You visited our website yesterday,” asserts the fellow on the telephone. He’s Marc Currie, president of Niece Lumber in Lambertville, N.J., and yes, he’s outed me. I’d been preparing for today’s phone interview and he, meanwhile, was tracking traffic on www.niecelumber.com as part of his bevy of electronic marketing tools. Smart guy, Marc (and dumb me).
Marc, 34, is the fourth generation of family owners who took over from Mr. Niece in 1920, and the first to realize a couple of vital stats about today’s potential clientele. One, when whippersnappers his age think of a building center, they think of Home Depot; chances are, they’ve never seen—much less shopped at—a traditional lumberyard (not that Niece is all that traditional, as we’ll demonstrate). Two, when they do shop, it’s likely to be online—or at least, preceded by online research. So, get with the program—or in Niece’s case, get way out in front of it.
Another key motivating factor to excel via electronics was location. Or, in this case, lack thereof. “We’re in the worst possible spot—dead end,” Marc allows. “No major highway. Older residential neighborhood.” In other words, “a typical old-fashioned lumberyard.”
“But we do deliver 25 miles in every direction on a daily basis,” including sites in New Jersey’s Princeton and Trenton and into Pennsylvania, not far from the front door.
And not far from where Marc grew up. Yet, working in the family operation “was never something I wanted to do” while putting in time during high school and college. “There’s nothing sexy about selling windows and doors. Instead, I was passionate about wine,” with plans to make its distribution his career, until life got in the way. While awaiting that opportunity, he returned to the Lambertville yard and—long story short—became GM in 2014 and a co-owner two years later.
Since becoming president, “I haven’t changed a lot of things,” he says, “because as I advanced, I also wanted to win respect. I’d taken on projects, like the store redesign, and added new product lines. I was allowed to make a couple of decisions that turned out well. Back when I got involved, the business was very profitable. Sales were strong and growing in the right direction—three of our best years—which came to a screeching halt during the recession. What followed were three of our worst years. Now, we’ve bounced back; 2017 was our best year ever, and 2018 is looking good, thanks to good, old-fashioned customer service.” But we’re getting ahead of the tale.
“We were one of the very first lumberyards to have a website, going back at least 20 years now. We found a kid in town who knew the Internet to start it for us, back when AOL was a big thing. When I got on board in ’04-’05, I thought our site had become pretty dated, so I took the next step and got it up to what a lumber and building materials website should be. Sure, it was a big investment—$30,000—but the best move—by far!—we’ve made. It lets folks understand what we can do. And it works. It’s like another employee for us. It’s informative; available around the clock; and it frees us from a lot of phone calls. We tweak it every year because you can’t just let it go with ‘See you later….’ It needs attention to grow the way it should.”
And how’s that “employee’s” job rating? “Invaluable! It reaches every demographic, but especially my generation—I’m 34—who grew up with Home Depots and never saw a lumberyard. We introduce them.”
Five years ago, Marc also introduced iPad kiosks in Niece’s showroom, giving customers immediate product information and pricing. It also enables them to order products online and have them delivered to the store. “Now, every home center is doing this, but back then it was unheard of. Here at Niece, we’ll try things other yards aren’t doing—and they’ll either go well, or be awfully stupid. But generally hey make us a little quicker.”
For instance? “For instance, I was big on Facebook starting eight, nine years ago. I’d email all my customers with ‘You’ve got to be on social media!’ I’d introduce them, get them familiar with it. Instagram, too. It’s a huge thing for us right now. On it, there’s an interactive building trades community. We find new products, new customers.”
Marc is also big on blogging. “I’m able to write a blog in 10, 20 minutes, about, say, a new product. It goes live and also connects to our website. It shows we’re paying attention to what’s new. Soooo many people over the course of a day are on our website! We can track them by location” (as this visitor discovered). And…it’s free!
“It provides us an interaction with customers that my competitors did not make: Have a live chat, share on Facebook. As an industry, we all should be doing this; it benefits everybody. You [as an owner] can either roll with change or… sink. (“And if you’re below the norm, it gives our whole industry a bad rap,” Marc believes.) It brings customers in the door. And once they’re here, we know we can retain them.”
For that, it’s crucial to have well-informed and caring employees. “I lead by example,” says Marc of his 36-strong staff. “I’m not in some back office. I’m out in front where we can communicate. We’re very picky about whom we hire, and that works for us—people with a great smile, very polite, paying attention to everybody. We serve every demographic, a pretty good mix. Pros account for 70% by sales dollars, but that 30% that’s walk-in? It’s not uncommon for them to order a $30,000 kitchen.
“When we relaunched our showroom, we hosted a Ladies Night to share who we are, with 50 to 60 attendees. The parking lot was full of Mercedes and Audis; they weren’t just here for the freebies. They took the time to travel and spend an evening with us. Our best customers come via word of mouth—brothers, sisters, neighbors. We’re building second, and third, homes for some of these people. We keep them happy.
“Our contractors build one or two homes a year, in the $500,000 to $1 million range. Not tract builders; that’s not our forte. We partner with our pros, who are a lot like us. They even invite us to their Christmas parties. They like that our employees are highly skilled, educated in new products. We know how they want things, and even what’s missing from their orders.
“The recession taught us to tighten up, watch expenditures. During those years, we had five, six excess employees; if they retired, we didn’t replace them. We even had to let a couple go (the worst day ever for my father and me). We cut hours, did what we had to do.
“It’s much better now. In the Contractor Division, all four of our guys have plans on their desks. We’re doing better than ever, and without the addition of people. The staff earns bonuses and our customers are happy.” So is the whole town, which benefits from Niece’s generous support for community programs. “Our marketing and advertising dollars are tied up in giving back,” says Marc. “And I know it works.”