Diehard Red Sox fan that he is, Carpet One’s Howard Brodsky may cringe when he reads this, but his retail operation often reminds me of the N.Y. Yankees. While Carpet One most certainly does not share the Yankees’ penchant for swaggering and arrogance, the similarity is this: if the Yankees do anything less than win the World Series, their season is deemed a failure. Meetings are called. Changes are made. For Carpet One the goal is very similar. Time and again its members are reminded that the retail co-op’s ongoing mission is nothing less than complete and total domination of the flooring business. But like just about everyone else in the flooring game these days, Carpet One seems to have hit a rough spot on the schedule.

“Crappy,” is the word Carpet One president Evan Hackel used to describe current business conditions. His blunt assessment came last month during the co-op’s winter meeting in Grapevine, Texas. These meetings tend to be pretty upbeat affairs, but this time Hackel was sounding the alarm. His message: complacency and failure to recognize the changing nature of flooring could be a death knell for even the most successful operation. To drive home the point, huge video screens flanking the stage showed a mock graveyard. As the Ray Charles tune “Hit the Road Jack” played, close-ups revealed that each headstone bore the name of a once popular, but now defunct, brand. TWA, Montgomery Ward, NYNEX and a host of others that flashed by ominously.

“If we don’t change,” Hackel said as the huge room fell silent, “unfortunately some of our businesses won’t be around anymore.” In reality, many of the “changes” he spoke of have been in the works for a couple of years. Only now, faced with a slowdown in the business, there is greater urgency. For one thing, they lengthened the name to include “Floor and Home.” after “Carpet One.” Again and again members were told the name “Carpet One” must become synonymous with flooring. 

With nearly $3.9 billion in annual sales, Carpet One is easily the No. 1 retail-group in flooring. Still, at the three-day meeting there was a clear understanding that the traditional specialty retailing model is fast becoming a dinosaur. A strong web presence and a marketing pitch that establishes a real point of difference are major priorities for Carpet One. The thinking is that as business has softened from a year or two ago, there is still demand for quality flooring. As such, a big priority is to lure customers away from the competition.

The Carpet One strategy has a few key elements: two big ones are better products (including a number of exclusive items) and superior customer service (including one of the best installation training programs in the business). The point about service was stressed by co-CEO Howard Brodsky as he addressed a small gathering at an awards presentation. With his folksy charm and easy smile, Brodsky recounted his days as a retailer before he launched Carpet One with Alan Greenberg in 1985. “If an installer showed up late, I sent flowers. If someone came into the store just to browse, we had cookies for them.” He recounted an airline captain who personally ordered pizzas for passengers stranded by a storm. “Make your customer service ‘story worthy,’” said Brodsky.  “Each one of those passengers probably told that pizza story to 25 people.”

Of course, another big key is Carpet One’s competitive instincts. Members were told to put the competition in their crosshairs. They were reminded that big box stores, other specialty retailers and the web are all reaching for market share that should belong to Carpet One members. Be aggressive, they were told. The call to arms was made clear when Hackel paraphrased a line from “Boom, like that,” a Mark Knopfler song written from the perspective of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc. “How does that line go?” he wondered out loud. “If the competition is drowning put a hose in their mouth.”

Like many in the industry, Carpet One members may have seen their sales soften recently. Still, given their resources, their leadership and their aggressive game plan, Carpet One is poised to increase its considerable clout this year and well into the future. Maybe the Yankees, who have not won the World Series since Bill Clinton was president, should take note.