On a Friday afternoon, while driving west on Interstate 70 from Indianapolis, Terry Oates, owner of King’s Great Buys Plus, received a call from a desperate customer.
Expecting a large number of people to arrive at his home the next day for a Christmas party, the customer panicked when his dishwasher broke.
Circumstances called for an emergency favor. Only Terry Oates didn’t consider this a favor; it’s a common occurrence in his business. After making a few calls to his Evansville store, Oates was able to alleviate the customer’s concerns and assure him that his new dishwasher would be on its way and was indeed installed later that afternoon.
It may not be typical for a customer to need an emergency same-day installation, but if that situation should arise, King’s Great Buys Plus customers don’t hesitate to ask. This level of customer care dates back to March 2, 1983, the day King’s opened its doors. Located at 5010 Vogel Road on Evansville’s East Side, Oates says his first store, formerly located next to Washington Square Mall, lived off Sears’ overflow.
“In 1983, Evansville didn’t have the big box appliance and electronics stores, like Best Buy or Lowe’s. We had Sears and at that time Sears was bringing in 30 percent of appliance sales in the country so I knew I needed to set up shop close by,” says Oates, 61, reflecting on his early business decisions made decades ago.
Thirty-one years later, it’s safe to say the tables have turned. In a letter from Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Edward S. Lampert, Sears Holdings Corporation reported the company was forced to close unprofitable stores when it lost $1.37 billion last year, totaling to 27 straight quarters of reported losses.
“They’re selling off all their assets to keep the store going,” says Oates. “They are closing stores because millennials don’t want to shop that way; they don’t want to walk onto a dirty parking lot, they want the newest technology, and they want to be shown how things work. Simple as that.”
At one time, Sears was the largest retailer in the U.S., and even today Sears is a classified “anchor store” in malls all over the country. But now, Sears seems to be steamrolling toward bankruptcy. Oates says with confidence that sales at King’s will continue to rise because the loyalty he has gained is earned every single day.
“My dad used to tell me that nobody cares what you did yesterday, they care about what you’re going to do today. At King’s, it’s not a ‘do it sometimes’ thing. We want to earn that trust every day because we know that just because we did it right the first time, doesn’t mean we will get credit for it the next day,” says Oates while pointing to a plaque in his office that says “Nobody knows what I do until I don’t do it.”
Oates assures his sales team that this level of customer care is something the big box stores lack. The retail business is dynamic; it’s either growing or dying, it can’t be static. That’s the kind of culture that has been instilled in Oates since the early days after gaining sales experience at his father’s store. His father, Charles Oates, owned Joy Sales and Service, an appliance and electronics store, formerly located on the corner of Riverside Drive and Governor Street near Downtown Evansville. Although his father never quite grasped the concept behind King’s, Terry continued to make his dream a reality.
“My dad wanted to play it safe,” says Oates. “He wanted to do things that most independent businesses do; they reach a certain level of success and they quit. I’ve learned if you don’t step outside your comfort zone, you’re not going to grow.”
Lynne Anthony, Oates’ right hand woman since day one and Internal Controller for King’s, also worked for Oates’ father at the appliance store. When Oates left his father’s business to start up King’s, Anthony followed and joined Oates in his mission to develop a store that puts customers first. They both remember a lot of independent businesses that have come and gone in the past 30 years: Highland Appliance, Silo’s, Tipton’s, Builders Square, and Electric Avenue.
The King’s team knows that most customers are looking for three components when shopping: they demand a selection, a fair price, a pleasant environment, and they want to be taken care of.
“Customer service is what locally owned companies are all about,” says Oates. “The reason why locally owned companies go away is because they want to charge more for service. We can’t do that, not in today’s environment. People think it costs a lot to provide that high level of customer care, but it costs more money not to.”
Steve Barnhart has been with the company for 24 years. Being head of the appliance department, he knows that some of his customers don’t buy appliances very often — typically only when they wear out.
“Technology improves in appliances over time, they are more efficient, they are faster and quieter,” says Barnhart. “So when a customer comes in to buy a front load washer or an induction cook top, all I ask for is a little of their time to demonstrate how they work so I know that appliance will do everything they need it to do.”
Conducting live demonstrations is one way King’s provides a unique shopping experience to its customers. With live washers and dryers, sales associates are able to show customers how to wash and dry a load of laundry in under an hour. Every Saturday, the King’s Evansville location performs live kitchen demos (with free samples) enabling the trained sales team to show customers how their products work.
“Most stores view consumer relationships as very transactional,” says Oates. “We like to dig deeper and find out what the customer plans to use the product for and what their needs are. A lot of people don’t know what they want to buy until they see it work. That’s where we come in.”
All of the King’s sales associates receive top-notch training two to three times a month from top brand manufacturers, who send in representatives to give sales advice and demonstrate how selling a mattress is different from selling a flat screen television.
“We have six steps to selling. It’s our Bible,” says General Manager Mark Carmack, who has been with the company 26 years. “I’ve seen employees keep a notecard in their pocket so they can refer to those six steps after they walk up to a customer. They learn from mistakes and do better next time.”
The store’s holding company, Great Buys Plus, was created 25 years ago to effectively compete with big box companies. Oates owns a share in each of the 56 Great Buys Plus, stores stretching from Minnesota to West Virginia. There are six King’s locations in the Tri-State area: Evansville, Owensboro, Ky., Madisonville, Ky., Princeton, Ky., Lawrenceville, Ill., and Harrisburg, Ill.
To learn more information about King’s Great Buys Plus, call 812-473-KING or visit kingsgreatbuysplus.com.