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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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Killing Our Hobby One Customer At A Time

Years ago I had the opportunity to dine at a famous California eatery, a restaurant widely regarded to have the best collection of non-American wines in California...a true oenophile's destination.

We ordered a modest $60 bottle of wine...actually the least expensive red wine on the list...and I fully expected some young waiter or waitress to bring it to the table, perfunctorily show us the label, open the bottle, and splash a little in a glass for tasting.

Instead, the sommelier brought the bottle and performed exactly the same wine theater as if he were opening a $1,800 bottle of Petrus. The delicate bottle handling to avoid disturbing the sediment, displaying the label, the careful uncorking, the pour in front of a candle observing carefully as the wine flowed, the ritual handing of the glass to the taster, the swirling, the sniffing, and finally the tasting. It was a bit much for this "cheap" (by this restaurant's standards) wine, but it was a marvelous show and made me feel I was a very important customer.

Later I met the owner and asked, "How can you afford to go through the same full wine ritual for a $60 bottle of wine that you do for an $1,800 bottle of wine?" His reply was a lesson in marketing.

He said, "Perhaps today you enjoy a $60 bottle of wine, enhanced by our presentation. Perhaps someday you celebrate a special occasion and order a $150 bottle of wine. And who knows? Maybe someday you become wealthy and can afford $1,800 wine...where will you go? Here, of course!"

I did go back. Not wealthy though, actually far from it, but celebrating an occasion that warranted a slightly more expensive bottle of wine. The ritual was the same, the show as wonderful, the enhancement to a great meal noted.

Reel the tape forward a few years and compare that experience to my recent trip to the woodworking store.

Right up front, it is important to know that I do not live anywhere near Atlanta, and I wish I did. Eight hundred miles is a bit far though, even for a weekend trip. And as much as I love phoning Highland Woodworking, chatting with their knowledgeable and friendly staff, or shopping on the website, I sometimes simply need a woodworking store "fix." The smells, the sounds, the tactile satisfaction of handling tools and equipment, and the camaraderie of woodworkers is important. So every once in a while I pile into my truck, grab an extra large coffee, and set out on the hour and a half trek to my nearest woodworking store.

I will admit that my attire was less than impressive. My jeans were smeared with paint washed a hundred times since; my shirt had holes other than the intentional ones for neck and arms. My shoes were tattered and my coat was overdue for the trash bin. But the two clerks in the store stared more glumly than even my attire warranted. They seemed reluctant to move from their perch behind the cash registers.

The store was not busy. For almost twenty minutes I wandered about, alone with my two watchers. There was no greeting, no "Hi, how are you" or "Can I help you find something?" Just surly staring. I was beginning to feel a bit self-conscious, almost as if they were gauging whether or not I was a shoplifting risk. To alleviate the situation, I asked in my most refined and polite way if one of the gentlemen could answer some questions. They looked at each other as if sorting out, silently, who would have to do it. Finally one of the men got up with a grunt and started walking toward me. At the same time I turned and took a step toward the Festool display.

I asked a couple of questions...innocuous questions...more to establish some rapport than anything. These were not Woodward and Bernstein questions. These were relatively simple questions for which the answers are on the first page of the Festool literature. Imagine my surprise when the answers he gave were actually wrong. I asked a few more questions, but before I got the answers, the clerk was moving me toward another display and saying, "Perhaps you would be better off looking at this stuff rather than the Festool. You know, the Festool stuff is really expensive and is really more for the professional."

Fascinating. Not once did the question of my experience level, my interests, or my budget come up. Never did this noodle-head ever ask me if I was a professional or a hobbyist. I browsed for a few more minutes to be polite, said "thank you" for the help, and walked back to my truck...a wasted and disappointing trip.

All the way home I grieved for our industry, our hobby, our pastime. I grieved for all the intrepid folks trying so hard to find ways to lure new people to this great avocation we call woodworking. I grieved for the countless hundreds, maybe thousands, of new-to-woodworking folks for whom an experience like mine would be devastating. I dreamed of business turnaround professionals that could take over that corporation and clean house, giving those store clerks what they really deserve...much more time for their own personal pursuits.

As we continue our important dialogue seeking ways to encourage new woodworkers and build the population of devotees to our hobby, we must look at all aspects. As the old saying goes, everyone needs their oars in the water, rowing the same direction. Great marketing, excellent how-to articles and videos, classrooms and information are not enough to overcome lazy, lackadaisical, or pompous sales clerks.

Man, I wish I lived closer to Atlanta.

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