Do You Have What It Takes to Serve the ‘Custom Customer’?
Some consumers simply refuse to buy “off the rack.” Demanding, discerning and detail-oriented, these people will purchase floor coverings from the mill only when the goods aren’t run of the mill. To do otherwise just won’t satisfy their sense of style and individualism.
Serving the needs of such clients can pose a host of challenges for the specialty flooring retailer. But when those challenges are met to the customer’s satisfaction, the rewards to the retailer can be considerable — both personally and financially.
According to Mike Nelson, manager for a Chicago branch of the 18-store Olson Rug & Flooring chain, customers who seek custom floor covering installations are willing to pay whatever it takes to make their desires a reality. “In most cases, if you satisfy them, price is not a consideration,” he says.
But it’s more than just the money that makes custom work worthwhile to some retailers. “Custom jobs are more fun and rewarding for me,” notes Todd Krumm, store manager of Pierce Flooring & Design in Billings, Mont. “You really put a part of yourself into the work and it gets noticed.
“Plus, it’s fairly common to get referral business from people who’ve seen one of our custom jobs in the home of their friends.”
What’s involvedCustom flooring installations can take a variety of forms. Some jobs involve mixed media, such as a combination of ceramic and hardwood. Custom hardwood floors may feature multiple species, medallions or laser-cut inlays. Some customized ceramic and resilient floors — particularly in commercial applications — feature waterjet-cut images or logos. Specialized fabricators also have the capacity to laser etch materials such as ceramic and stone with images of near-photographic quality.
Although Olson Rug & Flooring is a full-line retailer, most of the custom work Nelson’s store does — which accounts for roughly 10 percent of his total business — is carpet related and usually involves the addition of borders. Although he has dabbled in custom laminate floors, Nelson prefers carpet because “it’s the most forgiving to work with.”
Five to 10 percent of the sales volume at Pierce Flooring & Design is customized flooring, Krumm reports. Most of those jobs, he says, take the form of tile border work.
Many retailers who perform custom floor installation view it as a lucrative sideline to their overall business. But for some, customization is a far more substantial endeavor. Gene Royer, of Palm Desert, Calif.-based Floorcovering Consultants Group, says custom flooring accounts for approximately half of all his installations.
Royer works with all types of flooring materials in his custom work. Some jobs that require laser- or waterjet-cut components are sent to third-party fabricators. “It works pretty smooth,” he says. “We get volume rates from them and then add an additional markup.”
Benefits to the business“You can add 10 to 15 percent in gross profit through custom work,” Royer adds. “And because we do jobs that the big boxes won’t touch, we don’t need to worry about competing on price with them. It’s a real leg up for me in my business.”
“You definitely can make a better margin on custom work,” Nelson agrees. “And in the case of custom carpet, it also increases the total job ticket because more material is required. You have to make sure you specify enough carpet to accommodate the design — enough so that it can be done in big pieces so that it doesn’t look choppy once it’s installed.”
And because such work requires the specialized skills of highly experienced installers, Nelson adds, custom jobs also come with increased labor costs “which we get a cut of as well.”
Intuitively, one might assume that serving the demanding custom customer could lead to complaints and callbacks if the installation does not turn out exactly as the client envisioned. However, that assumption isn’t necessarily an accurate one.
“It’s true that [custom clients] are more particular, more demanding and have greater attention to detail,” Krumm says. “But actually, custom jobs are less subject to complaints because the customer has done her homework and knows what to expect. She’s not like the person who buys based on a sample and really doesn’t know what the floor will look like until it’s installed.”
Because it’s “mostly a matter of cutting and seaming,” carpet customization is rarely the cause for complaint, Nelson says. “These custom jobs are not typically any more problematic than ordinary ones. In fact, we haven’t had a problem with one yet.”
Pitfalls and special considerationsBut adding customization to one’s menu of flooring services is not a decision that should be taken lightly. “It’s not all gravy,” Royer cautions. “You bear other costs, particularly in project management, to earn those additional revenues that custom jobs bring in.”
Royer maintains a staff of senior and junior project managers who take a hands-on approach, routinely going on site to ensure that each job goes in correctly. “A lot of these jobs are very complicated,” he explains. “You can’t just send a crew out to do custom work [and assume it will go off without a hitch]. That could get you into a lot of trouble.”
“If you’re going to get into customized floor installation,” Nelson advises, “make sure you have installers skilled enough to handle the job.”
Olson Rug & Flooring employs the services of 35 to 40 independent installers who are dispatched to jobs according to the difficulty of the project. “Our warehouse manager knows what they can do and he assigns them jobs accordingly,” Nelson says.
Krumm agrees with Royer that project management is crucial, particularly with regard to timing and procurement of materials. “It can take a lot more time to obtain the right goods, many of which we don’t stock, and to line up the right installer for the job,” he explains. “Whereas a regular job can be scheduled within a few days, a custom job might take months. You just need to tell the customer what to expect ahead of time.”
Getting your feet wetFor retailers just starting out in flooring customization work, Royer offers the following rule of thumb: “Start small and slow — you can’t pick it up overnight.” An industry veteran of roughly 35 years, Royer incrementally took on custom jobs over the years as his knowledge of custom work grew and he became familiar with the specialized skills of installers with whom he contracts. As one who has already “been there, done that,” he offers a litany of sage advice to newcomers.
“Take advantage of installation and product seminars offered by manufacturers and distributors to build a general knowledge of what can be done and how to do it. This also gives you a feel for the supplier’s willingness and ability to support your efforts in custom services,” Royer says.
“Also, get familiar with the special skills of the installers you use so that you can deploy them appropriately,” he continues. “Build up a roster of highly specialized installers. Check their references.”
Above all, he says, don’t bite off more than you can chew. “Be careful that you’re only accepting work you’re qualified to do — this isn’t [a line of work] where you want to be experimenting on the job site.”
Because clients typically approach the retailer with a custom job already in mind, much of the work is consumer driven. “We don’t really market the fact that we have the ability to do custom work,” Krumm says. However, he does maintain a custom tile display in the showroom that elicits customer interest.
“We market our custom services,” Royer counters. “Our past projects serve as references.” He also maintains a “brag book” of distinctive custom installations to show clients. And as a member of the StarNet Commercial Flooring Cooperative, he also gets referrals from that group.
In the final analysis, success in flooring customization may not be a complete slam dunk. However, it does represent an attractive opportunity for those willing to learn how to do it right.
“Custom work is getting more popular — a lot of customers are no longer settling for a ‘Plain Jane’ installation, and they’re willing to pay the price for something unique,” Royer says. “If you don’t offer the service, someone else will.”