One would think a basic in every business person’s DNA, whether we’re talking about floor covering retailers or really any person in any business, would be a major focus on the company’s customer—over and above a focus on the products being sold or the services being offered.
Think about it: if you’re not attentive to your customer’s likes and dislikes and their wants and needs, then how would anyone in any business know if changes are needed, and if so, what direction those changes should take? Looking at the floor covering retail sector, it’s certainly important to have a selection of product that meets the needs of just about everyone who walks through the front door of your store, but it’s also extremely difficult to gain a great deal of uniqueness by virtue of the products retailers have on their sales floor. Even if it were possible to be, say, 45% unique in your section of the area you serve, how could a retailer select unique products to meet the needs of their customers if they didn’t have a reasonably good feel for what their customers actually want and would buy?
Enter Chris Ramey. Ramey heads The Home Trust International and Affluent Insights. He’s a guy who has been in senior management roles in the floor covering business for decades and has taken his own advice on focusing on his customer’s wants and needs—over and above their needs for floor coverings—and in the process has become an expert on the affluent consumer and a recognized authority on the luxury market and everything high-end. We invited Chris to join us on TalkFloor to share some of his thoughts on the subject. By the way, you can listen to this conversation in its entirety on the TalkFloor.com site under FloorRadio interviews. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.
TF: The perquisites for a retailer to be successful in 2016 are much different and more demanding than they were 10 years ago. Retailers have to be sharper, better informed, tech savvy and they need to be more in tune with their customers. In a conversation we had a few months ago, you said that it would be wise for retailers to concentrate more on their customers and not so much on the products they sell. Expand on that thought.
Ramey: Let’s take carpet first. Most carpet decisions are based on color. Many feel it’s more on the technical aspects of the product, the twist level, the ounces per square foot and such. But it’s really commodity; they’re buying carpet to match something else. When you look at hardwood, it’s brown. That’s how the customer sees it. Most carpet today is sold with the attributes telling them to buy hard surface. The competition for carpet today is no longer other carpet, its hard surface, because we have been telling consumers for years that it’s about wear and stain. And as a result a reasonable person would realize that if it’s about wear and stain, why not buy stone, tile or hardwood? We have in reality been telling consumers who want to buy carpet to buy something else. It’s really not about the product any more. Those days are gone. Today it’s about the consumer, and that’s really what retailers should be focusing on. What is the experience when they enter the store? What are their emotions? What are the memories the customer has when they visit our showroom?
The market has changed dramatically, and it’s a totally different game than it was 10 or 15 years ago, but there is one thing that hasn’t changed. Those who are the best marketers are going to be the most successful, and that transcends floor coverings. It’s true for every business. The marketers always win because they’re focused on the consumer.
TF: You talk to a great many retailers. You write a great deal about them. There are a great many retailers who were successful 10 years ago who are no longer in business. I suspect many who are around today will not be around in 5 to 10 years. I suspect that fact would be an incentive for retailers to take a look into the future. Are you finding that?
Ramey: It seems to me that the noisiness of most retailers’ businesses gets in the way of their way of their ability of visualizing the road ahead. That’s a substantial challenge for businesspeople because the market is changing so quickly. It’s not just the change for retailers from soft to hard surface, it’s from older customers to younger customers, it’s about the existence of the internet from no internet. All of these challenges are very difficult to digest.
In many ways we find ourselves so focused on the customers we have that we miss the 80% of the prospects we never see. And that’s what we need to be focusing on. What is happening to that 80%? Why aren’t we attracting them? Why are they going somewhere else?
TF: I get the idea from talking to a great many retailers that they have missed the value and the powers of digital marketing, of attracting customers online and educating them online. What are your thoughts?
Ramey: That is because we are not customer focused. Many websites state the obvious, really insulting the customer’s intelligence, such as mentioning carpet and offering a definition of carpet. Really? Sell who you are, why you are different and superior to your competition and how you are involved in your community. People do like to buy locally. And they do require reasons to buy.
TF: You talked about retailers offering products that their customers want to buy. That has taken many retailers into expanding out of just flooring products into categories like cabinets, countertops, plumbing products such as faucets, shower heads and sinks as well as other product categories. Many retailers are reluctant about expanding out of an area they have expertise in. Are non-flooring products the future of floor covering retailing?
Ramey: This takes us to the core of this conversation and the question, “Are we product focused or customer focused?” Many retailers need to change the way they see their world. They need to become experts at finding new prospects. Instead of being an agent of carpet or hard surface, suppliers and retailers need to be an expert in the wants and needs of their customers and prospects. The question is: Who do you serve? Your suppliers or your customers?
TF: I suspect that when a typical consumer launches a remodeling project they purchase a great many more products than just floor coverings. I’ve had several retailers on TalkFloor who have added appliances to their mix and have enjoyed significant success.
Ramey: It’s a great idea. Most appliance companies will sell just about anyone and retailers can get great brands to offer and pick off business. Cabinet retailers are now offering appliances where they didn’t 10 years ago. It’s such an easy sell.
TF: If the typical remodeling customer is going to buy a number of categories, I would think it would be a great deal easier for them to buy these products at one time from a single retailer that they trust.
Ramey: Absolutely. That is the key to success in the future: becoming a company that consumers trust and depend on and being that one resource. When I started the Luxury Marketing Council about a decade ago, a prime topic among members was the fact that time is currency. The affluent, they all agreed, had no time. Today, no one has any time. That means we take that commodity of time and make it easier for consumers to buy from us.
TF: We talked about the customer of today and how different they are from the customer of a decade ago. That, I suspect, means that the customer of today expects to be treated differently when they enter a store?
Ramey: Interestingly, research tells us that the customer of today likes to buy online because they don’t like salespeople. The first thing a salesperson of today needs to learn is that you don’t sell people, you help them select. They chose to buy from you, you don’t sell to them. And that is a substantially differently way of doing business then it was 10 years ago.
Secondly, when a customer does enter a store today, the numbers are overwhelming, 85% to 90%, that they have already researched the products on the sales floor online. That means that if they are in your store, you have already made the first cut. The question now becomes, will every touchpoint reinforce the reason they walked through the front door or weaken it? It only takes one issue to destroy a possible relationship. And that one factor could be anything from a dirty corner to a bathroom that isn’t clean to an attitude of someone in the back office. It could be any one of dozens of things. That’s because we live in a cynical society where people look for reasons not to like you.
TF: What’s your take about how consumers feel about floor coverings versus the way they felt about them 10 years ago?
Ramey: The concept of passion is fascinating. There are many who are passionate about design and there are people who are passionate about carpet or hard surface, but for us to assume our customers are remotely passionate about floor covering is a little absurd. Sadly, unlike foodies and unlike wine and art collectors, no one collects floor coverings. It’s a category people need when they need it. No one says, “I got carpet last week and I can’t wait to shop for carpet again.” Here’s the opportunity, however. Because the period between when a customer needs floor covering and has to have it and the time they start thinking about it is long, that presents an opportunity for floor covering showrooms to start creating desire to do business with them. And that may be the golden opportunity. It’s not like the situation when one says, “I’m hungry, what restaurants are close?” It’s, “I’m thinking about carpet or hardwood or ceramic tile and I’m going to start to look around.” So it’s about tying into that gestation period and creating the desire for that customer to do business with you, so when the time comes when they will be buying the product, they can’t imagine doing business with anybody else. And if you can do that successfully, you will always thrive.
Editor’s note: As mentioned, there is more to this conversation than space permits. Check out the entire interview by visiting www.TalkFloor.com and clicking on the Floor Radio tab.
We’d love to hear your feedback of this and other conversations you’ve watched or listened to on the site, as well as any people or companies you’d like to see interviewed. You can contact Dave Foster at firstname.lastname@example.org.