The success of this independent retail chain proves that a show of appreciation can go a long way with customers, employees, and vendors. The volatile economic climate has affected businesses across every industry throughout the last 12 to 18 months, both in the US and abroad. And although no business or market has really shown immunity, some have certainly been hit harder than others. With unemployment at a staggering high, many people have adapted to the situation by curtailing their spending, which, of course, has had a significant impact on the retail world, making it one of the hardest hit. 

Most people assumed that industry giants would survive nearly unscathed while small independent chains took the brunt, but the recent dissolution of a handful of big-name corporations has proven this untrue. When you take an even closer look at the situation, another thing becomes apparent: most of the small independent chains are holding their own. 

For proof of this, look no further than Karl’s TV, Audio, Appliances and Furniture, a South Dakota-based independent chain that’s holding strong despite the economic storm. With a team of roughly 275 employees and approximately $52 million in annual revenue, the company’s resource pool is certainly smaller than those of industry giants, but it has something to offer that many big-name chains lack: high-quality, personalized customer service.

According to Elmer Karl, who founded the organization nearly six decades ago, this is what sets the company apart from its competitors. “We want our customers to have a great experience when they’re shopping with us, and this can only be achieved through top-quality service,” he said. 

Karl, who also serves as president, added that this dedication to service is nothing new—it’s been ingrained in the fabric of the company since the beginning. “Our customers know what to expect when they walk into a store,” he said. “We’ve been able to retain these customers because we’ve been consistent since day one. We have always put the customer first, above all else.”

To reinforce this bond between the company and its customers, Karl began doing his own TV commercials early on. This put a face to the brand, making it easier for people to feel connected to the owner and the company on a personal level.  

From the beginning

Karl founded Karl’s TV in 1956. The company began as a small TV repair shop but has grown significantly since its inception, expanding into a wide assortment of service areas throughout the last half-century. For several years, the organization was involved in electrical contracting, performing work for schools, churches, and retail establishments, but this portion of the business stopped in 1991. Today, the organization has 22 locations in operation across the Midwest, including 13 in South Dakota and four in Minnesota. 

Although growth has slowed a bit as a result of the recession, the company remains a strong entity. In terms of its sustainability, Karl credits three entities: a loyal customer base, a dedicated staff, and a dependable group of long-term vendors. The first two are responsible for making the company’s customer service top-notch, and the third, though often overlooked, play an equally important role in success, Karl said.

“We are extremely loyal to all of our vendors,” he explained. “It’s a two-way street—we support their brands, and they support us. Plus, our customers appreciate it. Many of them have favorite brands, and they take comfort in knowing that we’ll continue to sell those brands on into the future.”

A share for everyone

It’s obvious that Karl and his team take nothing for granted and deeply appreciate those who have helped the company prosper throughout the years. In 1984, the owner gave his staff a share in the organization’s success, literally, with the introduction of an ESOP. This created a success plan for Karl while giving employees partial ownership. 

The ESOP has been rolled out gradually over the years; the total percentage of employee shares increased as profits grew. “It gives me peace of mind knowing there’s a succession plan in place, and it allows the employees to feel a sense of ownership over the job they’re doing. I would say it has had nothing but a positive impact on employee culture here, although that’s been great from the beginning,” Karl said. “Many people, from the top to the front lines, have been here for 10 years or more, and this is a way of rewarding them for their dedication to us.”

This kind of loyalty is shown not only to existing staff but also to those inherited during an acquisition. Whenever the company purchases another store, it looks to keep the staff in place, which is beneficial for both parties since the salespeople retain their jobs, and Karl and his team don’t have to recruit as many new hires. 

Looking to the future, Karl hopes the organization will continue to carry on in a similar manner. Although no plans are solidified as of right now, he said that the chain will continue to grow in the years to come, and more stores will be opened when the time is right.

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