If someone had told me when I launched my business 20 years ago that I'd be spending $1.5 million a year on advertising, I would have told them they were crazy. Yet that's what we spent last year. And when I look at the dollars spent, for the return, I'm glad to spend them.

Besides, my advertising is built into my pricing — so my customers pay for it.

A lot of people in the home improvement business come from an installation, rather than a marketing, background. They think price drives the market. And they don't know how to distinguish themselves or how to really market and sell.

For instance, one way that they sell windows is by advertising that they'll give a price over the phone to customers who call with their window measurements. That conditions consumers to think windows are a commodity product. It also makes the public believe that that's the way to shop for windows.

When you think about it, there's very little real selling done in that type of transaction.

Learn From the Masters As my company has grown and matured, we've increasingly evolved into more of a retailer and less of a contractor. Along the way, I became a student of marketing. I studied and learned from local retailers that have been successful. They sell cars, mattresses, televisions.

One, for instance, sells nothing but widescreen TV sets. He has a single store, in an out-of-the-way location, and advertises constantly on radio and television. Every weekend he gives you a different — and compelling — reason to come in and buy his product. He's the largest seller of widescreen televisions in the United States.

Think of another market segment that advertises incessantly. How often does someone buy a mattress? Maybe once every 15 or 20 years. A little less often than they buy a window. Yet the mattress stores, and the auto dealerships, are constantly in front of the public with advertising that always gives people a reason to come in and buy now, because it's aimed at the person who needs a mattress, a car, a television — today.

That type of advertising convinces people that there's one company in the marketplace that sets the standard for service, quality, and price. That's how that company differentiates itself. Those who appeal on price alone are at a loss. If, for instance, you were in the market for a Chevrolet, and there were three Chevy dealers within driving distance, you'd simply buy the lowest-priced car from any of the three.

Retail Persona The furniture, mattress, and big-screen TV retailers taught me to look at my company more like a retailer than as a contracting firm. Every month, for example, we have a special advertising campaign, which features a unique offer that expires at the end of that month. We're open seven days a week, because in our market area we have a lot of double-income families. When do they have time to shop? Saturday and Sunday.

In our two showrooms — 5,500 square feet and 6,500 square feet — we display a large variety of product in an upscale setting. We show prospects how we can trim the window inside and out. We offer lots of options our competitors don't.

In addition, we point out that our employees built these showroom displays, and that the quality of the work in the showroom is what you get in your home.

In our case, we're selling more than the product. We've created a retail persona in Orange County. Every day people buy windows and doors. I want the people who are thinking about it to think about me. If they don't know I exist, I'll never get the chance to sell them.

That's what the big-screen TV guy does and the mattress people do. They spend the money to build consistent top-of-line awareness, so that they become the preferred brand. —Charles Gindele is owner of Dial One Window Replacement Specialists, a two-unit window and door operation in Santa Ana, Calif.

Does your company have a business practice or installation technique to share with the industry? Call Jim Cory at (215) 923-9810 or e-mail jcory@hanleywood.com.