By Andrew Wright
Originally published in the November 2022 issue of The Voice.
When the seasons change and the holiday decorations come out, it's easy to see that retail businesses have been working all year behind the scenes to prepare for the influx of shoppers.
But the past two years have been anything but predictable. Many businesses have weathered uncertain supply chains as they attempt to restock their stores to match pre-pandemic demands. However, rising interest rates, higher costs for utilities and gas, and other economic factors could make shoppers more cautious this holiday season.
Here’s how four Rockford business are building a better customer experience.
Benson Stone Company
Last year was a record year for Benson Stone Company, a brick, stone and masonry supplier and retailer of quality home furnishings.
“There was a huge amount of pentup demand, as everyone was sitting at home thinking on ways to improve their space,” said Andrew Benson, president of Benson Stone Company. “We’ve grown our staff since pre-pandemic. And we’re seeing supply chains getting better; costs and freight charges coming down.”
According to Benson, 2022 has been a good year as well. “We’re well over 2019 and 2018, but I think the home improvement sector is lightening up a bit. However, we’re seeing gift items and café traffic improve [as the holidays near].”
Creating an inviting customer experience is evident at Benson Stone’s showroom in the restored the historic Rockford
Standard Furniture factory in midtown—from the fresh-baked scents of the Hearth Rock Café to the giant stone fireplace that’s always lit during business hours.
But it’s not all retail glitz. They offer quality products for nearly any budget along with a low price guarantee. Other local retailers also are stepping up to improve the customer experience.
Guler Appliance has been open for more than 86 years at 227 Seventh Street in Rockford. But for the last two years, they’ve been focused on their brand-new location at 4435 E. State Street, which opened in April of this year.
Like Benson Stone, the managers at Guler Appliance saw a huge spike in orders at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, and that created a demand their old location couldn’t handle.
“The warehouse space was maxed out, and we had spread out across three locations to handle deliveries. It was cumbersome, logistically,” explained Dale Johnson, president of Guler Appliance. “The amount of business we were seeing meant we were doing well enough to consolidate to one building, and that we could handle bigger showroom space.”
In 2020, Johnson and Andy Guler, vice president of Guler Appliance, visited the State Street location and fell in love.
“This building reflects what we want our message to be – clean, elegant, simple and refined,” Guler said.
The new space is open, with neutralcolored walls and high-end cabinets and countertops that keep the focus on the selection of brilliant white, onyx black, and stainless steel refrigerators, stoves and other appliances.
“We want our customers to know that we’re taking this seriously for them. We’re here to take their needs seriously and we want our messaging to reflect that,” Guler said.
Infinite Soul Vibrations
The customer experience matters to owners of smaller businesses as well.
When she opened Infinite Soul Vibrations in 2018, Tamika Brown wanted to create a healing space for her customers. Brown is a Reiki practitioner, energy healer and certified medical empath. At her shop on State Street, she’s created a haven of warm colors and positive messages.
Works from local and regional artists like Pinklomein, Shaniqwa Porter, Kayla Janae and Yaz look down on shelves of oils, books and holistic healing goods.
For Brown, Infinite Soul Vibrations is more than a shop, it’s an extension of her own health journey. “The most healing and restorative part of what I do is having the honor and privilege to help people heal and become more conscious beings.”
Brown discovered this profession through her own health struggles.
“There was a tumor on the front of my brain, and I suffered a heart attack shortly after that. Surgery was too high risk, and the medication I took for my tumor caused adverse reactions, so I needed to find other means [of healing],” she said. “I started using acupuncture and I studied natural healing. Soon I added acupressure to other healing techniques.”
Now, when someone new walks into her shop, Brown can speak from personal experience about the healing benefits of her products and services.
Whether it’s a transient passer-by who wants someone to listen to their problems or a customer with an ache in their shoulder, Brown starts by listening intently as the first step in the healing process.
“I believe nothing is a coincidence. Sometimes people don’t know what brought them in, just that something doesn’t feel right,” Brown said. “I love people – that’s the biggest part of this.”
Rockford Art Deli
When Rockford Art Deli opened their retail shop in 2011, Jarrod Hennis had a vision—to create a cool community that people wanted to come to, move to and talk about.
“I’m trying to create a better community,” he said. “I’m using the Rockford Art Deli voice that the community helped to build to help Rockford grow.”
Walking into Rockford Art Deli is like walking into a Rockford booster club. Art and clothes all bear signs and symbols of Rockford pride, embracing the area code 815 and sharing the love of the things and places that make Rockford unique. Local artists are featured along the walls and the employees who make the products are front and center of the operation.
In a time when other retail outlets struggle to find staff, Hennis is confident in his team. “People want to work here. We have great benefits, good pay and a positive atmosphere at work.”
Hennis is also seeing growth in his business thanks to partnership with Schnucks that’s helping him expand to other cities. “We’ve got five or six Peoria designs we’re getting Schnucks to carry, and we’re working on Beloit and Janesville as well,” he said. But when it comes to Rockford, Hennis still sees opportunities for bigger things.
“People want to see positivity. We have the infrastructure to do so much stuff,” he said. “I want to see a new resurgence downtown. We have a great city and the structure for it, but we need to change our mindset. We could be a Milwaukee, Madison or whatever we want to be. In the end it’s about the community and attitude.”
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