Stihl Still Sells Chainsaws the Old-Fashioned Way

Sunday Strategist

If a limb falls on your car or you suddenly need to carve a wildfire break around your house, will zip you a Husqvarna 120 Mark II chainsaw in a few days for $180.

It's not so easy with America's top-selling brand, though. On the Stihl website, no prices are shown, and once you select a product, you'll have to click through to find a nearby dealer – typically a small hardware store – that may or may not offer delivery. It's an anachronistic, clunky sales machine, seemingly ill-suited to shopping during a pandemic. It's also working just fine thanks.

Stihl (pronounced 'steel') sales so far this year are up 20 percent over 2019 and in the U.S. it is on pace for the best year in its near century of business, both in terms of revenue and units sold.

Increasingly home-bound, we have, collectively, caught the DYI bug, as boffo earnings from Home Depot and Lowe's can attest. The pandemic forced Stihl to alter its marketing. In early April, it scrapped a campaign called "Dealer days," a package of ads full of eager weekend warriors hustling through crowded stores and shaking hands with trusty salespeople. "We didn't want to appear tone deaf," says Nick Jiannis, Stihl vice president of sales and marketing.

The new Stihl spots are all about sprucing up the backyard."The only places I can go are hardware stores and grocery stores," Jiannis recalls Nick Jiannis. "And at the end of the day, grass still grows, leaves still fall."

Stihl has never sold directly to consumers in the U.S., because it doesn't want to compete with its dealers. It doesn't want to compete with its dealers, because it doesn't want to be forced to sell via big box stores like Home Depot, where its margins may be trimmed and it will be pressured to roll out cheaper products.

Stihl offers its 10,000 U.S. dealers a way to stay alive in the shadows of superstores -- by selling a line of products the retail giants just don't have. In turn, Stihl gets a small army of foot soldiers -- a sales and service staff that it doesn't have to pay.

A clunky, protracted Internet shop, from this perspective, is a point of pride and differentiation. The company didn't even ramp up its "buy online, puck up in store" until May of 2019. "If it's not broke, don't fix it," Jiannis says.

Even now, Stihl wants its consumers to look someone in the eye, at least from six feet away. When the trusty chainsaw needs a tune-up or a spark plug, it's less likely to get tossed in the trash. Buyers will know where to get it serviced, the same place they might trade it in for an upgrade.  

The strategy might not make for as many transactions, but it makes for a stickier, more lucrative customer. The personal touch, apparently, still works in a digital, distanced world.


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