promptly, and are eager and knowledgeable about helping you find product — I definitely try to apply that when I’m training my employees,” she says.

Another area where Minert sees a close kinship with her own business is that of localization. Managers at every Orchard branch tailor the product selection to the needs of their immediate area, and work to make the store a reliable neighborhood fixture. “Each store manager has a lot of latitude in terms of what products to put in, and how to arrange them,” Saunders says.

Orchard also innovates in terms of promotions. In addition to targeted weekly ads in local papers, the company celebrates unusual store-wide events. For example, rather than announcing a “10 percent off” sale, a branch of the chain will announce a “we pay all sales tax” day.

Despite the fact that a 10 percent discount would actually save customers slightly more than a store-paid sales tax, Saunders says shoppers respond more strongly to the latter concept. “People just like the idea of it,” he says. “There’s something about this feeling of freedom from paying sales tax that really appeals to them.”