Local stores using seminar to lure customers

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— Before David Scully can sell a customer on a $3,000 Turkish rug, he has to enlighten them about the virtues of hand-spun wool and the painstakingly slow process of imparting brilliant color to the yarns with indigenous vegetable dyes.

"We like to joke that 90 percent of what we do is educate," Scully said. "The other 10 percent, we're just moving rugs around the showroom."

Scully is the proprietor of Chase Oriental Rug Company on Steamboat's west side. Increasingly, he doesn't wait for a customer to walk through the door before beginning the educational process. Instead, he invites the public to attend free lectures intended to entertain and inform them in a setting outside the normal retail experience. For example, from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Chase Oriental Rug Co. hosts Robert Mann of Denver, who will discuss "From Wool to Rugs -- a look at Turkey and its weavers."

"In a large form, it's a goodwill gesture to the community," Scully said. "It lets people see our store for themselves in a way that doesn't have any undertone of sales pressure. We can get them here in a warm, friendly way."

Michele Desoer is taking a similar approach at her antique store, Fiddle Fern, at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and 11th Street. Desoer knows that many of her potential customers lack the experience to purchase antiques and feel confident that they made a good investment.

"An educated customer will spend more money," Desoer said. "People tend to be intimidated if they don't already know whether a plate is worth $10 or $100."

Desoer has acquired expertise in valuing antique fine China and silver over the years.

She will give a talk from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at Fiddle Fern entitled "Identifying and Valuing China."

She relates the anecdote of cruising e-Bay in search of bargains on China and finding cheap Limoge China because the seller apparently did not know that some, but not all, Limoge pieces are labeled as such.

Desoer said that by providing her customers with the information they need to purchase antiques at advantageous price, she increases their ability to justify those purchases as investments. It also increases their satisfaction as collectors.

Desoer has learned that it is better for her business to price antiques below maximum book value in order to nurture that enthusiasm for finding good buys in her customers.

"I love the hunt, and I love giving people a good deal," Desoer said. "I'd rather have somebody who got a good buy and have them thrilled about it, than price it to the wall."

Scully's challenge is a little different because the price of handmade rugs from central Asia is less speculative than it is for individual antiques. But the two businesses have much in common -- they are competing for customers' discretionary dollars in a slumping economy.

"We follow the building trends and real estate transactions pretty carefully," to gauge the demand for home furnishings, Scully said. "Our rugs have form and function, but with the price tag, it's a luxury item."

Scully is keyed into the renaissance in traditionally woven rugs that has been taking place since the 1980s. He said that in the post-World War II era, when people in Asia were simply trying to rebuild their shattered lives, they seized on the efficiencies in rug production they could realize with factory spun wool and synthetic dyes. In the process of modernizing the production techniques, many rug weavers lost the character, qualities and desirable irregularities that could be achieved only with the old methods.

Mann, Thursday's speaker, played a role in reintroducing the traditional techniques in some areas of countries like Turkey and Afghanistan.

The challenge is educating the customers to appreciate the special qualities and increased longevity offered by the traditionally woven rugs. The merchandise at Chase Oriental Rug Company is 85 to 90 percent rugs made from handspun wool and vegetable dyes. "We're almost a niche gallery," Scully said.

Scully credits store manager Holly Williams with pushing him to act on his impulse to host evening seminars.

"She's my greatest asset," Scully said. Her organizational skills and attention to detail have resulted in the strong attendance at the seminars, he added. The smallest crowd that ever attended one of the seminars was 50 people, and the largest was 115.

Scully is convinced the effort has resulted in new business, including referrals from people who attended even if they had no intention of purchasing a rug.

"That's the best thing we could ever achieve, is that word of mouth," Scully said. "It's not about volume. It's about building a clientele base that understands what we're about and letting them come to a place where they're comfortable with our merchandise."

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