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Mike Root

The Challenge with Our Profession

June 3, 2013

Recently I was contacted by an independent retailer who was forced to lay off Bob, his store manager, and wondered if I would talk to him about the possibilities of a career selling on the road. He indicated Bob was a very talented individual who had a history of sales and sales management in home furnishings related products before working with this retailer. Unfortunately the retailer's business was not as robust as he needed it to be and he was forced to lay Bob off.

This is not an uncommon plight for many as the economy slowly recovers. There are many talented people out on the street trying to figure out what their next chapter of work life will be. For most, a life as a road rep is not very high on the list.

As I told Bob when we spoke, to get started on the road with no previous experience is a tough task. First you have to find lines that you can represent and that will sell so you can pay the bills. But any half way decent line will want you to have a dealer list you can sell to immediately. Kind of a chicken and egg situation. You need dealers to get new lines but you can't get dealers without new lines.

Secondly, there is a lot of travel involved to knock on doors and begin to build a dealer base. Retailers are not sitting at home on Facebook looking for a new sales person to sell them a line they didn't know they needed. It costs money to travel and without revenue coming in, a new associate on the road will see his finances go negative for at least a year until he establishes himself and the product he represents sells.

Third, and possibly the biggest detriment in our industry is the commission structure paid. If an account is of any size and requests any special consideration like advertising or return allowance, the rep's commission is usually impacted. Now some may argue that the extra volume more than justifies the commission reductions. But the reality is that anyone any good is going to have a very hard time getting interested in working in our industry if they see the earnings can't grow. With small retailers going by the wayside and large retailers demanding more and more from the factories, the rep is in the precarious spot of being squeezed in the middle.

Bob and I discussed this honestly because as a store manager he was amazed at the lack of training and professionalism of some of the reps calling on him. But the reality of the circumstances is the factories get what they pay for. If a rep can't get some velocity selling a product at a lower commission base, he is not going to push the product or make a trip to a smaller account because of the costs. But if a factory as a general rule is going to pay a reasonable commission and has a product that performs at retail, that factory will never go without a good sales person in any territory pushing their product to every retailer he can find.

As for Bob, he has some decisions to make as to whether or not he even wants to work in our industry. On one hand he knows the industry so he doesn't need to worry about that learning curve. But on the other hand he is looking at how much time and effort it will take to establish himself with a product line and dealer base that will meet his income goals. Then he will compare that to other opportunities available outside our industry.

If Bob chooses to leave the industry, along with others who have the same plight, we will wake up one day and realize there are no new talented sales professionals entering our sales ranks. This will further the decline of independent retailers who will no longer have the luxury of a professional factory sales person calling on their stores, training, and sharing success stories from other retailers. Certainly some reps probably should leave the industry because they are not doing their jobs. But a good rep can get products into accounts because of his relationships that is not going to happen if a factory decides to do it on their own. A good rep acts as the traffic cop to keep communication and products flowing between factory and retailer.

Our challenge as an industry is we have to price our products so all parties in the transaction - the factory, the rep, the retailer - all parties need to make a decent return for the time they invest in selling furniture to the end consumer. If not, we lose guys like Bob and younger people looking to enter the furniture business who can find better opportunities elsewhere.

By all means if you would like, share your positive remarks below. Please no whining about commissions or how you get ripped off by a factory. That's not the point of this article.