PHOTO: New Mexico Leisure, LLC

“Retail Raves” asks one retailer to specify a product that’s making a difference in his or her business. All professionals featured in this column are selected at random.

I started selling satellite dishes in 1984, but that ended overnight when cable companies began scrambling HBO and customers were required to subscribe to the channel. Two years later, I attended a regional trade show, picked up a line of hot tubs, and began selling them at my two stores in Albuquerque. It took off right away.

Because I was interested in diversifying, I tried other products, including fitness equipment, mattresses, safes, tanning beds and aboveground pools. I even brought in playground sets, but couldn’t sell enough to make it worth the effort. Over the years, I have expanded to four locations, three in Albuquerque and one in Sante Fe.

Brand recognition

During the first few years in operation I would bring in a brand and sell it for a while, and then the manufacturer would go out of business. When that happened, I’d have to find another one to take its place.

Eventually, I realized I could carry brands with recognizable names for the same cost while upholding the quality and features my customers desired. The only difference was, the known manufacturers weren’t going to shut down unexpectedly. This move helped improve sales because it increased my customers’ trust. It also made obtaining parts much more manageable.

Ultimately I embraced this philosophy for each product line, and whether it’s hot tubs, billiard tables, chemicals or stoves, I carry brands that are the leaders in their respective categories.

Healthy competition

Each store is divided in half, with hot tubs on one side and billiards and stoves on the other. Although I stock similar products, all of my stores have different names. In fact, they actually compete with each other. Stove & Spa Mart is in Santa Fe, and Family Spas & Stoves, Hot Spring Spas & Stoves and Carefree Spas are in Albuquerque. The latter three are on the same street, one mile apart from each other. I have built a “Spa, Stove and Billiard Row.” If someone is looking for those products, they’re going to go down my street.

Despite the close proximity, you’d be surprised how many people don’t make it to all three stores. It’s interesting to see how consumers shop and how they buy. Most of them base their purchasing decisions on how much they like the salesperson, so they always return to the same location.

Stove savvy

I had already tried selling stoves once before, so I wanted to do it right the second time around. When I brought stoves back in 1999, I went with Lennox, a 100-year-old company with a product I could confidently sell. They used to be a hobby for us because we sold so many hot tubs, but when sales slowed because of the economy, I expanded significantly into the stoves.

Now it’s a huge part of my business. We’ve increased our display units to include more than 30 on the showroom floor, and we heat the stores with a few of them, too. They’re easy to show and take up very little room because they simply line the walls. We service all the stoves we sell and stock accessories and parts, including screens, cleaners, igniters and gaskets, among other necessities. We also have a regular client base that hires us to clean their stoves, so it’s definitely a thriving business.

Over the last 10 years sales have been strong, but five years ago business increased substantially. We carry gas, wood, pellet and electric models, although electric doesn’t really sell as much as the others. Last year we actually sold more wood and gas stoves than we usually do in a normal year. Typically, however, 70 percent of our customers ask for pellet stoves. Unlike gas, which fluctuates in price, pellets are very inexpensive, and customers appreciate knowing how much it will cost to heat their homes for the season. In New Mexico, you can heat a house for the winter on one ton of pellets, which costs approximately $200. That price has been stable for nearly 15 years, while gas certainly has risen since 1999. (Propane is even worse.) A consumer typically buys 50 40-pound bags of pellets in the summer and stores them in the garage until they are needed.

Pellet stoves are simple to install on any outside wall, and they are easy to operate. A homeowner just pours the pellets in the stove, and it automatically lights and feeds them. The stoves can be set to low, medium or high, or they can be connected to a thermostat, which allows a user to set it to a preferred temperature. The pellet stove will heat up to 2,000 square feet.

In addition to the low operating cost and ease of use, customers like that the pellet stoves are an eco-friendly alternative to traditional wood-burning fireplaces. The pellets are simply recycled wood chips, so no extra trees were chopped for fuel. Also, they are EPA-approved to burn on no-burn nights because they only produce 2- to 4 grams of soot per hour compared to the 7,000 grams an hour emitted from a fireplace. What’s more, the stove can be customized to match any décor using a high-temperature wood stove paint, which we also supply.

Consumer confidence

Perhaps one of the best selling points for the Lennox stoves is how they compare to stoves sold at big-box stores. Cosmetically they look the same, but the parts inside the mass merchant’s units are inferior. Every day, three or four customers walk through our doors looking for parts to unknown brands sold at big-box stores. Sometimes I can help, but most often I can’t. One customer had to call a Canadian manufacturer for a blower that I couldn’t replace, and discovered there was a two-year wait. In the end, she bought a new stove from me.

Another problem with these off-brands is the auger motor, which is usually too small, and frequently jams. We’ll demonstrate this to our customers by showing them the size of the larger auger motor that comes with the Lennox model and the tiny, inferior one on other models. We warn customers that they can even burn a hole through the metal of the inferior brands. Ultimately, we have the expertise in pitching the product, and the customer has a better experience.