"You can observe a lot by watching."
Of the many philosophical gems attributed to N.Y. Yankee great Yogi Berra, this one may be my favorite. And it seemed most fitting as I sat in a darkened room watching, observing and, yes, eavesdropping on a gathering of retailers from the flooring industry.
The occasion was the first in a series of focus groups conducted jointly by National Floor Trends magazine and the World Floor Covering Association. I was among a handful of observers looking on through a one-way window as a moderator gently cajoled the storeowners into sounding off on a range of issues.
The retailers, who were selected at random, knew we were there but couldn't see us. At first they were a bit tentative. No one knew anyone else and each, apparently, had just put in a full day's work. But when one member of the group began recounting his efforts to please a fussy customer, others seated around the table smiled knowingly and nodded their silent agreement.
It had taken a few minutes, but the strangers soon recognized each other as colleagues. With that, a corporate conference room with an oversized mirror on one wall became a clubhouse whose members share the same aches and pains, triumphs and frustrations. When one in the group was asked why he got into the flooring business after years in another field, a veteran retailer had a ready answer: "He wanted to see what it was like to work seven days a week." This brought more nods and knowing smiles.
A big issue: Price. Specifically consumers who hunt for low prices the way sharks track minnows. "I had a customer tell me she found someone in the Pennysaver who would install a job for a lot less then me," recalled a retailer. "I said go ahead. Use him, you'll see. She did. He screwed up-and then she called me to fix it."
Upon hearing this, another in the group recounted his tale of low ball: "I bid $20,000 on a job and they told me they found someone for $12,000," he said with a tinge of annoyance in his voice. "I knew there was no way you could do that size job for that money. I figured I should call back in three weeks and ask if they want me to come and fix it."
Without exception participants in the two groups I sat in on were earnest, sincere and highly knowledgeable about the industry. Their commitment to their business and the pride they take from a job well done was evident. These were not slick talking MBA types focused solely on building profits. These were working people who'd sooner scratch out the figures on the back of an envelope than feed them into a PC.
But that's the rub. While the work ethic and the street smarts are easy to spot, areas like marketing and information technology are still not big priorities. When one retailer, for example, was asked how he knows what his customers want, he shrugged and said "They already know what they want when they call me." A valid point but it also reveals a mind set that leaves little room for incremental sales or efforts to trade them up.
Asked about inventory control, one of the participants described how he handles a roll of carpet 36 feet long: "We just write 36 on the back. If we sell 10 feet of it we cross out 36 and write 26." Another showroom boss noted that he had salesmen in their 70s,' and quipped: "Someone's gonna have to die before I can go high tech."
At the conclusion of each focus group, cards were exchanged and there were handshakes all around. The participants seemed delighted to have sat for a few hours to swap war stories. It was this moment of genuine camaraderie at the end that lead me to two conclusions about this business: First, it is largely comprised of salt of the earth types who may gripe and complain but love what they do. Second: This is a business badly in need of more information and better communication.
And this is precisely why we teamed with WFCA to conduct this comprehensive study and will use the findings to shape our editorial coverage. Remember: One man's success story is another man's blueprint. Yogi didn't say that one. I did.