Perspectives: Dealers

My wife, Diane, was a Janome sewing machine dealer for 25 years. For 20 of those years I worked with her in various capacities. That’s given me a view of both sides of the dealer-customer relationship. This post is the first of a series examining that relationship with insights from my point of view.

In the beginning the dealer and prospective customer have different goals. The customer wants the best possible value for her money, while the dealer wants to make a sale with enough profit to sustain the business. Obviously the best outcome is when both parties feel that they have achieved their goal. Unfortunately it doesn’t always end that way.

Some buyers have no local dealer, having to travel a great distance just to find any dealer. Most commonly this is due to the buyer’s city being too small to support a dealer of a specialized product like a sewing machine. In the US many small towns have lost all small retail businesses once Walmart moves in. That’s one of the hidden costs of those “always low” prices.

A buyer that has to travel a long way is at a great disadvantage, because the dealer knows they are unlikely to get any repeat business from the sale. There is no incentive to offer any discount or other consideration. After sale support will also be problematic, so the best a buyer can usually hope for is a great price. There are exceptions to this, and some dealers go the extra mile for service for remote customers. However training is often unavailable.

The dealer situation in or near large cities is much different. Competition is intense and there are different ways of dealing with it. For the buyer it often comes down to simply looking for the lowest price. This is a mistake, as the lowest price is rarely the least expensive. To counter this, dealers will agree to either not quote prices over the phone, or to quote only manufacturer suggested prices, thus putting them all on a level playing field. The intent is to force customers to go to each local dealer to get their “best” price, with the goal of making that process too time-consuming and onerous, so the customer will just settle for whichever dealer is closest.

From the dealer’s standpoint, this is risky. They are engaging in a “race to the bottom”. As Seth Godin tells us, the problem with being in a race to the bottom is that you might win. Or worse, come in second. At the time of the purchase the customer is happy with the low price. Disillusionment soon follows. One remorseful lady who came to our store had bought her machine from an “always lowest price” dealer. When she wanted to know how a particular machine function worked, she was told “It comes with a book. Read it!”

Selling only on price is at once easy and very difficult. The easy part is that the dealer is essentially engaged in a reverse auction, bidding less and less until the deal is sealed. But expenses like rent and salaries are fixed and must be paid in a timely fashion. The only way to pay them is from the profit gained between the difference in selling price and machine cost. Some dealers counter this by putting no prices at all on machines in the store. A potential customer is sized up, and a price is offered that may be even higher than the manufacturer’s suggested price. If resistance is met, then the negotiation begins to find the price the customer is willing to pay, but lacking that, the customer may unwittingly subsidize the low prices that others have paid.

After the sale comes the reckoning. Dealers who sell solely on price will almost never have any sort of training or help after the sale. The machines of today are much more complex than those of a few decades ago. Staying abreast of them requires dealers to invest time and money to attend training from manufacturers. That can’t be done if the goal is to always get the sale by lowering the price.

When shopping for a new machine price will always be a consideration, but that should not be the highest priority. Evaluate the dealership first. Look at their class schedule. If there is no class schedule that’s a red flag. Ask friends in your sewing club for their recommendations and experiences. Look around the store. What is on offer besides machines? Lack of accessories or sewing supplies usually indicates that the focus is on machines alone. A dealer who is not looking for repeat business likely won’t be interested in after-sale support.

If you have no local dealer the process is different. Rather than looking for the lowest price, you may be seeking the closest dealer, or even an online dealer. Either way, a little research online can be very helpful. If you are looking at a dealer that is 100 miles away and can find nothing positive online, look further. Driving an additional 50 miles might be worth it to get a substantially better dealer.

Whether shopping locally or online, the Internet can be helpful. These days almost every dealer has a website. Are there pictures from the store on the website, either of merchandise on display or classes? If the only photos are “stock” pictures of machines that might indicate a lack of interest, and inventory, in accessories and supplies. Do a web search on the store. If the only results are links to the store website and auxiliary websites such as online Yellow Pages, that might be another indication of where the dealer’s priorities lie.

There are many online sewing groups, including ours. These can be helpful in getting first hand information on dealers, either local or remote. Most people are reluctant to take the time to leave reviews or ratings, but are far more willing to help people asking about for recommendations. If you have a great dealer, you can reward her by giving an honest opinion in response to requests like this.

Buying a sewing machine is very different from buying a toaster or a television. You will be in an ongoing relationship with the dealer. Choose carefully and it will be rewarding for both of you.