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. "The room we install can withstand 430 mph winds and that's when our wind tester failed, not the room."
Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs are in the same position as the Riechs; they have a great product, but can't seem to convince customers to buy it.
"We thought, 'Oh, everybody will want this, because it's safe," said Joan Riech.
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 two feet of concrete all the way around."
Despite the perceived and real need for such rooms, Florida-area homebuilders aren't pushing their customers to install them. Still, the Riechs believe so strongly in their product, which retails for $8,500 per room, that they've spent $100,000 on product development, advertising, engineering and legal costs.
"The problem isn't with customers, it's with the homebuilders," 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.
So, what's 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 BuyGitomer.com.
"The Storm Pruf Room should be called the 'Storm Safety Shelter,' that way, people really know what it is and what it does," said Gitomer, who also recommended promoting the product through the media, especially on television, since it's so visual.
"All they have to do is build one of these rooms on Cape Hatteras N.C., and hope that a storm hits," said Gitomer. "If I'm in the shelter during the storm, I could get on television, and it wouldn't cost them a penny."
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), 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, Lloyd 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."
He had another great idea for the Riechs: "Go into the Mormon community, and sell your rooms there," said Lloyd. "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 that the Riechs have to overcome: "It's difficult to sell a product with a negative association like death and destruction," said Lloyd. "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 divisions. "If they get an endorsement from State Farm, they would have access to 2.2 million insurance clients," said Lloyd.
Jeff Gitomer had more tips for entrepreneurs struggling to sell their new products:
-If you're going to advertise, feature 100 percent testimonials. If you explain the benefits of your product, you're bragging. If someone else talks about it, it's proof.
-Seek, (but be wary of) professional help. People think that by hiring a P.R. firm or an ad agency, their prayers will be answered. Make them show you proof of what they can do before you spend your money. Hire an agency with a track record of dealing with products like yours.
-Don't quit after one or two failures. Thomas Edison made over 1,000 attempts at the electric light bulb.
Reporting by Julie Neal. Jane Applegate is the author of "201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business," and is founder of ApplegateWay.com, a multimedia Web site for busy entrepreneurs. She can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com
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