Business Spotlight | Winter 2021
John Noble of Micro Center

Localization and a service culture helped Micro Center succeed in technology retail

By Erik Cassano

At first glance, it seems that Micro Center faces an impossible task.

The chain of 25 stores operates in the consumer electronics retail space, competing against big-box stores, wholesale clubs, and online retailers that have thousands of locations and a worldwide presence. Yet, Hilliard, Ohio-based Micro Center—operated by parent company Micro Electronics Inc.—has thrived throughout its 40-year existence.

While almost every other electronics retailer competes on volume, with its locations selling thousands of products as quickly as possible, Micro Center carves out its place in a vast, highly competitive landscape by building one customer relationship at a time.

“With the exception of a few larger metropolitan areas, we have one Micro Center in a metro area,” says CFO John Noble. “Our stores are viewed as destination shopping. And if it takes some effort for customers to come to us, if they have to pass a lot of competitor stores to get here, we want them to have an amazing experience when they walk in our door.”

It’s an approach that takes knowledgeable team members united around a set of companywide goals. It also takes careful planning for growth and sound financial management.

Leveraging local expertise

As Noble puts it, working at Micro Center isn’t just a summer job. Many of its 3,000 employees have spent years developing detailed knowledge of the products they sell. But that’s only part of the equation at a company where the average employee tenure is nearly 10 years, and many members of the company’s corporate headquarters staff have been promoted from within.

“In our employee training, particularly where it pertains to salespeople, we focus on more than product knowledge,” Noble says. “That is important, but we also spend a lot of time educating new team members on the culture, which is deeply rooted in taking care of customers, and giving our employees the autonomy necessary to do what they think is right for the customer.”

Decisions involving how to best serve customers are driven down to the store level. For example, in some cases, managers are able to match prices from local competitors.

Serving Customers During COVID-19

By empowering store managers and employees to build customer relationships, Micro Center was well-positioned to capitalize last spring when the COVID-19 pandemic created a massive spike in the need for home computers and electronics.

“We were able to answer changing customer trends in the first few months of the pandemic,” Noble says. “Our stores had strong inventory levels, meaning we had enough short-term supply to answer the demand as people were forced to work and take classes from home.”

Although the company was well-positioned, it’s been far from business as usual over the past year. Micro Center had been in the midst of a three-year strategic plan when the pandemic hit, and Noble says much of the plan had to be put on hold as a result of COVID-19. However, the company’s leaders will get the plan back on track over the next year.

Our stores had strong inventory levels, meaning we had enough short-term supply to answer the demand as people were forced to work and take classes from home.
John Noble
CFO, Micro Center

Reaffirming business goals

While Micro Center’s main footprint is on the East Coast and in the Midwest, it also has stores in California, Texas, and Colorado. Noble says the company plans to continue to expand its customer base at existing stores, while carefully analyzing opportunities to enter new markets in other parts of the country.

“We’d like to open two stores a year, which would be a solid expansion rate for us,” Noble says.

Even with e-commerce driving sales of consumer electronics more than ever, Micro Center is proof that there is still a place for an in-store customer experience—if a business is able to capitalize on what it does well.

“We know what our strong points are,” Noble says. “We are focused on taking care of customers, which means having what they need in stock, having helpful and knowledgeable salespeople, and offering an easy checkout experience. That’s what we keep our eyes on. We don’t allow ourselves to get distracted by other shiny objects.”

Adding flexibility

In addition to disciplined growth and a strong company culture, Micro Center has relied on Huntington to help propel the business forward.

“There was a Huntington location across the street from our first store in Columbus, and that’s how the relationship began,” Noble says. “They’ve been our bank for all 40 years.”

One of the main ways Huntington assists Micro Center is through a line of credit that allows its stores to expand inventory as necessary, such as during high-traffic times of the year like back-to-school and the holidays. At the start of the pandemic, Micro Center exercised its right to pull its full line of credit.

“Huntington was there to support us, and followed up by extending that line of credit, giving us peace of mind during very uncertain times,” says Noble.

Noble says that in his 10 years with Micro Center, Huntington has always looked for ways it might be able to help the company.

“Whether it’s offering their expertise or recommending new services, it goes beyond just banking with Huntington,” Noble says. “Much like we work to create and maintain good relationships with our customers, Huntington does the same, and that’s why we continue to work with them.”

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