Today, the Real Estate Industry Soil is fertile and innovation is struggling to blossom all over the place. It’s because of the downturn, you know. When the market is hot, when buyers and sellers are abundant and financing is plentiful, everyone goes into a gallop just to keep up. There’s not much time for invention. Not only that, in a hot market, market share shifts are rare as well. Just as a downturn spawns creative thinking and new ideas, it also provides an opportunity for bold upstarts to gain marketshare. Often it is the combination of boldness and innovation that results in growth during tough times.
The fledgling real estate franchises gained a major foothold on the real estate business during the tough market of the late 70s and early 80s. Small independent brokers wrestling with fewer sales were grasping at anything that would give them an edge and national branding seemed to be the answer. It was during the same downturn that MLSs began to move away from the endless printing of ‘MLSBooks’ and convert to a purely online model, a major innovation.
ERA Real Estate launched at this time and was seen as quite the innovator. Few remember, but the letters, ERA, stood for ‘Electronics Realty Associates.’ Their hallmark innovation was that each office had a crude fax machine, called a ‘People Mover.’ A homebuyer sitting in an ERA office in, say, Atlanta, could receive faxed pages from the MLS Book from an ERA broker in Seattle. All of the other (non-ERA) brokers had to rely on the US mail to share information with an out of towner. That silly FAX machine was seen as a huge piece of innovative technology. (Aside: we also forget that in the early days, ERA brokers and associates wore a distinctive blazer. Like the Century 21 mustard gold coat, the ERA blazer was light powder blue – just like my high school prom tux!)
All of this is a prelude to what I really want to talk about, which is Help-U-Sell Grein Group in Stafford, Virginia. I stopped in to see Josh and Bettina Grein on a recent swing through that part of the country and I came face to face with innovation, born out of necessity. (Remember? Necessity is the Mother of Invention). The Greins were struggling with a tight market and an uncooperative landlord. Their rent was huge given their location and the decline in the market. But the landlord would not entertain any thought of a renegotiation of their lease. They tried and tried and got nowhere . . . until they announced they were leaving. Suddenly the landlord wanted to deal but it was too late.
Josh and Bettina found a struggling coffee shop in a much better location in their town. They felt, with a few adjustments, the coffee shop could be profitable and the extra income from coffee sales would be a nice supplement to their real estate income. The shop also offered a solution to their landlord problem. There were additional rooms in back of the shop where Help-U-Sell Grein Group could relocate. They decided to make the leap.
When I stopped in, they’d been open about two weeks. The coffee shop was full of people in the early afternoon and though it was a true coffee shop/cafe, it was also clearly the home of Help-U-Sell. Listing fliers were prominently displayed and it would be hard to miss other identifiers at the back of the shop. Josh told me he’d talked to more people about Help-U-Sell in the past two weeks than he had in months. Bettina said she’d had three good agents stop in and ask about coming to work for them.
The Greins have experienced a downturn from peak levels of 2006, but they have managed to hang on and gain share while their competitors have withered. There’s is a strong market made up of people who work in and around Quantico Marine Base, the FBI National Training Academy and those who make the hour long commute to Washington DC every day. They have done well in the upper end of the market where homes are priced in the $500,000 – $800,000 range. As Bettina says, ‘We do well in the upper end because that’s where people can save the most money.’
(Aside to every broker who’s ever told me Help-U-Sell is not for the luxury home market: it’s all about attitude and expectation)
It’s a little early to tell, but my belief is that Josh and Bettina are on to something that will help them gain an even bigger share of market. They have taken the First Objective of Marketing to the max. You remember that, don’t you? The First Objective of Marketing? It’s Visibility. First, you want to be Visible. You want your logo to be seen everywhere, over and over. That’s why we use blitz signs and have our sellers put out directionals, and wrap our cars and on and on: it’s so we are Visible to the max. The coffee shop has made Help-U-Sell Grein Group more Visible than they ever were at their old office and it looks like an innovation that’s going to pay off.