Successful marketing and selling means reaching, educating and caring for customers—in print, in person and online.
Awnings, shades and screens offer a wide and appealing range of benefits, attested to by virtually every website in the business. But homeowners in particular concentrate on five letters: s-h-a-d-e.
“UV protection is important, but not mentioned as much as ‘I have to have shade back here,’” says Bill Pattison, general manager of Goodwin-Cole Co. of Sacramento, Calif. “We use energy surveys, mostly that we get from Trivantage and Rainier and from IFAI. We talk about energy savings, but not as much as we talk about shade.”
Andy Morse, president of Ohio Awning & Manufacturing Co., notes a similar experience for his Cleveland-based company.
“We are in northeast Ohio, not Phoenix, so energy savings is a lower priority for our customers,” he says. “They’re looking at awnings to enhance their living space: ‘How is this going to help my family enjoy the backyard more?’
“On the commercial side, for restaurants, it’s about ‘How many tables can I put under this awning that will give me a revenue stream?’ It’s return on investment. For other businesses, it’s ‘How does this improve curb appeal so I have more traffic coming into my store?’ Do people see who I am and what I am?’ Maybe the awning just reads ‘pizza shop.’ Or maybe it shows the address or indicates ‘This is the entrance.’ And by changing its awning, a business gets a fresh look, which for a restaurant or store is an easy way to bring people in.
“When you are selling awnings, you try to find out why they called you,” Morse explains. “What is their pain? What is the issue? You have to start from that and then you can bring up other factors.”
“We talk about energy savings, but shade is the number one reason our residential customers buy awnings,” says Gary Buermann, president of G&J Awning and Canvas Inc. in Sauk Rapids, Minn. Because “patio life is so short” in his state, he adds, the majority of G&J’s business comes from the commercial sector. And those clients focus on street-front presence, often with identifying graphics.
Residential customers account for about 90 percent of Eclipse Shading Systems®’ installations. And for the Middletown, N.Y.-based wholesale manufacturer of retractable awnings, most commercial sales are for outdoor seating at restaurants.
“Our dealers are working with the end consumer. But overall, we are just trying to solve sun-related problems,” says Larry Bedosky, director of marketing.
“Awnings are good for direct sunlight and light rain. Side-retention screens have more ‘legs’ by addressing issues of sun, bugs, temperature and privacy,” he adds. “But the application is for the same basic reason: to control the outdoor environment.”
Eclipse Shading Systems posts on its website the results of IFAI and PAMA energy studies. But, Bedosky says, “There are so many variables in studies. It’s not like you can get an Energy Star rating for a retractable shading product, which can be moved and directed. And consumers generally aren’t looking for that utility-of-value statement.”
To market, to market
Like many companies in the awning and screen business, Eclipse Shading relies mostly on the internet to market its products.
“Some of our dealers still use print for advertising; they know their clientele,” Bedosky says. “But online you can show motion [in video or animation], which you can’t do in print. We try to put a lot of information on our website and are always making changes to hold people’s attention and educate them. There’s an educational curve in that you are trying to communicate what retractable awnings do and how one differs from another.
“We ask consumers to review our products and tell us what they think of their overall buying experience,” he continues. “For six years, we have been rated No. 1 on retractableawningreview.com. We also use Twitter and Facebook, but I don’t believe social media has much of a sales impact for us. Millennials aren’t our customers up to this point. The reason we do social media is for improved ranking on search engines.
“About one-third of [awning] consumers take a year to buy, so we instituted CRM [customer relationship management] software,” Bedosky says. “We give you the option to have a dealer contact you, and we stay in touch with you until you buy or die—or say ‘stop.’
“This is a major purchase. A lot of people say, ‘I didn’t know awnings were so expensive.’ Then they reconsider when they haven’t solved their problem. People will buy high-quality products with more options than they have in the past. Their first outdoor furniture was likely a wooden picnic table; then, as those didn’t last, they moved onto buying something more durable. That seems to be where the world of retractable awnings is.”
Most important, Bedosky says, awning and screen companies should make sure that what they post on their websites is valuable to the consumer and not simply self-serving.
Goodwin-Cole has advertised in the newspaper and on radio, but, Pattison says, “We don’t get too wordy in ads. We can put more information on our website. Then when we make face-to-face contact, we go over features and benefits. You never know what’s important to certain clients. We talk about energy savings, but we really try to tell our story—that we have welding and sewing shops; that we design, build and install.
“[Goodwin-Cole] spends a lot of money on buying keywords on Google, and we spend money every month on optimization of our site,” he continues. “We do some social media, such as Facebook. We go to home shows and send out postcards to any residential property that changes owners, which is information we get from the local paper that lists residential home transactions for the past week. We get some business from that.”
More fruitful leads come from having a booth at the annual home show on the state fairgrounds and from ads in home-improvement magazines.
“One of those magazines goes to 200,000 homes; the other is picked up in places like Starbucks,” Pattison says. “We have call tracking on them; so if we get a lead, we know where it came from. Our customers are predominantly 35 to 60 years old. We are looking at retargeting our advertisements to millennials.” Goodwin-Cole, however, did reconfigure its website in 2016 to make it friendlier to mobile devices.
Making the rounds
“Our greatest source of business has been property managers and contractors. Architects are great at recommending awnings, though they don’t necessarily recommend [Goodwin-Cole],” Pattison says, adding that he goes out with salesmen on group calls to see “key people in the community.”
G&J Awning and Canvas advertises in newspapers, sends emails to architects and developers, and engages in social media through Facebook and Twitter. Buermann notes that his company exhibited at four home shows in the past year, but attendance was down and exposure was further hampered by familiarity.
“If you have a retractable awning, people have seen that; it doesn’t stop them. They’re looking for something new. In the home market, we haven’t found the next great showstopper yet,” he says, adding that his company has run across the same type of problem when exhibiting at trade shows that attract architects.
“If you are the new guy, they stop. But once they have seen you, they don’t. So we have done different shows over the years.
“Most of our customers are repeat business and from word of mouth,” Buermann continues. “The next best thing is search engine optimization [SEO] for our website. Millennials are just getting to that age where they are buying houses and becoming our customers, so we rely on social media a little more every year.”
Ohio Awning also uses SEO tactics to attract visitors to its website. “We do a little social media, Facebook primarily, but need to improve on it,” Morse says. “We do some advertising in print, but very little. And we are not finding home expos to be as beneficial as they once were. In other markets, they may be; but we are not getting many quality leads. For a company that has been in business 150 years, a lot of our business comes from referrals.”
Considerable opportunities also come from new construction, Morse notes. “We have relationships with general contractors and architects. We do ‘lunch-and-learn’ presentations with architects a couple of times a month in the winter. We find that to be very effective in helping increase awareness of our company. And we follow up with contractors even if they don’t get a job [that they bid] to see what else they have. We try to work the network.”
“Good, established dealers care about their customers. Referrals can generate about half of their business,” Bedosky says.
Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer and magazine editor based in San Diego, Calif.