In January 2005, Erik Schneider fell on a building site, breaking two ribs and effectively ending his carpentry career. He had spent more than half a decade working in the residential and commercial construction industries, beginning right after he graduated from Lake Central High School in St. John. Now it was time to find something new.
What Schneider quickly settled on—the home appliance retail industry—both builds on his construction experience and makes him happy. This year, he decided to finally act on a dream first hatched while working as a manager at Nason’s Appliances in Crown Point. Schneider, 32, struck out on his own and opened Hometown Appliance & Electronics, located on busy Route 41 in St. John, in mid-March. It’s been open seven days each week ever since.
“I had the idea of going out on my own and getting back to the roots of what the business is: customer service, being forward with people,” says Schneider, who still lives in his hometown. “The customer service end of things is really going to be the key to our business.”
Thus the new store’s name—the idea being to combine “Big Box” store savings with classic small-town friendliness. “I’m trying to have some of the best trained and skilled sales people answer your questions to ensure the decision-making process is a smooth one,” he says. (His 10 employees together have nearly 50 years of experience in the industry.)
“The name fits what we’re trying to do—get back to the basics.”
Offering all the major appliance and electronics brands, from Maytag to Frigidaire to Samsung to Electrolux, the 3,100-square-foot store certainly covers the basics. But Schneider is also trying to keep up with the latest trends by stocking things like 3D-capable televisions, supposedly the next big thing in the TV market after the Hollywood blockbuster Avatar broke box-office records.
“We’re doing very well for what’s to be expected [for a brand-new store],” Schneider said in mid-April. “The biggest challenge is getting our name out there.”
Schneider’s knowledge of construction industry practices and the region’s players—he’s on the board of directors of the Building Industries Association of Northwest Indiana—certainly helps to attract customers. “I understand the crazy hectic schedule that builders have,” he explains. “It helps with my background to be able to communicate and relate with builders to optimize my sales.”
But of course, the collapse of the housing market has been nothing but bad for the construction industry, so Schneider is fully aware of the importance of existing homeowners. “[Appliance] replacement is a big part of our business, rather than full kitchen sets,” he says.
For homeowners interested in but unsure about how to remodel a kitchen, Schneider makes consultative home visits, offering thoughts on how “to optimize the use and flow of the kitchen to make it not just functional but as beautiful as possible.” He also encourages people to bring home blueprints into the store to talk about what might work best, “at a price you can afford.”
Hometown Appliance also offers financing deals, cheap delivery fees (anywhere in area costs $10), and a five-year warranty on anything in the store for $90. And in line with its name, the store offers discounts to public servants (teachers, firemen, police officers and military personnel) and participates in a few fund-raisers, including one to help build a new concession stand at the Lowell Little League field.
For Schneider, those kinds of community gestures are a big part of what will make his business stand out and ensure success in a competitive marketplace and struggling economy. But they’re also a big part of living close to where he works.
“I’ve got a young family,” he says. “This is a community I want to be involved with. This is where we’re going to be.”