Window of opportunity:
Retailers widen their view to include a new generation of window treatments
But, at the urging of one of its key suppliers, Mohawk Industries, the retailer made a bold move in late 2002: It added a selection of window treatments to the lineup.
Christoff & Sons president, Tom Christoff, says it was Mohawk's research that won him over. The company convinced him that there is a strong link between floor-related and window-related categories. He learned that consumers who are shopping for flooring are frequently mulling a change in their window coverings as well. He saw that products available went far beyond basic spring-loaded window shades. And he factored in a housing boom that is accelerating demand for all types of home products.
It all added up to a unique opportunity to expand the business without upsetting his core category.
Christoff, signed up for Mohawk's Custom Window Fashions program, and even began promoting his new enterprise at home builder trade shows, offering special deals and incentives to help drum up business. As a result, his store also picked up valuable field experience on how to measure and install window treatments. His objective, he says, was to position his store in the minds of Jackson-area consumers as a one-stop shop for home remodeling projects.
"During that promotion, we gave away $500 window treatments like they were candy," recalls Christoff. "When all was said and done, since we gave away around 100 treatments, I would say we broke even. But it really established us in our customers' minds. Because of that exposure, we now average 10 jobs a month and each job can vary from one to 20 windows. The profit margins on these jobs can be unbelievable."
Clearly, the experiment paid off. Christoff & Sons soon became the top seller of window coverings among Mohawk Floorscapes stores in Michigan. Equally important, his flooring business remains steady.
Christoff's experience illustrates the success possible for floor covering retailers who add window coverings to their portfolio. But before reaping the rewards, Christoff says, store owners first have to overcome the fear of the unknown and understand that involvement requires more than simply adding a display or two. A successful expansion into the window-related product demands a commitment to learning the category and marketing it to consumers. Managers must realize there's going to be growing pains, he says - in many ways it will be like starting from scratch.
"It's important to make a friend with someone who hangs window treatments for a living, and who will be willing to offer you help," Christoff advises. "It might seem like a hassle, but it's a busy, competitive world out there. The average floor covering store is seeing a one-digit profit margin. Whatever a store owner can do to bring that margin up, to 10 percent or more, is extremely valuable. That's why I started selling window treatments."
Christoff & Sons is one of 500 aligned dealers taking part in the Mohawk program, according to Mike Zoellner, Mohawk's vp of marketing services. With 3,500 dealers across the country and 30,000 stores selling Mohawk products, the percentage of Mohawk stores selling window treatments makes up a remarkably small piece of the pie. But Zoellner says he still considers the Custom Window Fashions program, which launched in 2002 and is gradually being rolled out to more stores, a success.
"This program is not for everyone," Zoellner says. "This is not for customers who want cheap plastic blinds for their windows. This is for customers who have just spent $5,000 on their floors and want to spend $1,000 more to make their windows coordinate."
Similar participation levels are being found elsewhere in the window treatments industry (Mohawk does not make its own window treatments - they are manufactured by Comfortex). Jim Swinehart, manager of national franchise accounts for window coverings behemoth Hunter Douglas, says that a mere 35 percent of the company's business comes from floor covering retailers, mostly from members of large retail groups including Carpet One, Abbey Carpet and Shaw Flooring Alliance. He adds that the level of participation among flooring retailers is increasing, albeit slowly.
"I don't think we've really hit the nail on the head yet," Swinehart admits. "As more and more floor covering retailers become successful at selling window treatments, word of mouth will spread, and then things should pick up."
Fear and uncertainty are the biggest obstacles in attracting flooring retailers to window coverings, Swinehart says. Many store owners balk at picking up a segment they perceive to be so far outside their experience.
"Retailers tell me again and again that they feel window treatments are too complex and that they'll require hiring a separate measuring and installation service, which will eat into the bottom line," Swinehart notes. "I try to sell them on the fact that there's a lot of money to be made with window treatments. The typical home now has 17 windows - that's up from 10 years ago when the average home had seven. Depending on how they sell it, retailers can make upwards of $2,000 profit on window treatments."
Stephanie Bunting, a sales representative for the Vertical Connection Carpet One in Columbia, Md., says that her store generates between 15 to 20 window covering jobs a month. With the current housing boom, some of these jobs can require up to 20 separate coverings, which brings in plenty of extra profit. The success at the Vertical Connection Carpet One may also be explained through a certain built-in advantage: when the store first opened 28 years ago, it was solely a window coverings store, transitioning into selling floor coverings 16 years later.
"There's a lot to learn in window coverings, and that can be a real challenge for floor covering stores," Bunting says. "There's lots of options, plenty of terminology to learn and many rules in measuring. You can't be an eighth of an inch off, or add an extra two inches, to a blind. It's critical to get it right the first time."
According to Becky Barch, communications director of window treatment maker Skandia Window Fashions, many of the retailers' fears can be allayed with basic training. She advises flooring retailers (which make up 15 percent of Skandia's customer base) to attend Skandia's SWIFT training program.
"The retailers that are successful are the ones who take the time, energy and money to train their employees and themselves on how to sell window coverings, how to order them and how to measure them," she says.
Millie Vickers, sales representative for Sharp Carpet and Ceramic Tile in Panama City, Fla., echoes that sentiment.
"It takes skill to measure for and install window treatments," says Vickers, whose store has sold window treatments alongside flooring for 15 of its 32 years. "Installation can be a hassle because there are so many different kinds of windows. Go out to the job, watch the installers at work and try to learn some tricks. See firsthand what the challenges are and how best to solve any problems that come up. If you can't do that, at least go to a seminar or class on window treatments, so you have an idea of what you're doing."
Above all, Vickers says, flooring retailers must be dedicated to incorporating window coverings into their store, if they want to find any success in the segment.
"It's hard work," says Vickers, who has worked for Sharp Carpet for the past three and a half years. "But just last month, I had shutters and other window treatments installed in a large house on the water for $15,000. Adding to that, we sell about 15 to 20 treatments a month. The results are worth it."