Consumers shopping for floor covering are anxious about high-pressure sales. They want information that reflects their individual needs and they say retailers-big and small-generally fail to follow up after a purchase to see if everything is okay. They note that specialty stores and big boxes each have their strengths and weaknesses.

The big boxes have a strong brand loyalty from consumers. They (consumers) know the big boxes will be there in the future to support them after the sale. After all, the big boxes have operations in many, many cities throughout the U.S.

Such are the findings of recently completed consumer focus group research that brings a clear picture of consumer buying habits shaping the floor covering industry. From the amount of research they do on the Internet to the time they spend visiting stores, the study takes an in-depth look at consumer purchasing habits at both big box and specialty flooring stores.

National Floor Trends and BNP Media conducted the focus group research for the World Floor Covering Association exploring consumer satisfaction with their recent flooring purchase; the process employed when shopping for flooring; attitudes and perceptions of consumers toward specialty retailers and big box stores as well as Internet usage.

Why are consumers buying floor covering at the big box stores such as Home Depot, Lowe's and Menards? The reasons most frequently cited during the focus groups were these:
  • Favorable retailer image
  • Convenient locations
  • One-stop shopping
  • In-stock selection
  • How-to classes for DIY projects
  • Price and special offers

    When asked to further explain their preference, participants stressed the importance of convenience. "It was like one-stop shopping for me because I was re-doing the kitchen," said a consumer from Minneapolis. An Atlanta focus group member said, "You went through and they helped you select it and basically set up the delivery and installation. It was real easy and real quick."

    It is also clear that the big box stores are working to entice shoppers. A comment from Phoenix: "I went to Home Depot not only because they had what I wanted and the price was right, but they had a how-to class on it." From San Francisco: "They had a special on free padding. Then they gave us a package." Another reason mentioned multiples times was the size of the company/store just in case the customer needed support after the purchase/installation.

    While big box shoppers said price was an important consideration, they also said they were looking for durability & lifespan; easy installation; easy cleaning and maintenance; product look (color, pattern, compatibility with existing décor); pet-friendly; and texture. Participants generally agreed that the weaknesses of the big boxes were poor service and the general in-store atmosphere.

    Asked about the advantages of the specialty retailer, focus groups members frequently cited these factors:
  • Product knowledge & customer service
  • Larger and more unique selection
  • Shorter lead time on installation
  • Negotiated pricing

    Participants who said they had made a purchase at a specialty flooring retailer gave the following reasons: "She brought them all out and it was great...I was surrounded by different styles...They helped me make a plan...They knew what the palettes were," said a Phoenix focus group member. More comments included: "I negotiated on price; I actually got a better price than the big box stores." "I went to a company where their name and reputation's at stake, so they make sure that it's well done." "It seemed like they had a better selection of unique carpets that what they have at normal stores." From Atlanta: "We had unfinished strip wood put everywhere, and for that we went to a specialty store that knew how to install that kind of wood flooring."

    Shoppers who favor specialty retailers identified many of the same priorities as big box shoppers but said they also had concerns about adding to the resale value of their house, the need for a top quality product as well as products that are unique or different.

    Whether their preference is for specialty retailers or big box stores, group participants said they shopped around visiting an average of three retailers during the purchase process (sometimes as many as five or six). They also tended to rely on the retailer to provide installation services. Both groups indicated they had high expectations for their flooring and said the ultimate decision was based on price, look and feel, cleaning and durability. The specialty store consumer also wanted uniqueness for their floor covering selection.

    Both big box stores and specialty retailers drew criticism for sales personnel that generally do not ask enough questions to help the customer select the correct product for her project and budget. Consumers also lamented the lack of post-purchase follow-up via telephone or mail.

    Focus groups participants were also asked how they use the internet when shopping for flooring. Generally they agreed that it was a good resource for gathering information but not the place to make a final purchase decision. The research findings related to the internet included these:

    A majority of group participants used the Internet to help research their latest flooring purchase.

    Nearly half of the consumers conducted a keyword search and identified Google as the top search engine. Common keywords included: flooring, carpet/carpeting, ceramic tile, laminate flooring, wood floors/hardwood flooring/solid wood flooring, porcelain tile, residential interior flooring, brand names (Pergo, Du Pont), a name of a retailer or flooring retailers/flooring installers (geographic), and stone flooring.
  • They most frequently looked online for the following: general product information: color, pricing, availability; product recommendations; design/project ideas; and DIY tips.
  • They stressed that a major weakness of Internet shopping is that it does not allow consumers to experience the look and feel of a product.
  • Some group participants visited a flooring retailer before went online.
  • Participants agreed that the Internet is a credible source by allowing access to all vendors and self-education.
  • The Home Depot ( and Lowe's ( websites were the most commonly mentioned.

    When asked what they expect from any flooring retailer they do business with, participants were clear: They want a "no-pressure" sales environment with a satisfaction guaranteed promise on workmanship and installation; knowledgeable salespeople who get to know their customers and understand their specific needs can make the difference; and a store to purchase their floor covering products from that will resolve product and installation issues today and tomorrow.

    SIDEBAR: About the Focus Groups

    The Consumer Research was conducted by BNP Market Research, which is a unit of NFT's parent company, BNP Media, for the World Floor Covering Association.

    The study consisted of 10 focus groups conducted in New York, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Phoenix and San Francisco from April 19 through April 27, 2006. The focus group participants were separated by customer type: big box or specialty flooring store with participants included in their respective group. Each of the participants were over 25-years-old, employed, homeowners, purchased flooring (excluding area rugs) for at least one room within the past six months, a decision maker in the flooring purchase, and purchased products or services online.

    The primary focus of the study is to explore end-user attitudes and behavior concerning their recent flooring shopping experience. Specific research objectives included: measuring consumer satisfaction with regard to their recent flooring purchase; determine the process used when shopping for flooring; explore attitudes and perceptions of consumers with respect to specialty retailers versus big box stores; and Internet usage.

    SIDEBAR: Shopping Experience: Big Box Shoppers

  • Variety/choice
  • Price
  • Knowledgeable staff
  • Availability
  • Speed
  • One stop shopping
  • Financing
  • Long opening hours
  • No sales pressure

  • The wait for help
  • Locating the same staff member
  • In-store atmosphere
  • Some felt staff lacked knowledge
  • Contracted-out installation
  • The 'run-around'

    SIDEBAR: Shopping Experience: Specialty Shoppers

  • Quality product
  • Good selection
  • Good customer service
  • Knowledgeable staff
  • Price
  • Good installers
  • Satisfied with finisher job

  • Delivery charge
  • Some had a long drive to the store
  • Time consuming
  • Disorganized stores
  • Spending money
  • Availability of special materials (e.g. porcelain)