BY ROY HARRYMAN
This article originally appeared in The Kansas City Star.
Talk to Barrett Prelogar for a few minutes and you’ll find he’s fond of this saying: “Throw the rulebook out.”
The CEO of Winntech likes to challenge clients’ assumptions about the look and feel of their store or trade show environments.
“We’re going to make you completely uncomfortable,” he said. ““Nobody gets to hide behind a tree. At the end we are going to walk out with a giant lightbulb over our heads.”
Winntech, a Kansas City-based designer and manufacturer of retail environments, calls this strategy “ideation,” a brainstorming session that can last from hours to days.
“The ideation session is designed to move you off your center,” said Prelogar. “We sit down and say, ‘In a perfect world, how would you set your store up for success? Play dream builder.’”
However uncomfortable the ideation sessions, they have resulted in new and revamped designs in stores and exhibits around the globe. Winntech has created designs and displays for big name customers including Embarq, Radio Shack, CenturyTel, Time Warner and Sirius Satellite Radio.
The company helps clients think through everything from the color of the tile on the floor to the video content featured on touch screens. Then Winntech either builds the components or works with vendors to create and install the concepts.
Winntech’s roots are in Prelogar’s college days, when he custom built car stereos. He later opened a store in Manhattan, Kan., that allowed customers to experience how a system would sound in a specific make and model of car. The businesses expanded to building retail audio displays and finally into creating complete store and trade show environments.
Winntech encourage store designs that allow customers to use products, not just look at or read about them.
When Embarq spun off from Sprint in 2006, the telecommunications company needed a new retail theme and hired Winntech to design its flagship stores. (Embarq has since merged with CenturyTel to become CenturyLink).
Prelogar said Embarq had an “uncool” image as a land line company. But the new retail environment helped customers discover that the business was relevant to their communications needs, he said. Winntech’s design received a Chain Store Age Magazine award for Retail Store of the Year in 2007.
“You can walk into that store, put your fingers on a screen and start using those services,” Prelogar said. “You could read tri-fold literature until your eyes fell out and not really get it. We want people to put products and services in their hands and tangibly experience them and they are much more likely to buy them.”
CenturyLink’s Susan Squires said Embarq was seeking a vendor that would stretch the company and create a unique retail environment.
“They were the agency that really made us re-think the way we did things,” said Squires, manager of retail, sales, analytics and planning.
Companies often head into a branding-related project with preconceived notions about the outcome.
“They’re really good at questioning that strategy,” she said.
Winntech asked probing questions, regularly interacted with Embarq and modified the project as they went along.
“We kept talking about demographics,” Squires said. “When you’ve got a grandma in North Carolina and a 21-year-old gamer in Las Vegas, how do you get your arms around that?
“They really gave us what we felt spanned that diverse mix but we also got a retail environment that was truly outstanding.”
Last year, Winntech’s revenues were $12.5 million, the company’s highest total yet. But the firm projects $18 million this year. It employs 75 full-time workers plus seasonal employees in Kansas City and another 15 full-time in the Middle East.
In the last few years, the company’s business in that region has taken off, with customers including Saudi Telecom Co., Zain Telecommunications and Zonik, an entertainment and technology retailer.
The company also helped design stores for Robot Galaxy, a spin on the Build a Bear concept that’s oriented toward boys. The stores are open in New York and New Jersey. Part of the project was creating the company’s Times Square store inside Toys R Us.
“They’re highly creative, extremely energetic, very organized and incredibly professional,” said Ken Pilot, chief executive officer. “That attitude is very, very refreshing.”