Small Business
Facing buyer resistance
June 14, 2000: 1:37 p.m. ET

Tips for small biz entrepreneurs struggling to sell their new products
By Jane Applegate
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NEW YORK (CNNfn) - You would think that hurricane season would be the perfect time to sell "Storm-Pruf storm rooms," a prefabricated safe room built inside a home or office. But a family-owned business in Orlando, Fla., is having a very tough time.

"There is nothing on this earth that is going to pull our room out of the ground," said Joan Riech, vice president of Storm Room Systems Inc. "The room we install can withstand 430 mph winds -- and that's when our wind tester failed, not the room."

Most people are aware the National Weather Service in Jacksonville, Fla., is forecasting an above-normal storm season, predicting 11 or more tropical storms and hurricanes in the Florida area between June and November. Better yet, the Weather Service office has its own concrete shelter built inside the office. "We believe in the need to have a safe building," said Fred Johnson, the warning coordinator meteorologist for the Weather Service. "We have a safe room that's practically a vault -- it's reinforced with 2 feet of concrete all the way around."

Despite the perceived and real need for their room, Florida-area homebuilders aren't pushing their customers to install the rooms, which retail for $8,500. The Riechs believe so strongly in their product that they've spent $100,000 on product development, advertising, engineering and legal costs.

"The problem isn't with customers; it's with the home builders," said Harry Riech, who has been in the construction business for 30 years. "They are already making money, and they don't want to change."

According to Riech, some builders won't offer clients the safe room because they think it makes the homes they are building appear weak. Other builders say they can make more money if they build their own "safe room" for their clients.

But Joan Riech contends other rooms aren't as safe, because they don't feature the same super-strong door as theirs does.

"We get our doors from a company that builds doors for prisons," said Joan Riech, who sold about 10 rooms last year. "Our door has three 4.5-inch-long steel deadbolt locks; you can't find these things at Home Depot."

Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs are in the same position as the Riechs; they have a great product, but can't seem to persuade customers to buy it.

"We never anticipated that builders would be resistant," said Joan Riech. "We thought, 'Oh, everybody will want this, because it's safe, and it won't complicate the construction process." (It takes the storm-room installers about 90 minutes to install it during new construction).

So what is wrong with the Riechs' marketing strategy? I explained the scenario to two sales experts, and asked for their advice.

"The first thing they should do is change the name of their product," said author and syndicated columnist Jeffery Gitomer, founder of "The Storm-Pruf room should be called the "Storm Safety Shelter"; that way, people really know what it is and what it does." Gitomer also recommended promoting the product through the media, especially on television, since it's so visual.

graphic"All they have to do is build one of these rooms on Cape Hatteras (N.C.), and hope that a storm hits," Gitomer said. "If I'm in the shelter during the storm, I could get on television, and it wouldn't cost them a penny." (One challenge in his media plan is that I'm not sure you can broadcast live from inside a thick, concrete bunker.)

Gitomer said the biggest challenge for entrepreneurs is getting the word out and building strong name recognition.

Steven Lloyd, author of "Selling From the Heart" (Sterling & Pope Publishing, New York, $15.95, 1-800-562-2781), said he doesn't believe the Riechs market-tested their product properly before approaching builders.

"Obviously, they didn't test it," he said. "One-third of your budget for any project should be spent on testing the market."

Like Gitomer, he suggested setting up a room to "let a hurricane beat the hell out of it." He also recommended putting a family of crash dummies into the room with video cameras, so people can see how safe and snug they would be inside.

"They probably need to get some creative marketing people in a room and come up with new ideas," said Lloyd, who is based in Arlington, Texas. "The only rule for this brainstorming session is that nobody can say anything negative. You write down all the ideas, and keep taping them up on the walls around the room."

Lloyd said he currently is helping a British company prepare to sell home and personal inventory journals on QVC (infomercial television) in London. "I told them they needed to understand that people want a complete system, not just a couple of books," Lloyd said. "So, I suggested putting the journals into a yellow Ziploc bag, and putting the bag in a freezer." Then, while they are live on the air, they'll show footage of how freezers survive fires, and thus are the perfect place to store home and personal inventory journals.

He had another great idea for the Riechs.

"Go into the Mormon community, and sell your rooms there," Lloyd said. "Mormons are required to keep two years' worth of food safe. They could keep the food in the safe room."

Lloyd noted another big challenge the Riechs have to overcome "It's difficult to sell a product with a negative association like death and destruction," Lloyd said. "So, the question is how to use your product to help people deal with something emotional, and put it in a positive way."

He recommended the couple contact big insurance companies and market the room to their disaster-control division.

"If they get an endorsement from State Farm, they would have access to 2.2 million insurance clients," said Lloyd.

Meanwhile, the Riechs are looking for outside investors to help them.

"We're at a point now where we've blown all our own money," Joan Riech said. "We've been operating at a loss for the last two years. We've made the room specifically for the homebuilders to use, and they don't want it."

-- reported by Julie Neal

(Jane Applegate, a syndicated columnist and author of 201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business, covers small business for CNNfn. Succeeding in Small Business" appears on on Wednesdays.Back to top


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