John Gilbert was living an idyllic retirement as a gentleman farmer in Vermont when he received the call: would he be interested in running the Carpet One cooperative? “I’m not from a flooring background, so I was reluctant to engage,” he said. However, half a year into the initiative, he’s says he’s happy he took the leap. We spoke with Gilbert at the Carpet One Summer Convention where the former president of Romano’s Macaroni Grill and former CEO of Famous Dave’s shared a bit about what he’s learned and what’s in store for the independent flooring retailer.
FT: What prompted you to get into flooring?
Gilbert: So, my wife and I have this farm in Vermont. We were going to be like gentleman/gentlewoman farmers until that lasted about six months. This is really hard to do. These are fruit trees—the easiest kind of farming. It wasn’t to make money; it wasn’t a brilliant for-product venture, although it’d be nice to make a little bit, but I was just horrible at it. I was trying to do organic apples and my apples were all gnarly, bitten and diseased. I got a call about this job, and I am not from a flooring background. I was very reluctant to engage, or I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to go back to work.
I think my wife was one of the catalysts, but what was transformational for me was two things: one was the nature of the co-op. It’s like capitalism with a conscience, and I’m a capitalist. I liked that I could help members be more of who they want to be, not by some kind of command structure, but by being a peer, helping them with some of my experiences. The second was really the idea that this is an industry that felt like it was ready to be disrupted.
For part of my career, I was CEO for several turnaround situations getting disrupted—a very painful cycle. I want to get it back; I want to be the disruptor. I feel like the small independent retailer is in a good position to disrupt almost any industry. There’s a lot of momentum towards local and independent and specialization that I’ve seen in other industries and I feel like it’s present here.
FT: What can flooring retailers do to disrupt the market?
Gilbert: There’s a real hunger to understand how to connect with the next generation of flooring shoppers. They’re not going to shop like their boomer parents, Gen-Xers, uncles and aunts did. They’re going to do shopping a whole different way, like they are in every other category, so that’s cool. On the other hand, millennials are people, and there’s a human connection. There’s that sort of dialogue, and a big influence, big investment. There’s the measurement, there’s the installation. There are some sort of barriers to disruption. If we own that and can prevent others from getting in our space while meanwhile disrupting and enhancing ourselves.
FT: What does that look like?
Gilbert: We have some proprietary ideas around how we are going to disrupt…a lot of those enhancements are going to come from the digital side. There are investments required. There is a combination of things that we’re launching, some of which are not particularly proprietary, some of which are highly proprietary — things that no one has ever done in this industry, or any other industry, that I’m aware of. It’ll be obvious what it is fairly quickly, and it is different, and it will be noticeable.
FT: We spoke to some retailers who say one of their biggest hurdles is the speed of getting jobs installed. Where do you see opportunities for disruption there?
Gilbert: We’ve done a lot of research, and some aspects are immediately valuable. The idea of not having somebody come into my home to measure it, but still having an accurate measurement — I think that’s something consumers would want. There are lots of people who don’t want other people in their home. It’s intrusion. There are devices out there today that allow you to stand in the middle of your dining room to measure the room, and that gets loaded up to the cloud and then downloaded to the installer. The question about fast installation has come up a bunch. There are a lot of consumers who really want it done right; they don’t necessarily want it done fast. I do think there’s going to be this trade-off, but if everything’s equal, I don’t think there’s any question: do everything instantly, do it for me, and do it on my terms. I think for most shoppers, and younger shoppers, that’s what they want.
FT: We hear a lot about experiential retail. How much do flooring retailers need to invest to create a shopping experience?
Gilbert: That’s a good question. I think the primary investments will be digital. If you kind of did a forced ranking of the kind of fun, analog retail experiences, or brick and mortar retail experiences, we’d be way down at the bar. Car dealerships would have been way down in the bottom one time ago. I think buying a car now has kind of gone up in terms of how easy it is and fun it is. So maybe there’s some patterns here that we could look at and borrow from. I do think there is some required investment in the stores to make them more user-friendly and less cluttered and more consumer self-directed. I’m fascinated by the consumer taking more control even in our stores. I still think there are a lot of consumers, millennials specifically, who don’t want a sales pro if they don’t have to have one. It’s true in other places—I haven’t bought a car through sales pro in 15 years—it’s all digital, right? All those patterns I think are relevant and relevant to us and present with our customer base.