The flooring industry faces some tough headwinds – increased competition from home centers and new alternative suppliers entering the market; industry consolidation across manufacturing, distribution and retail; Amazon and other online shopping outlets; a severe shortage of qualified installers both in the short- and long-term; and new technology, products and innovation that require constant training and education. We’ll tackle all of them in this column at one time or another.
I’ve had the good fortune to speak with literally hundreds of flooring retailers and manufacturers over the course of my career, and I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned from them. But most of all, I’d love to get your feedback, address your concerns, talk about the issues that impact you most.
For now, let’s start with something you face every day: Increased competition. Turn any corner and you’ll find home centers, both national and regional; hardware stores; lumber yards; online sellers; price clubs; home decorating centers; and, sometimes even your own installers. They all sell flooring and they all have reputations for selling at low prices.
Where do you fit in and how do you stand out?
There’s a great quote I like: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” I think that applies to your business as well because if your store doesn’t stand for something – be that great service or selection, decorating help, high fashion and style, great prices, quality installation (anything at all that distinguishes you in the marketplace), it’s difficult for consumers to, number one, find you, and number two, trust you.
If your standing in the community is important to your store’s identity, as it is for so many family-owned flooring stores, make sure your customers know that. Have a photo of the Little League team you sponsor? Put it up where customers can see it. Participate in the local charity? Let it be known. No need to brag about it, but do let people know you are part of the fabric of your community.
One thing that stays the same even as the world spins dizzyingly all around us is the love we have for our friends and neighbors, for our hometown; and for our country.
Share your authentic story – how you started and when, how you’ve grown to be a part of the neighborhood, how you built a business from the ground (floor) up. Celebrate yourself, who you are and where you come from. Do it humbly but genuinely and I think you’ll find customers will not only appreciate you for it, they’ll reward you for it.
Social media is the perfect place to share that authentic story. Don’t sell, instead engage. Talk about Bobby’s in-the-park home run that won the 9-10 year old division game; take a picture of Joe’s Flooring Marauders sharing an ice cream cone after the game; ask Mrs. Jones if you can post a picture of her on her beautiful new floor, share a photo of your installers looking proud after a great install.
You can probably find a neighborhood home page/group chat on Facebook. Find yours. That is the perfect place to share such stories. Again, don’t sell but rather engage. Talk about things that are of interest to the community. Host a special event – pet adoption drives, a parking lot art show, organize a park clean-up day – whatever it is, invite the town to join you.
Stand for something. Share your story. Let people know who you are and why you’re here. That’s how you stand out from the crowd in a genuine way that will drive your business forward.
Next up is, how do you compete against these oftentimes giant retailers with massive advertising budgets?
Many of the more successful retailers I know are not afraid of Big Orange. In fact, they welcome them. Sounds nuts? Here’s why it isn’t.
These large retailers spend a lot on advertising to drum up traffic. While they do offer a good selection, not everyone wants to buy their flooring at a home center. In fact, many prefer exactly what you offer: Personalized service with a deep knowledge of not only flooring but of the broader home furnishings trends.
They also want better quality goods. Take carpet. People are buying less and less of it as it moves upstairs into bedrooms. At the same time, since they’re buying less, they’re willing to spend more. Help them. They’ll thank you for the upgrade. Home centers don’t offer a very wide selection of carpet. Chances are you do.
Want to talk about confusion? You only have to mention waterproof flooring. Even industry veterans can hardly explain the differences between LVT, SPC, WPC, MLF, rigid core, stone core, and whatever else comes next. Oh, and waterproof laminate has joined the fray as well.
Consumers? They’re often completely lost. Which is best for what? How do costs compare and is it worth it? How long will it last? Which should I buy? Go to Houzz.com and see for yourself. You’ll find out how much confusion there really is in the market. Look at the kinds of questions consumers are asking and then train your staff to be able to answer those questions.
Plus, in the face of a lack of marketing and promotion on the part of branded mills, private labels are gaining a foothold. Go with the big brands and well-known suppliers and you may have a leg up that others won’t be able to match.
Home centers have another weakness you can use against them: a lack of accountability for the complete job.
If something goes wrong with an install in your store, chances are you’re probably on it pretty quick. Home centers? Not so much.
No one wants problems but they do arise. Consumers understand that. What they want are solutions. They want someone advocating for them in the event of a problem, someone to fix it fast.
Who’s in charge of claims over there at the home center? No one. At your store, chances are it’s you, the owner, or one of your senior managers. That matters. It may also be your best opportunity to turn them into lifelong customers. Solve people’s problems, and they’ll reward you with their future purchases. It’s very often that simple. Successful retailers know that. In fact, they take it to the bank.
Lumberyard, hardware store, price club flooring
Great deals at ridiculously low prices. And why not? I could offer low prices too if I didn’t have to worry about repeat business. One and done.
It’s not like that for you. This is not a sideline business – it’s the entire business. Everything rides on it. That’s often why no one, no one, and I mean no one, can beat you when it comes to flooring. You’re the expert. You’re the one who’ll be here tomorrow and 10 years from now (hopefully).
Long after that palette of cheap imports is sold, installed and maybe even replaced, you’ll still be there selling quality goods, quality installation and friendly service from people who live and work in the community.
That’s not a bad place to be.