This article originally ran in the Summer 2011 issue of Rural Lifestyle Dealer.

The spring of 2011 reminds us that equipment dealers must be more nimble than ever to serve their customers in an increasingly volatile climate, be it business, weather or consumer spending trends. As a result, equipment dealers face both the daunting task of serving distressed neighbors and the opportunity to build credibility, awareness and business by strategically reaching out to existing and potential customers in tough times. Do it right, and you establish your dealership as a partner.

The tornadoes and accompanying heavy storms that ripped through the Midwest, Southeast and even the Northeast U.S. this spring spread tragedy and flooded cropland and homes alike. But while much of the country suffers under storms, other areas, such as portions of Texas and Colorado, bake in drought. The devastation means rural lifestylers, landscapers and ranchers will work overtime to recover from both extremes.

Equipment dealers can play a vital role in helping customers pick the right equipment for the job, whether they are landscaping or cleaning up after a violent store. Here, Scott Benko of Haltom Equipment in Mooresville, Ind., explains the benefits of the utility tractors on his lot. For more about Haltom Equipment, please see the Summer issue of Rural Lifestyle Dealer. Click here for an online version.

In both situations, equipment dealers play a vital role. Whether it’s in selecting an all-terrain vehicle with the correct tires and horsepower to avoid getting bogged in mud or picking the correct PTO attachments for do-it-yourselfers looking to drain bogs, cut brush or modify landscaping. This season you have the opportunity to provide the guidance and expertise that rural lifestylers need when they need it most.

By being the counselor who provides them not only the equipment but the support they need when they are distressed, you will develop lifelong customers. Consider expanding your support by offering free how-to classes on tools and pieces of equipment that are key to recovery efforts in your area. Large box stores such as Lowe’s Home Improvement offer home-improvement classes, but you have specific expertise that generalists can’t provide. You should showcase it.

Don’t think you have to do it alone. Tap into OEM and government resources to provide valuable educational support. For example, classes you could offer:

  • Safe equipment operation
  • Landscape recovery
  • Equipment maintenance during extreme applications
  • Equipment training refresher courses with OEMs

New Visitors, New Venues

Beyond the changing landscape due to the shift in the weather, the profile of the traditional clientele also is changing with the shift in demographics of the rural lifestyle segment. According to the market research firm NPD Group, consumers ages 65 and older accounted for 16% more in outdoor power equipment sales in the 12 months ending in March 2011 than they did in the previous year.

Now, this is intuitive to those of us who work in agriculture. The 2007 Census of Agriculture shows that from 2002 to 2007, the average age of the U.S. farmer increased from 55.3 to 57.1. But while their children are getting involved in the farms and more city folks are moving to the country, it is important to remember to cater to a aging population that is just as interested in outdoor power equipment.

Online, The Final Frontier

One piece of advice you likely repeat to customers like a mantra is that they need to always use the right tool for every job. The same applies for your dealership. Your toolbox should include an online presence. According to the NPD Group, increasing amounts of the $5.3 billion spent annually on outdoor power equipment, $1.7 billion on power tools and $1.3 billion on hand tools come from online purchases. That’s not to say you need to sell equipment online. But a marketing presence is becoming increasingly important, particularly as high-speed Internet spreads into rural America. According to, for example, 43% of farmers own a smart phone, so not only are they using the Internet on their home computer, they are accessing the Web on their mobile devices. You can bet consumers moving to the country are bringing their smart phones with them. Be there to answer their call, by phone or Internet.

Michael Turley is the CEO of Osborn & Barr, an agriculture-focused PR and advertising agency. He leads the agency’s Equipment Practice Group, which represents some of agriculture’s largest machinery and tire companies.