Podcast Episode 108: Paul LaPonte, Founder Quality Sewing | Finding A Way To Say Yes
Paul LaPonte, Founder of Quality Sewing has thirteen locations across Washington state. He shares his sales philosophy that it is all about finding a way to say 'yes,' how a sale does not have a finite limit and why one store does better than another.
Tell me something good about retail
Paul LaPonte, Founder Quality Sewing: Finding A Way To Say Yes
- Your goal is to always be finding a way to say 'yes.'
- A sale does not have a finite limit.
- Why one store does more than another in the same market.
Bob: So, Paul, tell me, how did you start off?
Paul: I was going to school at the University of Washington, and my father actually worked for the Singer Company at that time and I needed a part-time job. And so he hooked me up with the local district manager. And I began, you know, being a delivery part-time from the Singer store, it was University Village store, which was near the University of Washington.
At that time, they formed a service center in that store, and they began servicing all the machines from all the Seattle area stores at that place. And I started to learn how to fix sewing machines. So when I was ready to graduate from UW, I have a Bachelor's Degree in English Writing, which I didn't know what I was gonna do. I thought I was gonna be an English professor, and the local district manager offered me the job of managing the service center.
So all of a sudden, I was managing. I was the youngest guy there, managing, and I didn't really know really that much about service. But I took on the responsibility. I became the service manager at Singer.
You know, you fast forward a few years, and my father moved back. He was in another city and he moved back to the Seattle area, opened a small sewing machine store. And my wife at that time, we just had our second child, and so she was looking for a part-time job. And he was 62 and he wanted to only work three days a week, so they formed this little, you know, they basically ran the store, each of them working three days a week.
And that lasted only about six months when he passed away suddenly. And we had to face a decision, do we keep the store open or do we not. And we made the decision to keep the store open. I stayed at Singer another six months. We hired an employee. And it took about six months until we built up the business enough where I could replace my salary and cover the medical costs for my family. And that's when I left Singer and went to work full-time.
And to this day, I thank the Singer Company for not paying very well, because I never would've probably got into business for myself had that not happened.
Bob: And how many stores do you have now?
Paul: We have 13 stores. Well, we have 12 and we're opening the 13th.
Bob: And how many employees is it?
Paul: We have about 150 employees.
Bob: You know, you were telling me earlier that when people ask you, "So, you know, what do you do?" and you say, "Oh, I'm a sewing retailer," is that it? And they're like, "Oh, does anybody even sew anymore?" And what do you tell them?
Paul: Well, I tell them that what we do is kinda like sell Harley-Davidsons, because what we're selling is we're selling a product that middle-aged people want, which is the high-end sewing machines and the high-end embroidery machines. It's not about need.
It's same the way that, like, a middle-aged gentleman would go out and buy himself a Harley because he's always wanted one. He doesn't buy it to drive to work. He doesn't buy it to save money. He goes out and spends 20 grand plus so he can ride it once a week to go out to the coffee shop and have coffee with some friends. And oftentimes, many of our customers will buy the top of the line sewing machine. They may not use it that much, but they've always wanted one.
The other part of business, I mean, there are some of the enthusiasts who use it a lot. But at the end of the day, you know, we're in the hobby business. We're selling things that people don't need. It's just like people don't need golf clubs unless you wanna golf. And it's the same kind of idea. So we're selling that type of equipment. So our challenge is to have people who are dialed into that, who are enthusiastic, and can inspire hobbyists, or people who wanna be hobbyists, who look at the latest and greatest.
Bob: I think that's great, you know? And one of the things that really stands out for me is your whole idea of, our goal is to say yes.
Paul: Yeah. We call it, "Finding a way to say yes."
Bob: And there's only two people can say no in your company.
Paul: Exactly. Myself and my daughter, who's my business partner.
Bob: And that's it?
Paul: That's it.
Bob: So how did that evolve? And what does that mean to you? Why is that so important? Because you've said it, like, numbers of times when we would talk with your employees.
Paul: Well, you know, it evolved because other the years, I've been doing this 35 years, and the more employees you have, the more chances you have to get complaints. And usually when you get a customer complaint, it's because somebody said no to them, and usually, there was no reason they had to say no.
There's a lot of different ways to say no, but they'll say, "No, we can't do that." And most of the time, if you go back and talk to the customer, there was a way to say yes. The reason we don't say "The customer's always right" and we don't say that you say yes to everything is because you can't do that.
You know, I have a cartoon that shows a guy behind the counter and a lady holding a sewing machine there, and he's saying, "How about if we, you know, refund your money, give you a new product, and have the service manager shot? Would that be okay?" And it's, kind of, a joke on that. The one thing I've learned is that people, once they understand you're trying to help them, people's requests are usually very reasonable.
Bob: I would agree with that.
Paul: And the reason we call it, "Finding a way to say yes," is because you can't always say yes to exactly, you know, what they want. And sometimes they don't even know what the correct solution to their problem is.
Bob: But it comes from them not feeling like you heard them? Isn't that what it comes from?
Paul: That's right. Usually, I found that people will be upset if they felt like they've been blown off or if you haven't taken them seriously. If they come in with a request or a complaint, and you take them seriously and you let them know first off that you wanna help them, that you're on their side and that you're gonna be their advocate and if you're the employee, you're gonna call the owner or you're gonna call the manager. If you don't know what to do, that's okay.
That's what we try to train our staff. We say, "It's okay if you don't know what to do, but it's not okay to say no." You know, "If you find yourself saying no, you have to say, 'That's wrong. That's not what I wanna say.' You wanna be on the side of the customer."
And the cool thing is many, many times, complaints turn into more business. It's very common when someone comes in and they're mad and when they realize you're gonna take care of them, and you take care of them and you give them good service, they will buy something else on that very visit. And some of our best customers are people that I can remember coming in very upset about something, and since that time, they have literally spent tens of thousands of dollars because we took care of them and we didn't see the short side.
A lot of times when I talk to other retailers, they say, "That was your mistake. I'm not gonna give you your money back." We have a thing, you know, we service sewing machines. You know, there are various parts, and sometimes, you know, we hand the machine back to the lady, and there's a part missing that is a part that comes in and out. It's called the bobbin case. And she says, "No. I'm sure I brought it in." And I've heard people argue, "Well, no. We wrote right down it wasn't here when you brought it in, and they're $35."
Now what we do as a policy if the customer says she brought it in, you say, "Boy, I'm really sorry if we've lost it. Here's a new bobbin case, no charge. Now if you get home and you happen to find that you find it there, let us now and you bring the new one back." And people love that, and it amazes me how many times people will come back in a week later and say, "You know, I did find the bobbin case." But the point is we didn't say no to them, "No, you're wrong."
Bob: And accuse them, which is, "Yes, you never had it."
Paul: Exactly. We're on their side as their advocate. Now sure, over the years, I'm sure I gave away some bobbin cases to people who didn't bring them in. But at the end of the day, if I can keep a customer, the value of that customer to me... Because after all, she's a hobbyist. She never has to come back. No one needs, basically, what we sell in our core business, which is sewing. Nobody needs this stuff. It's all about hobby. So if it's not fun to come in our store, if they don't feel respected, they're not gonna come back.
Bob: And she'll tell her friends.
Paul: And they'll tell their friends. That's right. And nowadays, they can tell the whole world. It's not just their friends. It's Yelp and everything else.
Bob: Just so you know, their service center here, how many repairs did you say yesterday you've done? You've done 15,000 repairs?
Paul: Last year, we did just over 15,000 repairs.
Bob: Yeah. That's crazy.
Paul: It serves our, you know, 13 stores.
Bob: Now you were also sharing with me, so you have two stores. One's doing really well. One may not be. What do you think the difference is there?
Paul: The difference is almost always the staff. And there's really two issues. You have to have, first off, people who are getting along and they're having fun. Because once again, if you're the consumer, you wanna go into a store where it's a fun place to go. And if the staff is having fun, if they're dialed into what they're doing and they're dialed into giving great service, they will be more successful. People will buy more stuff.
And the other part of that is we always say that you need to give people great service, but you need to also ask them to buy something every time they visit.
Bob: Wait a minute. You mean like every time?
Paul: Every time.
Bob: So if someone just comes in, says they're just looking around, you're gonna make sure that they...
Paul: Well, we wanna at least offer them something, because after all, they came in for a reason, right? I mean, it's not like Safeway or the grocery store where you're gonna go every week to buy milk. They never have to cross our threshold. So the only reason they're in there is they have some interest. So, you know, if they leave without buying something, we have to ask ourselves what we did wrong, right?
Bob: And usually it's not asking, it's not showing. Is that it?
Paul: Yeah. It's just not showing them. It's what we call impulsing. It's saying, "You know, I know you're just here to buy this accessory item, but, you know, have you ever seen how this machine here threads the needle automatically? Have you ever seen this cool new product? Because you were just telling me that maybe you're into quilting, and we have a brand new machine that really is a lot of fun for your quilting. You wanna take just a minute? I know you're not in the market today, but would like to take a minute and just look at it?" "Oh, yeah, sure."
So that's how the good salespeople approach it. And, of course, not everyone's gonna buy the new quilting machine. But the people, if they don't do that as part of what they're doing as their daily interaction with customers, then they don't have any sale at all.
To answer your question, the difference between the store that's succeeding and the store that's being mediocre is they have sales staff who are constantly just offering new product in a fun way to people. The other store is waiting for people to walk in and say, "I'm in the market for a sewing machine."
Bob: How many times does that happen?
Paul: It doesn't happen nearly as much as you'd like. And if that's the only way we sold, then we would not be in business.
Bob: Yeah, yeah. Well, I think that is the key, is that you're making the sale because you know that they're there. And ultimately, if they didn't have the time, they wouldn't have stopped in either. But it also keeps your mind fresh, doesn't it?
Paul: Well, that's right. I mean, and that's a key point. And that's what I say, you know, when I train staff is that when you create a demo... First off, you know, many of the sales are actually created sales. That's why we say, "The amount of sales we can get is not finite." I mean, maybe it's not infinite, but it's definitely not finite. If you're creating sales on a consistent basis, you're going to sell more.
And we have a metric of how we measure sales people. It's sales per hour, which is a pretty common metric. But we also break it down into categories of what they sell. And the good salespeople are not just selling just, say, sewing machines or they're not just selling, you know, vacuums or other items that we sell. They sell across the board. They're selling all those products, but they're selling service plans, they're selling add-ons.
And you look at what they're selling, because they are like the Eveready bunny or whatever he is. They're constantly selling. And because you're constantly selling, you're way better at it. If you don't demonstrate a product very often and you wait for the lady to come in and say, "I wanna look at the top of the line, your brand X of sewing machine, or brand Y," and you haven't demonstrated in a few weeks, you know, your demo's gonna be terrible.
Whereas if you're demonstrating it all of the time because you're creating those sales, not only are you planting the seeds that may give you future sales, but you're also good at it now because you're doing it all the time. So then when the lady comes in who is ready to buy, you know, she gets a great demonstration.
Bob: That's a huge point.
Paul: It's a huge point because it can't look difficult. The machines are not difficult. But if you're fumbling around because you haven't demoed that particular model, maybe, in a month, you're not gonna be near as good as someone who has demoed it five times this week. And that's really the key to our success.
Bob: And again, 35 years, 13 stores, pretty amazing. So how do you deal with setbacks? You must've had setbacks. I mean, this is an incredibly accomplished guy I get to talk to today, folks. But you must've had big setbacks. What do you do when something like that happens to you?
Paul: You just get up the next morning and go back to work. I don't know. I mean, the setbacks, you deal with them one at a time.
Bob: Do you spend time looking at what online's doing to you? Do you spend time calling your buddies and talking about that stuff? Or what do you do?
Paul: Well, I mean, I talk to other retailers. I look at what's happening online. I don't worry about it too much because, you know, we do have a website. And that's a growing part of our business. So we are selling in that space.
But at the end of the day, what we're really selling is we're selling that personal service. And we're selling them the hands-on experience. We're selling, you know, the sewing classes and the events, the types of things where consumers can come in and actually, you know, attend an event, learn about sewing techniques, and have hands-on experience with brand new machines. And that sells machines. And the online experience, they just can't duplicate that.
Bob: You can't do that. Yeah.
Paul: So that's the one thing that we have that they can't duplicate online is we have that face-to-face interaction. And that's why finding a way to say yes and making sure every customer gets a great experience is so critical.
Because if we lose a customer because we did something stupid like, you know, that we blew them off, we just weren't paying attention to their needs, or we argued with them or told them they were wrong, they leave the store, they never come back. You know, they may quit sewing and take up another hobby or they may just begin trading elsewhere.
But when I look at the time value of each customer, it's huge. And those people keep coming back. When you have new products introduced, they come back and they bring their three or four-year-old sewing machine in that's perfectly good, state of the art, but there's a new, better one that is coming out that is even cooler. And they trade that back, and we have another sale from the same person that we sold...
Bob: Which fits into what you said, that it's not a finite sale. See, I think that's really important, too, because you're not looking at, "We sold that machine." Like, the salesperson is like, "Well, done, and I'm there." You're like, "No, no, no. That's just one of many."
Paul: That's right.
Bob: So now you have to get back on the horse and you have to find a way...
Paul: And plus there's many other assorted products that go along with it. So as someone becomes an enthusiast, it's not just buying just the machine. It's buying the other products. So we wanna keep them coming. We have various programs that are designed to keep people coming back in the store monthly so that they can be exposed to the new products on a consistent basis.
Bob: Nice. And so one of the questions that I always like to ask is, so a friend of yours comes to you and says, "Hey, Paul. I think I wanna open my own retail store." What would you tell them?
Paul: Are you nuts? But I think there's a lot of opportunity, but you better have eyes wide open about the realities of what it is. It better be something you love to do, and you better make sure you understand the business. You know, it's just like people who come into our business who don't understand what it is, they may not last very long.
Bob: That's it. And you do have to love it. I know my business, you know, I kinda fell into it. My degree was in conducting and then a minor business. And I'm out there, and I'm like, "Hey, I don't think I wanna do this." And my part-time job became my career. And I think that's the story of a lot of entrepreneurs. Because suddenly you look and you say, "Well, why am I chasing this opportunity over there when this one is right here, that I seem to be good at, and I seem to like doing it, and I think that's really good?"
The title of this podcast is, "Tell Me Something Great About Retail." So what's great about working in retail?
Paul: What's great about working in retail...
Bob: 35 years. I mean, I hope there's something.
Paul: There is something. You know, I think that what I've learned and what we do is what I'm really proud of, is that we can give people, you know, we can give them great service, and because great service is free. And it always amazes me when you go into retail stores and you get bad service.
And the reason it's free is that maybe you have to have people who are trained a little bit better and people who you pay a little bit more. But when they're dialed into the customer, you know, they're a lot more successful. And it's a lot more fun.
When you give people great service, first off, it blows them away. They're excited. You know, and it doesn't cost any more. You're there anyway. You wanna have fun and treat them well, and treat them like a human, or you want to just do the bare minimum.
And so many retailers you go into, it's, kind of, the bare minimum. It's kinda like, "Well, I can do that if you..." If you go the extra mile, you get a lot of great rewards. And we've grown this business to... We've been very successful. It's been great, you know, for me and my family.
But it's also that we have a lot of employees. We have, like I said, 150 employees that are paid well and they have benefits. And I'm really proud of that, that we're able to do that in a retail environment that everyone says today is far more competitive, you know, than it's ever been. But I think there's still a lot of opportunity.
Bob: Yeah. I think that's great. I think that always comes down to, again, at the end of the day, it's still about people. And it's ultimately, you're able to make a difference with the people working for you, but also your shoppers. I think that's, kind of, it. What do you think is the secret to keeping great employees? We'll make this our last question just because so many of your employees have been with you for a long time...
Paul: They have.
Bob: ...like 5 or 10 years. And you also are a person of a lot of standards. It's not easy to stay with you, I wouldn't think, for that long.
Paul: Well, I mean, I think the secrets are they have to be the right people. I mean, it has to be doing something that they enjoy. I mean, you know, retail is not the right place for a lot of people. And so you have to find the people, you know, who enjoy helping customers. They have to be outgoing. They have to like helping people. I think that's one of the keys.
The other thing is you have to pay people fairly. You have to have some benefits and some reasons. The one thing I've done, you know, for many, many years is just a small thing. But every year on their birthday, they get a birthday card from me that's hand-written with a $50 check. When we first started doing it, people I would tell would say, "Are you nuts? You're gonna give away all this money?"
It's very common when somebody's a new employee and they don't know when they hire on that we do that, and their birthday comes and it blows them away. And I'll get a hand-written note back that says, "I've never even had a birthday card from an employer, much less, you know, just a $50 check."
And so, you know, to me, it just shows that I respect them and that they're valuable. And I think that's the key to any relationship is when people know that you value them, and you value what they do, they are gonna respect that and they are gonna work hard for you.
Bob: I couldn't agree more. That's a great place for us to end. Again, next time, visit retaildoc.com/podcast to learn about my next guest. And if you've enjoyed hearing what Paul LaPonte has had to say with us today at Quality Sewing, how can they find out more about you?
Paul: You can find out at our website. It's www.qualitysewing.com.