Vinny Virga
As it celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, Flooring America bares little resemblance to the organization that started it all. Launched by a small collection of retailers in 1986 under the Carpet Max banner, the goal was to gain clout for independent stores without surrendering autonomy. Now, with 575 Flooring America (or Flooring Canada) stores on its membership roster, and backed by the resources of its parent company, the Manchester, N.H. based retail giant CCA Global Partners, Flooring America has a formidable presence in the industry. NFT spoke to the co-op's president Vinny Virga about the retail groups' position after 20 years.

How would you access the state of Flooring America?

Overall, business is extremely good. Our members have been seeing double digit increases for the past few years and we continue to expand.

Over the past few years we have worked to build Flooring America as a national brand. Three years ago, fewer than 40 percent of our members had "Flooring America" in their name. Now it is close to 80 percent. We have worked together to build a national brand identity. We want every one under one banner. Certainly there is on-going pressure on all flooring retailers including our members. That is why it is so important to have a consistent strategy, which is a benefit for our members.

As for the future, we are very optimistic. Still we are aware that challenges will be at hand. The building [and construction] market, for example, could see some softening this year.

Does your strategy involve expanding your membership?

We spend a significant amount of time attracting new members partly because we are very selective about who we invite to join. I personally attend every symposium for new members. It is a two-day meeting to determine if a perspective member is qualified to join. Of course we are looking for things like a good credit rating and a good business history, but we are also looking for those retailers who will represent the Flooring America brand well and can execute the programs we have in place.

Our goal is to increase membership to 750 by the year 2008. We are doing a number of things to reach the goal. We attend Surfaces and we also reach out to potential members through a sales force of regional member directors. We would love to hear from any flooring retailer who is interested in joining us

What role has technology played in your operation and where do you see it going?

One of the great advantages of being part of a company like CCA is that we have access to many of the retail programs they have developed. In technology that means [the retail software package] Revelations, which CCA developed in conjunction with Microsoft.

We are still in the process of rolling out Revelations so it is premature to say what type of overall effect it will have for our members. Some members who have been using it tell us it is phenomenal.

Industry-wide, technology is being built one module at a time-like a Frankenstein being bolted together. That's what makes Revelations so unique. This is something that is being introduced for our entire membership. That way, we will have consistency.

Overall, how would you describe Flooring America's relations with manufacturers?

We enjoy a number of strategic partnerships that enable our members to use products and pricing as a way to differentiate themselves. There are going to be issues from time to time, but overall our relationships are strong. We try to work with [manufacturers] to create extra value for our members and have enough product to satisfy different needs.

How have your members been affected by the wholesale price increases announced last year?

It added some complexity. But, at the end of the day, if the price increases are passed along to the consumer, then the profit increases as well. We looked at it as an opportunity to increase profit. This is also area where technology plays a role because it is very important to make sure the changes are made quickly.

Another issue involves builder orders that are placed in advance. You agree on a price so even if your costs go up you have to stick to the agreed upon price. I don't like to play Monday morning quarterback, but is something that should be addressed.

What changes would you like to see in the industry?

We compete for discretionary income so I would always encourage fresh new styles in our products. We have a wide demographic that we appeal to-an age group of 35 to 65-and we need to follow fashion trends and stay current. We also need to reinforce that message with a marketing effort that drives the consumer to the store. That is why we are doing 30 minute infomercials and as well as direct response ads.

What sets Flooring America apart?

We are world class merchandisers. Our members know how to differentiate themselves in their market. And this is also a co-op that is owned by its members so everything we do is geared toward the members.