To get a uniform look, Milwaukee-based Lexco Tile & Supply had custom racks made without any brand name showing.

Effective display of product is an age-old topic. At least it seems that way to me, and I’m not that old. But I’ve been working on this process since I graduated from design school and landed my first job working for a kitchen remodeling firm with three showroom locations in suburban Pittsburgh. I had designed this exotic kitchen for my final project at school, so Joe and Dottie Martino hired me to be the design guru for the remodeling of their showrooms.

I learned a lot in that first job or, perhaps I should say, from my first presentation to Dottie. She rejected my first plan as being too ordinary.

“Give me something that will WOW them,” she said. “This is what they already have at home. It’s nice, but it’s not what they’re dreaming about!”

I must have learned the lesson well, because we constantly sold what was on display. That’s the idea, isn’t it? To SELL! I think sometimes retailers forget that they are selling product. They seem more focused on displaying product. The prime objective of many is to cram more and more displays and samples into their showrooms. It’s no wonder that consumers feel confused and baffled when they shop for floor covering.

So, what’s the best, and right, way to display products? The best way really centers on the product itself and its value. What’s the right way? Well, I’m not so sure there is a single right way to do it, but I’m certain there are a lot of wrong ways. I’ve spent time in the last month discussing the subject with manufacturers, distributors, retailers, and designers, and now I’ll endeavor to put this issue into terms and ideas that you can use in your own operation.

This rolling display can be wheeled anywhere within te Lexco showroom, thus allowing for a change of scenery. Notice the photo board and dried wreath accessory that "soften" the tile's appearance.

Displays as consumer ‘confusers’

When it comes to floor covering stores, we inevitably talk about racks and display systems. Most agree that they’re an awful -- but necessary -- evil of the business. Why are they awful? Because they don’t romance the consumer! Basically, they serve as a filing system for the vendor -- something that allows retailers to know that they have all the products that the manufacturer has to offer.

Consumers, on the other hand, are looking for ideas and solutions to their floor covering dilemmas. Selling from a rack becomes confusing to them. Let me illustrate what I mean.

A few weeks ago, I visited a new floor covering store in the Milwaukee metro area. I was curious to see if this retailer had improved on the display and selling process that I’d experienced when I replaced carpet in my own home two years ago. I introduced myself as an interior designer and asked if I could just browse the showroom.

They were happy to oblige. I busied myself touring the showroom and kept my ears open to what the other customers were saying. (This kind of eavesdropping is something every retailer should do on a regular basis -- even at a competitor’s store!)

The first shopper walked in. The salesperson asked, “Can I help you?” The customer replied that she just wanted to “look around.” She wandered over to where I was, and camped out in front of a vinyl rack.

As I busied myself comparing samples, the woman said, “Oh! You must know what you’re looking for.”

“Don’t you?” I asked.

“Well, I’m not sure,” she answered. “You see, I hate the floor in my kitchen, so I though I’d stop in here to see if I could find something that I like better. But where do you start? Are all these samples OK for a kitchen floor? I mean, is this pattern too big? What’s it going to look like in my house? Will this go with Country? I wish they had pictures.”

She continued to wander aimlessly around the store and was once again approached by the salesperson. “No, I didn’t find anything,” she told him as she made for the exit. “I’ll stop in again some other time.”

The storeowner appeared. “What was she looking for?” he asked the salesperson.

“Just tire kicking,” he said.

Then manager came over to me. “Well,” he said, “I’m glad to see you’re finding something!”

I introduced myself and confessed my real reasons for being there. “Well, I don’t think you can use us as an example for your article,” he said. “We seem to be having trouble closing the sale. Do you have any suggestions?”

As I watched the staff in this store function, it became obvious to me that their biggest problem (aside from a glaring lack of sales training) was their tools -- or, more appropriately, their lack of tools. They had the manufacturer’s racks and displays to show their products, but none of them engaged and WOWed the consumer.

The shopper I encountered could have been sold. Remember, she said that she hated her kitchen floor and was hoping to find something better. To me, that sounds like someone who is ready to buy. Tire kickers don’t hate what they have and just pop into a store to look! The salesperson let her roam, but there was nothing there to WOW her and inspire her to buy.

Create a focal point that will WOW your customers! This fireplace graces the entrance to the Lexco showroom, even though fireplaces aren't among the product offerings. A small sign lets everyone know where to find this product. Exchanging products with allied business partners always makes for good business.

Rx for more effective displays

I think a few small vignettes that show floor covering samples and other decorative items would have kept that customer from walking out the door. Research shows that people have more things to do these days and less time in which to do them. When they shop, they are seeking an expert to help them wade through the jungle of product options. While it’s true that their No. 1 criterion is choice, it’s also true that too many choices can overwhelm them. An overabundance of samples results in a redundant hodge-podge of products.

The consumer’s second criterion is value. You should plan your product selection to appeal to your targeted customer base. This, in turn, means that providing value should also be a priority for your business. Your product selections should permit sufficient profit margins for you to operate your business and allow for the services you need to be offering the consumer. In short, that includes your visual displays.

The third consumer criterion is verification of choice. They want to hear that they’ve made the right choice, so don’t forget to reassure them of that! An easy way to ease past this last criterion is to position yourself as a trendsetter.

Your customers should be telling their friends, “I wouldn’t shop anywhere else for my floor covering than ABC Floors. They have the best selection of the most fashionable products!” Those display racks are probably holding plenty of fashionable products but they just don’t present them in the most advantageous light.

So how do you add the WOW? Small vignettes, created by putting together products in an interesting way, are the place to start. An effective vignette can be as small as 4 feet square with one or two walls attached. The walls can be a full 8 feet tall or even 4 feet high. The idea here is to combine your flooring products with other materials (try fabrics, wall covering and accessories) to show trend-setting ideas and concepts.

These vignettes can be for kitchens, or baths, or any other room in the house. They can also feature design themes, such as Country, Contemporary or Eclectic. Just glance through a few home d?r magazines, manufacturer’s literature, or ask some of the local interior designers to put together some displays for you. (Don’t forget to give them credit!)

These displays need to tell a story and give the customer an idea of how to use the products that she sees. Show the higher-end or unusual products in these displays. Relegate the run-of-the-mill products to the display racks.

Go beyond the current product trends, because you can’t be a trendsetter by showing what’s hot at the present moment. I guarantee the customers will either love it or hate it. The lovers will buy it, and those that don’t will give you a place to start in showing them something else. It will get you past the I’d-just-like-to-browse or I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it conversations.

Changing and rotating your displays also is crucial. Put out the new stuff and change items as often as you can. If you add wheels to the 4-foot vignettes I mentioned, you can reposition these displays in your showroom on a biweekly basis. The vignette’s relatively small size makes it economical to change because not that much material needs to be swapped out.

I recently interviewed a retailer who had a 900-square- foot showroom that contained a few racks and eight or nine small vignettes. This retailer augmented the vignettes with color-scheme boards and lots of photographs. Even though their business significantly expanded, they’ve only enlarged the showroom at their new location to 3,000 square feet. (The additional square footage was used to accommodate additional product categories, not more racks and displays.)

This owner’s philosophy is, “You don’t have to have all the bells and whistles. Use lots of photos from your jobs or suppliers, and get rid of sample boards that you don’t sell from in six months. Keep it clean, clear and concise!”

Some dealers I’ve contacted are looking into using their own displays, which have only the store name on them, to promote their own brand. They list the names of their manufacturers or suppliers separately, perhaps on a plaque as you enter the store.

“I’m building my image with the customer,” says one retailer who has adopted this strategy. “I’m the one they’re seeking for the fashion reputation, the reliable installation and the product selection. If the consumer is looking for a manufacturer’s brand, more than likely she’s just shopping price!"

Maintaining fresh displays

For those with larger showrooms, say 4,000 square feet or larger, I would suggest adding a showroom manager or attendant. This person’s job would be to keep the showroom up to date, making sure all the tools are there when the sales force needs them.

When your showroom reaches this size, you’ve undoubtedly invested a substantial sum of money in the program. At that point, the showroom becomes a business of its own and needs to be managed. This person should handle a variety of duties.

  • He should also act as a “receptionist” in qualifying customers as they call or come in the door.
  • Having qualified the prospect, he should direct the customer to the proper area and match him or her with the proper salesperson.
  • He should also ascertain how the customer got to your showroom (i.e., by referral, advertising, etc.).
  • He should zero in on who is buying the materials (i.e. builder, remodeler, specifier, or homeowner).
  • This person can chart your traffic hours, and thus determine when to send people to lunch, when to bring in extra help or when the staff can be out making calls.
  • Every showroom should have a brochure that includes hours of operation, plans by appointment, how long you’ve been in business, etc. The showroom attendant/manager could distribute this brochure to visitors or mail the piece to potential customers.
  • In his receptionist mode, the attendant/manager can also weed out the tire kickers or that 10 percent of customers who you shouldn’t allow to waste your time!
  • In time, this employee can be used to help in the marketing of your showroom by various means. He may serve as the contact who acts as your public service voice with the local newspaper or civic and professional groups. The possibilities are endless.

Displaying floor covering isn’t just about putting up a rack and hanging out a sign anymore. It encompasses everything from displaying, to merchandising to marketing. And we all need to get better at doing that job.