Steve Simonson is a pioneer in the floor covering industry. He launched iFloor in 1999, later sold it, and immersed himself in dozens of e-commerce enterprises while always keeping his ear to the ground in the floor covering arena. We were able to sit down with Simonson recently to pick his brain a bit about entering the world of floor covering e-commerce today. The following are excerpts of the conversation that took place, which you can listen to in its entirety at floortrendsmag.com.
TF: What are your thoughts on the various floor covering websites that are out there today as opposed to when you launched iFloor?
Simonson: I do not pay super close attention to all of the various players. I think iFloor is dead again. The ones that are making moves are the players like Floor & Decor, Home Depot—it is the big boxes who are making the moves, but there is still plenty of room for the small guys. In general, and I say this carefully, specifically smaller enterprises—typically flooring stores who would like to have another channel of business especially—the pandemic has shut them down. They do not know what kind of investment it takes to make a true e-commerce website.
The vision for a typical flooring retailer—and I think this goes to any kind of retailer—it does not matter if you sell doors or floors or windows—but they all seem to think well, “I just need to have customers click the e-commerce box.” And they do the quickest and easiest thing they can. But that’s not really what e-commerce is. That is really more like taking your catalog or brochure and putting it online. As a result, the smaller are pretty much losing ground here.
There are very successful companies executing on this, the pure play model. Which means e-commerce only. They are not driven to brick-and-mortar; they are not driven to other channels; they are just what is now referred to as D to C, direct to consumer.
One of my friends in the U.K., Jason Ashby, runs a site called Floors Direct that is just exploding. They have done a great job on the model. Of course, the U.K. is a much smaller country, so logistics are significantly easier. So that level of expertise and disruption is possible for the small guys, but it is not possible if somebody does not really commit to the technology and the infrastructure and the execution that is required. That is why I think a lot of these big boxes, including Wayfair, are taking a great deal of market share.
TF: From the scuttlebutt I hear, there are dozens and dozens of successful brick-and- mortar retail stores that have pursued e-commerce, but once they see what is involved in terms of investment, they have become uninterested.
Simonson: There are a couple of things. First, when the bill shows up, whether it is a bid ahead of time or ongoing, the reaction is, “Gosh, I had no idea it cost this much,” and it is a shock. Part of that is because it is a different business. The dream is that if we have a website, we have completed our web strategy and we are done. Well, that is just not the case. You have to drive traffic. You need to drive the points of contact for customers. There is a leads funnel where you drive awareness at the top of that funnel. As you move down there is some sort of engagement activity, whether its samples, visiting the store, ordering samples online, it could be telephone calls for engagement, but you move the customer down that conversion funnel. And at the end, there is some sort of buying decision and ideally the conversion is to a sale.
That is the life of a flooring shopper online. People start at the top with, I am interested in research, and that is the same as it was 20 years ago. The shopper says I am curious about what my options are for my home. The retailers that are the best at it, the retailers that are the smartest and willing to insert themselves into that discovery funnel, at the top of the funnel, in the awareness phase will offer so much valuable information and develop an online relationship that are able to influence the customer’s buying decision, whether that becomes online or driving to one of their stores. That is how it works. And it has worked like that for 20 years. I think it is actually accelerating online commerce and the pandemic has moved it even faster.
I guess another barrier for the smaller guy is the inventory that one has to have on hand at this point to even be able to complete. That is an investment that few can really afford.
TF: Much has been written about 5G. I imagine speeds will continue to get faster and faster going forward. What does this mean long-term? How do you see this changing e-commerce in general as speeds have increased?
Simonson: Speeds will continue to change and get faster going forward. Just like in the in the old days when were stuck with very slow speed, you could not see video online. As speeds continue to increase, we will see massive change. I think augmented reality or virtual reality will absolutely be dominating in 10 years, especially for the categories we are in. Now, it is still not high enough resolution but 5G has the promise of bringing mobile speeds up to wired speeds. In ten years, it will be faster still. If anybody has an iPhone 10, 11, 12, they know that thing is like a Ferrari in your pocket. And I am sure Android has similar offerings. That paired with the speed will make everything change. And for anybody who is ever put on an Oculus, the virtual reality headset, it just transforms your world, and that technology will come to shopping and e-commerce. Absolutely. In the next 10 years.