Russ Palmer was selling furniture when he was asked if he’d like to join the family business, a question that an older generation of his family had been asked before.
“I gave it a shot,” Palmer said.
Eleven years later, he’s still working at Downtown Appliance Home Center.
The business was opened in 1961 by Herb Helmreich, who died in 2000. The second and third generations of Helmreich’s family now work there. Helmreich’s son, Don, took over the business and is one of three owners. Don’s wife, Carla Helmreich, and her brother, John Graves, are co-owners. Palmer, who is Don’s nephew, works there as a sales adviser.
With corporate stores like Lowe’s, Home Depot and Sears gobbling up a share of the appliance market, Downtown Appliance has stiff competition for business. As a Columbia-based nonconglomerate, the business emphasizes customer service to attract and retain customers.
“We are competitive in price and variety and offer our own service department,” Palmer said. “You are our customer. You don’t have to call an 800-number. You can call back the person who sold you the product directly.”
The No. 1 priority of the business’s service mission statement is to provide a service that customers can’t get elsewhere, he said. “Otherwise, we are no different than the big-box stores.”
But as society changes, the business changes. During the remodeling of Downtown Appliance from spring 2005 to August 2006, the roof and some of the floors were replaced, and its showroom space was tripled to 5,000 square feet.
“We wanted to offer a shopping experience that customers expect in this day and age — a clean and bright atmosphere with live working products,” John Graves said.
The atmosphere includes a full working kitchen and a bedding line that was introduced this year.
Flexibility is another factor that sets the business apart from big-box stores, Don Helmreich said.
“The family grew up in the business, so we know how to do all the facets of the business,” he said. “We can change if we had to according to the customer.”
The changes include adding brands that reflect the cutting-edge technology of appliances and delivering personalized service, Graves said.
“Downtown Appliance provides excellent service, and they have a great reputation,” said Don Laird, president of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce. “Their long-term ownership makes you feel comfortable there. They create loyalty with customers.”
Customer referrals are common, Palmer said, and advertising has been crucial for the business in establishing itself with people frequently moving in and out of town.
An increasingly mobile society has Graves worried that the business may not always be in the family.
“There are many more options today, so it’s a concern,” he said. “It’s tough to get each generation to stay in the small business. It’s a lot of hard work and long hours.”
Graves finds his work rewarding because of its challenges.
“After being here for 35 years you get comfortable,” he said. “I stick with it because it’s enjoyable and a challenge. When it’s not a challenge, I’ll move on.”