Inset photos: These custom designs were rendered, via ultrasonic cutting, from vinyl composition tile. Photos courtesy of American GFM.


Custom flooring options can include an unusual installation pattern in a single material.
For retailers, custom floor coverings represent an opportunity for higher margins, a break from commodity structure and a shorter replacement cycle. And fortuitously, flooring is poised to become the next bastion of customization for homeowners. Having already applied custom treatments to walls and countertops, designers and homeowners today view the floor as one of the last blank canvases remaining in the home. Increasingly, they are experimenting with flooring customization.

But to effectively sell custom flooring solutions, the industry needs to understand and focus on the purchasing style of female consumers. It is women, after all, who make up the primary demographic among floor covering purchasers.

By the time a woman walks through the doors of your flooring store, she has likely scoured countless magazines that describe how other women have reflected their personalities through the décors of their homes. She probably has watched hours of home decorating programming on cable television and conducted Internet research to become a smarter shopper. It's also quite possible that she has visited home products showrooms and sought opinions from friends about how they selected their prized interior pieces.

Stone medallions constitute another custom flooring option.
When she arrives at your store, she already knows she wants a home environment that reflects her lifestyle, aspirations and personality.

What I've just described is the process of how a female consumer purchases home interior products. It is defining new service criteria that we in the flooring industry need to recognize. In the past, it may have been sufficient to simply present a variety of products, provide good service and offer attractive prices.

But today, women consumers are looking for something more. The home is an expression of her self-esteem. Finding out about the environment she is creating, and her specific vision of how the room should look, will guide you in proposing the right product for her needs.

Our industry, unfortunately, is still too focused on features and benefits such as the wear layer of the wood, the thread count of the rug or the durability of the carpet. The female consumer, on the other hand, might design an entire room around a single vase that evokes a certain feeling she is striving to create.

Can I put myself in the place of the woman with the vase? No. But when I step back and try to understand her motivation and her purchasing habits, this scenario provides valuable insight into how I need to sell to her.

Women want home interior products to reflect their individual sense of style. One woman may purchase a certain inlay medallion because it reminds her of the summer she spent in Paris. Another may look at that same design and feel it reminds her of the style of jewelry her favorite grandmother wore. Customizing a flooring solution for her needs does not necessarily require a custom design as long as she can identify the flooring choice with her personal style or what she is trying to accomplish with her interior.

Ultimately, what is important from a woman's viewpoint is how the flooring product will change her environment. She wants to understand how this product will help her complete the look or feel of the room, the lifestyle she desires or the design theme she's trying to portray in her home.

Mixed media, such as a stone medallion in a wood floor, are yet another custom flooring option.
Women want to connect and identify with a product. Floor covering retailers can and must do a better job of telling the story behind the rug color, the exotic wood origins and the border tile design. Women want information about the color pallet featured in the new carpet line, the inspiration of the tile designer, and the cultural influences of the new National Geographic rug collection. These are the kinds of stories that resonate with a female consumer and establish an emotional connection to the product.

Bamboo flooring manufacturers have done a good job of differentiating themselves by telling the "green" story of renewable resources. And one of the reasons a woman who purchases a bamboo floor does so is because she connects with this story of environmental responsibility -- and she relays that same story to friends who visit her home.

Women want details. Women want to learn. According to Home Depot, women make up 65 percent of participants in that retailer's how-to classes. Women want to learn and they will glean information from a variety of sources in the process.

The recent proliferation of home design media feeds this need. The number of publications, cable programming and Web sites dedicated to home design has increased dramatically over the last five years. When contemplating an interior product purchase, female consumers incorporate all they've learned into their everyday lives, noticing the flooring in spas, galleries and hotels they visit.

Consider the Viking range phenomenon that has made professional-grade ovens commonplace in kitchens. Women first noticed the ovens on cable cooking shows, in the open kitchens of the high-end restaurants they visit and in the homes of friends.

Insets and mixed species can make for a one-of-a-kind custom floor.
Women rely on word of mouth. The "girlfriend factor" has been well documented. Seventy percent of women learn the most about new products from someone who owns one, according to the Yankelovich international marketing firm. Women are three times as likely as men to recommend brands when they know friends are looking for a particular product or service, according to another marketing company, the Intuition Group.

Remember the woman with the vase? I guarantee she tells friends about the retailers that were helpful in her quest to design a room to match.

So what does all this mean on the showroom floor? Essentially, once you recognize these traits, you can start to use them to your advantage.

Further educate yourself on the purchasing habits of female consumers. To aid you in that effort, I've included a list of resources with this article to get you off to a good start.

Rethink the questions asked on the sales floor. Focus on a woman's lifestyle and the personal style of her room -- that's different from selling on features and benefits. Do the questions you ask invite her to explain what she is trying to accomplish? Ask her what she is trying reflect. Is this a formal space? What is the feel of her home? Is she contemporary? Traditional? What is her inspiration?

Align your training. If your sales training is still focused on features and benefits, consult my list of resources to identify new training tools.

Refrain from making snap, one-size-size-fits-all recommendations. Don't make a custom flooring suggestion until you've had an opportunity to ask the right questions and listen to her answers. Partner with the customer to help her succeed in her quest to find those design elements that solve her problem.

Give her something to talk about. From the time she walks through the door to the time the installation is complete, make sure her entire experience is positive. This is the No. 1 influencer of additional sales. She WILL talk about her experience with friends. Make sure she has something positive to relay.

Stay in touch with her. Consider a sending out a customer newsletter, or hosting subsequent open-house events or workshops. Again, gear the content toward how a custom floor covering can be used to reflect her personal lifestyle.

Appeal to her need for information. Consider hosting evening or weekend presentations by a designer to cover flooring and decorating trends. If you don't have in-house expertise, many local designers would welcome the opportunity to get in front of an audience of potential customers who are in the process of redecorating.

Be a problem solver. The female consumer comes to your store not necessarily to buy products but to solve a problem -- specifically, how can she create the environment she wants? How can she continue her Mediterranean design theme? Today's plethora of flooring choices has created confusion for the customer. Help her sort through the noise.

Change the dialogue. When I visit flooring retailers, too many of the owners and staff are still asking, "How is my competitor across town doing?" or "What are they charging for this product?" The industry has to leave this mentality behind and start having a dialogue about truly connecting with the ultimate customer -- women -- in a way that addresses their needs.

Clearly, this approach will take longer to win a new female customer but, once you do, she's more likely to remain loyal, provide repeat business and tell her friends. It requires a different way of thinking. But it is the difference between winning a sale and winning a customer.

Additional Resources on Purchasing Habits of Female Consumers

Books and Reports
  • "EVEolution" by Faith Popcorn and Lys Marigold. Hyperion, 2000.
  • "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping" by Paco Underhill. Simon & Schuster, 1999.
  • "Segmenting the Woman's Market" by Janice E. Leeming and Cynthia F Tripp. Probus Publishing Co., 1994.
  • "Marketing to Women" by Martha Barletta.
  • "Women's Market Handbook." Gale Research, 1994

Newsletter

  • Marketing to Women published by EPM Communications Inc. www.epmcom.com

Web sites

  • Business and Professional Women USA at www.bpwusa.org/content/workplace/FactsandFigures/101Facts
  • ReachWomen at www.reachwomen.com
  • Shell US Poll (a survey of men's and women's attitudes on a variety of subjects) at www.shellus.com/products/poll/pdf/Women_On_The_Move.pdf
  • The TrendSight Group at www.trendsight.com