As founder, CEO and chief mechanic of the company, my father wasn't hostile to technology. In fact he sent his oldest son to computer school in the late 70's. (Not me. The smart one, who's now a bank exec in Virginia.) But even back then when my brother Bill tried to woo him with tales of computers mapping his daily routes and organizing his invoices, dad just shrugged. "Not interested," he'd say. Computers, he'd readily admit, were the wave of the future. But this was, and still is, a duct tape and socket wrench kind of guy.
I can't quibble with the results-especially since they helped put me through college. Self-employed people tend to be hardy, keenly focused individuals who seldom have the luxury of experimenting with new gadgets. It's not fear. It's a mix of comfort level and priorities. They recognize that there is a fragile dynamic that keeps their business humming. Screwing around with it is not just a major pain in the butt. It's a distraction that can shift their focus away from more pressing issues like customers.
This, I am quite certain, helps explain the results of our B2B study, the first installment of which appears in this issue. Mindful that many retailers in the flooring business are lumbering into the information age like a beer league softball player rounding the bases on a hot day, we teamed with the World Floor Covering Association to better understand why. Using the resources of our BNP Media Market Research Division; we polled nearly 7,000 mostly senior level retail executives in the flooring industry. We were delighted at the sky high response rate, but were a little perplexed by some of the results.
Of course, by now everyone is sending emails and searching the web. But what is abundantly clear from the survey is that the next step up, truly integrated communications using the B2B Flooring Industry Standard (www.flooringb2bstandard.com), is still elusive. We found that awareness of systems designed for the industry is still quite low. We learned that retailers who can place orders on the Net still overwhelmingly prefer to pick up the phone. And we saw that only a small percent of the respondents described themselves as "highly automated."
The results do hold out hope for those trying to spur retailers into the land of high tech. When we invited retailers to tell us about a "success story" tied to their info systems, we heard gushing tales of lower overhead, time savings and customers finding the store through the internet. Granted, many of the comments heaped praise on rudimentary computer features that have been around for a decade or more, but change comes slow to an industry that predates indoor plumbing. And change comes particularly slow when people know there is no technology that can out shine the people who plug it in.
Indeed, when we asked what they feel sets their operation apart from the competition; the overwhelming response was "customer service." When we asked what they saw as the downside of B2B technology they said "loss of personal contact." This mentality may slow the inevitable move toward B2B platforms but it says something very encouraging about our industry.
It also helps me finally understand why my father, who resisted change, saw fit to add a slight modification to that old rotary phone on his desk. Hand written on a piece of masking tape was a two word reminder stuck right below the dial. "Be nice," it said. It was there for years and never needed to be updated.