Product displays mimic artwork in the tileart showroom. Vignettes combine idea boards with other decorative items that will comprise a room setting.
A number of years ago, I received a call from Nan and Keith Bieneman, a young couple in Madison, Wis., who had an idea for a tile business. We chatted for a while on the phone and then they offered to come visit me to talk some more. We met for lunch and talked for a long time about the idea.

Back then, their idea sounded risky to me. But it proved to be a risk worth taking. Today, their business is right on target and doing well.

So, you're probably wondering, what was their idea? Niche marketing! What the Bienemans do is hardly rocket science, but they do have a few tricks of the trade.

Their business is called "tileart: a personalized tile design service." As soon as you see the name, you know that their business is something different. Right up front, they establish that they're selling art, personalization and service -- not just ceramic tile!

Tabletop displays at tileart generally feature a specific theme or color. Loose pieces of tile invite the customer to handle the product and get an intimate feel for its properties.

The tileart story

Nan started the business from her home in 1995. She worked with clients on a one-to-one basis, designing their tile projects and overseeing the installation of what she sold. After three and a half years, she was generating a healthy income and wanted to expand to a retail site.

That's right about the time that I met the Bienemans. Keith was working as an engineer. He also had an MBA, so he was able to write a business plan for his wife. They had talked to bankers, located a site and were ready to go into business.

They had seen an article I had written and decided to ask my opinion of their idea. What did I think? I have to admit, I was concerned that they might be overextending themselves. Back then, Madison had yet to develop a high-end market for ceramic tile. I politely tried to temper their exuberance.

As time passed, I would run into Nan at Coverings or receive a mailer from her. Her enthusiasm never waned as she shopped tirelessly for product lines that were unusual and unique. Her selection process was based upon exclusivity and design, rather than opting for "the same old thing that all of my competitors have."

She finally branched out into retail by renting a corner of a high-end kitchen distributor's facility in Madison. I thought that was a wise choice. After one year, she went on her own in a tiny, 600-square-foot storefront. Madison was growing by leaps and bounds, and the remodeling/renovation market was expanding too. Nan seemed to be well on her way.

Today, tileart is located in a trendy shopping area of Madison -- Monroe Street at Knickerbocker Place. Keith has joined the business full time. Their risk-taking rewarded, tileart is a thriving business that may outgrow its current location in a short time.

A formula for success

When I asked Nan and Keith what makes their business so special, they shared a few key aspects with me.

1. True to the name of the business, the Bienemans treat tile as art! While a large percentage of their product lines are art tiles and handmade tile products, they do carry a number of lines that are basic to the ceramic tile business. But invariably, they display tile as art. While their rented space has fluorescent lighting for general illumination, the displays have spot lighting. Even floor tiles are mounted on panels that can be arranged with wall tiles, decos and other decorative elements that Nan coordinates for her customers.

2. Each project is personalized to the customer's tastes and environment. Nan works by appointment, and requires that her customers bring in their measurements and samples of any other materials they may be using on their projects. During this initial appointment, Nan presents products suitable for the installation and works to refine the selection of tiles. At the conclusion of this visit, the customer has a ballpark figure of what the project will cost. If the client decides to proceed, the Bienemans secure a retainer based on the amount of time they will invest in designing the layout and producing the computer-aided design (CAD) drawings.

3. From there, Nan assembles a unique design for the project and Keith produces CAD drawings (which remain the property of tileart). Once the customer accepts the project, an additional 50 percent retainer is needed to order the tile. Most jobs are subcontracted by tileart, as shoppers quickly discover that not all installers want to tackle the intricacy and custom nature of the Bienemans' designs.

Subcontracting service is something they are only too happy to provide. Doing so ensures that their designs will be installed just as intended. Typically, the customer is delighted to be relieved of having to find an installer and oversee the project.

Over the years, tileart has assembled a growing stable of professional installers with whom they subcontract. "It took a while for them to trust our CAD drawings," says Keith, "but now they know [the plans] are accurate and can save them time." The drawings are so intricate, in fact, that they show each and every piece of the installation. And when adjustments are required, they're much easier to make on a computer.

The Bienemans meet with clients by appointment only on Mondays. They try to reserve that day of the week to go out in the field and check on the jobs in progress. On other days of the week, they split their time doing field checks so the showroom can be open. They have recently branched out into pre-cast cement countertops, sinks and other kitchen and bath products. Countertops in zinc and copper are also available. Such products give the Bienemans freedom to specify odd sizes and shapes, add inlays, texture edges, and generally push the envelope on this rapidly growing segment of the countertop industry.

Ceramic tile product lines are chosen for their exclusivity and ability to blend together. Nan says they rarely have an issue with pricing because their competitors primarily carry basic tile types and remain focused on sales volume. Their unique marketplace niche allows tileart to stick to what they know best -- the unique and different!

The tileart showroom is, of course, very artsy and displays a wide variety of wall and floor tile panels like framed artwork. All of the tables have tile surfaces, and a new reception desk displays the pre-cast cement countertops.

Advertising for the company follows the art route too. The Bienemans recently started advertising in the local theater playbill "Footlights." The cover ad illustrates a new line of glass mosaics that are also displayed on a tabletop in the showroom.

While this story has been about a ceramic tile showroom, the lessons it illustrates can be applied to any floor covering business. Some key points to keep in mind are:

Know your market. Once you do, select your product lines to service that market. Don't be tempted to choose a new line just to compete with a competitor. If you do, you'll immediately step into the pricing game.

Personalize your sales approach to fit what the customer needs. This is exactly the opposite of selling just what you have! Listen to what the customer tells you. Most can't respond articulately or honestly to questions about budget. So forget about dollars for a while and create something that fits the customer's personality. Once she falls in love with your suggestions, the customer will find a way to pay for it!

Create a service offering that sets you apart from your competitors. Identify what makes you different from the competition. Once you find it, the playing field narrows and you're not just competing on price.

If you follow these simple steps you'll find yourself with the right kind of business -- a profitable one. Once you get to that level, you can concentrate more on enjoying what you do.