Sramana: It is a daunting task to compete against a Best Buy or Amazon.com, both of which sell products in your category. It seems you have taken innovative approaches to let you keep momentum.
Mercia Tapping: The better manufacturers do not sell on either BestBuy.com or Amazon.com.
Sramana: Why is that?
Mercia Tapping: Because we do consultative selling. We do a lot of training for the people on our phone staff. Some conversations can take over an hour. If a manufacturer has a specialized product that requires an in-depth conversation with a consumer, they want their products to be well represented. When it comes to Amazon.com, you can’t even get a representative on the phone. The big box stores sell on margin. You can’t get the in-depth advice that you can get from us over the phone.
Sramana: In a sense, you are positioning yourself by working with manufacturers that have complex or sophisticated products that require consultative selling.
Mercia Tapping: Exactly. Our customers have a particular problem, such as asthma or sinus allergies. They know there are a lot of choices out there, and we help them discern among them by giving them a lot of information about products. Even so, a third of our customers phone our consultants. Our people are very well trained. We spend several days every year training and retraining them on products to ensure they are giving the best information possible to consumers.
Sramana: I just did a search on steam cleaners and I went to your site. When I did that, a chat box came up asking if I needed any help. Can you describe how that works from an operational point of view? Are you running a call center in the background, and where is it located?
Mercia Tapping: It is a call center in our offices here in the U.S.
Sramana: How many agents do you have in that call center who you need to keep trained in order to provide that level of service?
Mercia Tapping: We have six or seven salespeople at any one time. We draft a couple of old-timers to come back into the fray over the holiday periods. We also have customer service people. When it comes to pure product consultants, we do keep at least six on staff. They will answer consumers’ questions by phone or by chat.
Sramana: Do consumers ever do consultative shopping with your consultants only to go comparative shopping on the Internet and make the purchase elsewhere?
Mercia Tapping: We do a price match guarantee. We make it more attractive for people to buy from us. There will always be some people who will go price shopping. A lot of our products are what are known as map price products. The manufacturers set a minimum advertised price that they require pricing to be advertised at. That makes things easier for us because there is really no need for the consumer to do price shopping. Everybody will advertise the product at the same price.