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  • Mark Lipton

One Ringy Dingy!


I always loved the work of Lily Tomlin; the brilliant 1970’s era comic and TV star.

Lily Tomlin was omnipresent on TV in the 1970's! Of course, we only had seven channels to choose from at the time so if she was one one....she was omnipresent! But even if we had the whole internet to choose from, my sister Marci and I would have still watched Lily Tomlin.


Particularly when she was playing in the role of Ernestine.

Ernestine was a telephone operator-Ma Bell!. You can see a short video of her here.

In a world which required dial tones, you often needed an operator to connect a call. You would dial “0” and tell the operator where you wanted to call then the operator would connect the actual wires which would make that call possible.

Can you imagine?

Of course there were a lot fewer phone numbers to connect together back then. In the days before cell phones, fax machines and VOiP, there were so few phone numbers needed that ALL of the New York City of my youth had ONE area code!

Ernestine took her calls one at a time. She had comedy to deliver and she was not going to let the needs of another caller get in her way. And she had a way of taking all of your attention. When you were on the phone with Ernestine, you were ONLY on the phone with Ernestine and not getting anything else done. At least until Ernestine told you she was done with you, which was of course part of the joke.

But if you own a paint store during this pandemic; that joke is just not that freaking funny.

Handling telephone calls is becoming a bottleneck for the many (particularly DIY-centric) dealers who remain busy during these turbulent times. And there's data which explain why!


Weekly research from the Farnsworth Group collected since the onset of the pandemic shows that consumers want to spend their current quarantine or time unemployed (or both) maintaining their homes.

Particularly painting them!

But that does not mean that they will be walking into your stores anytime soon so don’t bother waiting for them there.

Paint consumers continue to look for e-commerce solutions and this trend is likely to continue or perhaps even accelerate. A consumer preference to have the shopping experience for paint happen on their couch using the internet or telephone will be the new “brand” that this consumer seeks out.

For many, it will mean more than the logo on the can!

But the desire to shop local and support small businesses impacted by the outbreak is not going to be enough to get many consumers off the couch! Consumers new to this way of buying will find a vendor online who can help them through the sales cycle. For dealers who do not have an e-commerce site to support these transactions, consumers will reach for their phones.

One Ringy Dingy!

But there’s a problem! Like Ernestine, you and your staff can only handle these calls one at a time! And while you’re on a call, you can’t really be productive doing anything else! In this new world and in the absence of providing a robust e-commerce platform, your sales will be limited by the number of calls you can manage.

And those calls are not longer just “What time do you close?” Unless you offer some sort of e-commerce, customers are demanding a paint buying experience which mimics what they would expect if they came into your store.

Only on the phone!

If you are unable to provide that level of support through e-commerce or over the phone consumers will still buy their paint.

It just won’t be at your stores!

My fear is that in the absence of e-commerce (which is currently the case with MOST dealers) you may not be able to grow or recover your business. This new category of consumers: local shoppers looking to buy locally online or over the phone is far too big a piece of the pie to ignore.

The growth rate in calls and demand for e-commerce will not last forever of course. People will come back in! I'm certain that the numbers of customers who prefer the online or telephone experience may normalize at some point, but the patterns are set. Some significant percent of the market will always demand these new services. And when they can’t get the service they want from you, which they may not be able to because of THE “Ernestine Effect,” they’ll go elsewhere.

The service they want: to get the paint they desire without entering your store, will become the brand they shop for. For many consumers, the local shopping experience delivered online or over the phone will become more sought after than the tradition brands we all count on to make the phone ring.


More important than the logo on the can itself!

It’s an enormous opportunity for the deft independent paint and hardware retailer! It does not cost an arm and a leg nor does it take long to get into e-commerce or set up your staff and phone systems to be able to accommodate these changes.

Or you can just do what always worked! Just turn the key, open the door and see who walks in!


And when the phone rings, let Ernestine answer. She’s got a story to tell that first customer.


You can speak to another customer when she’s done telling it!





©2019 by Mark Lipton

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