Front and Centered – Debbie Schaeffer

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Debbie Schaeffer: Owner, CEO, Chief Customer Officer, Mrs. G TV & Appliances

Debbie Schaeffer is the third-generation owner of Mrs. G, an independent home appliance retailer in central New Jersey for more than 80 years. The original Mrs. G, Schaeffer’s grandmother Beatrice L. Greenberg, recruited her granddaughter to run the family business as she neared retirement. More than 16 years later, Schaeffer is a nationally recognized authority on home appliances.

Just like her grandmother, customers can find Schaeffer at her desk near the entrance facing Mrs. G’s sales floor, clearly accessible to shoppers. Customer service remains a hallmark of Mrs. G, in addition to great brand selection and a long tradition of support for the community.

Can you give us a snapshot of your business?

We are competitive with the other local independents and the big-box nationals here in central New Jersey. We’re concentrating on higher-margin items for smart kitchens and our product lines reflect that.

A few years back we dropped mattresses, but we know that we’ll forever be known as Mrs. G TV and Appliances. So we continue to sell televisions in a more limited way for our customers, who can expect to come in today and have the television they ordered tomorrow.

Tell us about joining Mrs. G.

I was never pushed into the family business, although the door was always open. I wanted to pursue another direction, so I went off to the University of Michigan’s civil engineering school to learn commercial and residential construction. I then landed in Manhattan. After that, I took time off for my twins.

But in 2000, my children were in kindergarten and I was ready to get back to work. At that point, my grandmother was 85 years old and my mother and father had both retired from the business. My mother and grandmother wanted me to join the business, but there was no pressure.

My grandmother and I were very close and it was a way for us to spend more time together with the chance that I would fall in love with the business and make it my own. I think all along she knew exactly what she was doing. As it turned out I was committed to fully jumping in, making both a financial and emotional investment in Mrs. G.

Part of my training was to being able to sit right next to my grandmother. It was a great way to learn from the best in the business!

Can you share more about your grandmother, the retailer?

My grandmother really thought of Mrs. G, the store, as a community hub. People could always find her at the front of the store at her “desk” — and everyone who came in had to walk right by her. My grandmother had an actual office, but she would use it only when she needed to meet someone privately.

Longtime customers who remember her tell me how kind my grandmother was. And believe it not, people would come in the store and hang out with her. My grandmother would give kids paper and a pencil and ask them to draw a picture. She’d listen to the parents talk about themselves.

She loved greeting customers and visitors to the store. Of course, she was a master closer. If a customer were about to walk out without a purchase, she would close the sale for the sales team.

You’re now owner, CEO and chief customer officer. What can you tell us about those roles?

One of the great perks of sitting up front is that people love to tell stories when they were in the store last, either purchasing appliances or even when they were a child with their parents. So that’s much like my grandmother’s era.

The titles of owner, CEO and president seem pretty corporate and distant. I prefer chief customer officer and started using it a year or so ago when I read that Terry Lundgren, Macy’s CEO, adopted that CCO title.

It’s my role to make sure that we offer an outstanding customer experience, before, during and after the sale. We’re knowledgeable and experienced, not just order-takers. Customers have questions, and we can answer them because of what we know from experience with a variety of brands.

We can maintain a relationship with customers through the entire sales, delivery and installation process. We certainly take calls about appliances still under warranty, but we definitely take time to help our customers with issues after the manufacturer’s warranty ends.

You’ve made changes since you took over the day-to-day business. How do you attract new customers without alienating old ones?

Our selection of home appliances for the smart kitchen is fantastic and the presentation is state-of-the-art with a bright and open floor plan of 15,000 square feet. Right away [in 2000] we added brands mostly exclusive to the independent retailer including Asko, Bosch, Jenn-Air, Sub-Zero, Miele, La Cornue and Viking, but we also have LG, Samsung, GE, Whirlpool, Maytag and Frigidaire.

With a large showroom, we were able to separate the luxury from the core brands without alienating customers on a tight budget. So when we were designing and building our new showroom back in 2014-2015, it was important to have our core product offering in the front. The luxury brands are beautifully displayed in back.

Did your brand marketing message change when you added new brands?

I had a vision for a new customer experience at Mrs. G. When it became clear that we’d be relocating about half a mile from our existing location, I knew it was time to rebrand and refresh the Mrs. G brand to differentiate us from our competitors. It’s interesting that my grandmother did pretty much the same when she moved to her new location back in 1969. That was her third move since 1935.

We worked with Raul Gutierrez Design. Raul knew it would be an emotional experience since my grandmother was the literal face of Mrs. G, but we were going to change and update the logo and branding tag line to “Life. Better.”

In the nearly 20 years since I took over, I’ve become synonymous with the store, so we agreed to update the logo to use my face, but also keep some history in the final design. We debuted the new logo design on our blog.

You were recently quoted as saying, “People don’t realize how much independents give back to the community. We’re not just an appliance store. … The competition does the same on a national level, but we do it locally.” Can you tell us more?

It’s really about being a good neighbor and remaining a strong supporter of the community. Just this summer we
had a cook-off between two police organizations, and last summer it was two local firehouses raising money for their organizations. Not only did we raise money, but I also loved the opportunity for the community to meet those who keep us safe.

We continue to work with Jewish Family & Children’s Services of Greater Mercer County, HomeFront NJ, Dress for Success and Susan G. Komen … serving central New Jersey. We partner with the Arts Council of Princeton and Minding Our Business, an outreach program, targeting low-income seventh and eighth graders with entrepreneurial ambitions.

Is there a fourth generation joining Mrs. G?

There’s no pressure. One daughter, who is interested in another profession, is going to be a silent partner. My other daughter just graduated from the University of Arizona’s Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing. She’s working on the west coast right now, but she knows the door is always open.

Janet Groeber has covered all aspects of the retail industry for more than 20 years. Her reporting has appeared in AdWeek and DDI Magazine, among others.

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