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You Can't Sell Antique Appliances on The Internet, Can You?

Aug 17, 2007
When John Jowers went to work at his father's appliance company, he never thought it would lead to a sideline business restoring antique refrigerators. But now their "cool" appliances are doing a hot business on the web.

Those of us who are, to put it politely, in our prime, may remember a time when a refrigerator wasn't just a big, rectangular box in the kitchen.

It was a sleek, aerodynamic piece of industrial art. A Philco or Frigidaire looked like it had been designed with the same artistic flair as a ´57 Chevy.

Maybe we even remember the old GE generator top fridge at grandma's house. Those were the days!

In Clayton, Georgia, a town in the Appalachian foothills an hour and a half outside of Atlanta, John Jowers is doing a brisk business keeping a piece of Americana alive.

John and his team at Antique Appliances have expanded his father's appliance business, originally founded in 1958, to include the full restoration of vintage refrigerators and stoves for a growing number of customers who crave the style and nostalgia of a bygone era.

Clayton is a resort area, and the population base shifts drastically from winter to summer. And while he had never given any thought to restoring vintage appliances, John knew that he had to find a way to build his sales and keep his team occupied during the off-season.

"In the winter months, you have to keep your workers on board and busy. A couple of the guys came to me and said `hey, there's an old refrigerator in the back of the warehouse. Do you mind if we paint it red?´ and I said, if it keeps you busy, go ahead!"

"We put it in our front window as part of a Christmas display, and suddenly someone wanted to buy it!

Once it was gone, the phone began to ring off the hook - everyone wanted to know where the little red refrigerator had gone! So, we began doing one-off pieces for people locally. We dabbled in it for a couple of years, and someone convinced me that there really was a market for what we were doing, so I decided to build a web site."

"I depend on the Internet. Without it I wouldn't have the antique business."

"If I were trying to market these items in a 100-mile radius, there simply aren't enough potential clients that want these products or have the money to spend to make it a viable business. 98% of the business I do with the vintage appliances comes from the Internet."

His refurnished stoves and refrigerators have found homes all across the country and beyond.

"Very few of our clients are in our general area. We keep a map up in the office and we peg every city that we go to or ship to, and when you look at the map, the bulk of the clients have been in the New England states. Although we've shipped something to almost every state in the Union at this point, the Midwest and the Northeast have been our biggest demand areas."

He believes that much of his success, both online and off, stems from the fact that he is offering a truly unique service. Antique Appliances is the only company in the US that specializes in the restoration of vintage refrigerators, and one of only a small number who restores vintage electric stoves.

Many companies are restoring gas stoves in the US because a gas stove is rather simple to repair and restore-no wiring, no moving parts, no chemicals involved. Electric stoves, however, are more complicated- a thorough knowledge of electrical systems is needed.

Refurbishing a refrigerator requires even more expertise: in addition to the electrical aspect, special certification is needed to handle the refrigerants and to clean the systems.

Most appliance restorers don't have the required know-how or certification. But because Jowers TV & Appliances was already in the business of selling new appliances, John had a pre-assembled team of qualified servicemen and technicians.

John has no plans to take his new appliance sales online. While Internet sales for niche items like vintage appliances are skyrocketing, the competition to move new inventory is stiff. He knows he would likely only lose money trying to compete for online sales with a large outlet like Sears.com or JCPenney.com.

He does, however, believe that his new appliance sales have been helped as more and more manufacturers have added search engines that allow customers to find authorized dealers in their geographic area.

He has seen a few sales locally that have come to him via GE.com, and feels that this allows smaller dealers to profit without investing in building a site.

John acknowledges that, when he left for college, the last thing he thought he'd do was to come back to a small town and work in the family business. But his work experience while in college made him realize that he really enjoyed taking full responsibility for customer satisfaction, something that is vital to a family business, but often of secondary importance to larger stores.

"As a teenager, when I went out on deliveries with the other guys and there was a problem, believe me, the customer would address ME with their concerns because they knew I was my father's son!"

"In college, I went to work part time in a local home improvement center. During my first week there, I saw my boss, the store's assistant manager, make a woman mad over a can of red paint.

I went into his office and I said, `you may fire me for saying this, but you've done the worst thing you could have done. If you had given her another can of paint, she would have walked out of the store satisfied, and never said a word about it. But mark my words, you've made her mad, you didn't give her another can of paint, and now she´s going to walk out of here and tell everyone in her bridge club and her church group, and you've probably lost 12 customers over a can of paint.´"

"I went home that night and asked myself what I wanted to do with my life, if I could really be happy somewhere climbing the corporate ladder but having no say-so about customer satisfaction, where you'll always have to hand it off to another person. Suddenly, the family business seemed like the right choice."

We have published over fifty profiles of established traditional family owned companies who are leveraging their companies online. And we will be interviewing fifty more as we complete two new books in progress. If you have a story you'd like us to tell, visit our web site and click on the Submit a Profile link for more information.
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