As one of Southern California’s largest – and oldest – independent appliance retailers, Howard’s has implemented an innovative approach to the customer experience while measuring and recalibrating its response to the COVID pandemic.
In a bold play for customer experience points during a global pandemic, the employee-owned retailer has made a deeper commitment to a culture of innovation with an aggressive rollout of programs designed to keep customers, staff, families, and communities safe and healthy, personally and professionally.
Howard’s was founded in 1946 in Los Angeles County, California, in the back of a San Gabriel Valley sporting goods store. With locations in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside Counties, “we are now a chain of 15 stores that is held by an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), which motivates everyone to deliver great customer service,” CEO John Riddle says.
Brick and mortar retail was under threat long before COVID came along, and Howard’s has not been immune to those challenges. The company has had to shift gears and change its business philosophy countless times from the end of World War II through the Baby Boom of the 1950s, the cultural changes and technological innovations of the ’60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, right into today’s digital-dominated world.
Howard’s new Experience Centers enables shoppers to test drive appliances and experience the latest technologies and connected appliances in hands-on custom displays and stylish room vignettes.
COVID-19 could have brought an end to the Experience Center model, but Howard’s response to the virus offers some insights into how a company might not just survive arduous times but learn to thrive during them.
In response to the pandemic, as well as mandates and protocols from the federal government, the office of the Governor and local officials, California businesses have not responded in a monolithic way. Some have expressed anger at what they perceive as government overreach while others have begrudgingly complied.
Howard’s took a diverse tactic.
“I felt that the best response was to not just comply with mandates as the emotional toll of the pandemic became more pronounced but to go beyond legal requirements,” Riddle says.
As an essential business, Howard’s remained open while developing all-new safety procedures, implementing technology-enabled shopping experiences, and taking the necessary precautions to protect employees and customers.
Many companies, from Disney and Google to Facebook and Goldman Sachs, have begun implementing similar programs to help their staff manage depression, anxiety, and burnout through self-care. State and local guidelines have offered a baseline for public safety based on the latest science and data, but Riddle and the leadership team wanted to do more. For Howard’s, this meant providing a wellness program that offered paid time off, free yoga classes, and counseling for vaccine-hesitant employees, giving them a platform to express concerns and ask questions.
“We’re one of the few companies offering wellness practices at the location and individual level, so everyone feels valued and can share in the mental and physical benefits they provide,” Riddle says. “Everyone, including our independent contractors, can come in for our wellness programs, even on days when they aren’t working, and are available during the workday on a paid break.
“A strong commitment to safety is laudable, but if there aren’t any customers to keep safe, it’s game over. With Big Box retailers always breathing down its neck, we’ve outdone the competition with a customer experience that national chains can’t compete with.”
There is always more to do to stay relevant. Howard’s new RARE initiative focuses on ensuring a memorable customer experience in all its Experience Centers and stores. Its flagship Experience Center is in its Long Beach store, and the company recently opened a new West Los Angeles store. Plans are underway for Experience Centers in Tustin and Huntington Beach in early 2022, with further growth—through the opening of new locations or rebranding of newly acquired stores—continuing at a steady pace into unserved areas in California, Nevada, and Arizona. Howard’s is also looking primarily at opportunities near Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, San Jose, and San Francisco, as well as Las Vegas and other points East.
“The Experience Center model is distinct,” Riddle says. “The store is full of different vignettes with fully working versions of different appliances. The idea is to offer a cool, unique experience that will simplify and enable people to feel comfortable with appliance shopping.”
To further their commitment to RARE and the customer experience, Howard’s will launch a new website in the second quarter of 2022. Designed for a seamless shopping experience, whether from a mobile device or computer, or at a brick-and-mortar location, the new web platform will optimize the online shopping experience.
For those shopping in-store, the company will be introducing a new self-guided shopping experience for those who prefer to do their research, discovery, and purchasing without store personnel assistance
“We are redefining the consumer’s experience,” Riddle concludes, “Serving them in a more proactive way and making it easier and more fun for them to explore and discover appliances in our stores.”
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