Old school days: Hiller Carpets in Rochester, Minn. (circa 1950) and Westcraft Carpet (circa 1960) are two flooring retailers that grew to be very important players in their respective markets. Although today’s retailers may have more resources at their disposal, the landscape has never been more competitive.

I admit it: In my mission to help create successful retailers and salespeople, I have become somewhat separated from life at the retail level. After all, it’s been 22 years since I sold my flooring stores and starting writing for the trade press and conducting educational sessions for the industry. But recently I have had a chance to get up close and personal with the day-to-day realities of running a flooring store.

My wife Tara opened a Big Bob’s Flooring Outlet and, as I have done for many retailers, I signed on for an on-site consulting project (albeit unpaid) to assist her with the opening. In doing so, I became immersed once again in the various activities involved in running a flooring business while teaching the staff organization, sales, service and a myriad of other skills. I take on very few of these projects nowadays. The sheer difficulty of running an efficient operation is not something you jump into lightly. However, each occasion offers me a whole new respect for retailers and their sales staffs.

Some things have stayed the same over the years, but other facets of the business have changed drastically, perhaps most notably technology. Another welcome improvement involves the quality of the service offered by the major mills as well as the sophistication of local sales reps. Shaw and Mohawk have each made an obvious effort to improve sales and service. At times, supply chain relations in past years were characterized by confrontation. Today, the feeling is that there is much more of a team effort. For instance, I found that if a new employee at the store level these days is unfamiliar with ordering flooring products, friendly customer service people at both Shaw and Mohawk are delighted to guide the neophyte though the process. They are that good.

Old school days: Hiller Carpets in Rochester, Minn. (circa 1950) and Westcraft Carpet (circa 1960) are two flooring retailers that grew to be very important players in their respective markets. Although today’s retailers may have more resources at their disposal, the landscape has never been more competitive.

Regional Markets

As many of you know I have written much about Shaw and Mohawk dropping out of “Surfaces.” My fear that the market in Las Vegas could close was based on the historical fact that several major markets were killed when major players took a pass. I remained convinced that markets and other gatherings are critical to the health of any industry. Fortunately, Surfaces has not been hurt. In fact, the viability of the meeting is evidenced by the record attendance of retailers on hand at each of the last three shows. There are still some big names absent from the meeting, but all parties involved seem happy with the situation as it has played out.

Many exhibitors tell us they now enjoy more quality time with more customers since the big guys exited. One of the reasons given by the mills for dropping out was the costs involved with exhibiting in Las Vegas. While some of the labor unions charge unconscionable fees for whatever they do (or don’t do), the expense really doesn’t compare with holding 30-40 regional shows around the country. A more reasonable argument is because the Shaw and Mohawk spaces at Surfaces were so crowded they couldn’t possibly service their dealers in any meaningful manner. This was true. On the other hand, regional markets gave them the opportunity to provide enough staff to service their dealers.

My work with Tara’s new store gave me the opportunity to experience my first regional market. Shaw invited us to the Marriott in the Inner Harbor of Baltimore where there seemed to be just enough Shaw people to handle questions from the dealers in attendance. The staff was busy, but not rushed and everyone was served. The show was full of ideas and Tara was enticed to order several palettes of laminates along with an area rug program.

There was great food throughout the day including a top notch dinner. All the while, Randy Merritt, who has since been elevated to ceo of the company, stayed busy meeting and greeting customers. He is one top executive who understands how meaningful it is for dealers to meet and talk with him personally.

At dinner, a 42” hi-def TV was raffled off in a dealer drawing. In his remarks, Randy welcomed the dealers and offered a concise overview of the new products, services and programs. Ever gracious, he spotted me in the audience-a mite embarrassing since many of the retailers and executives on hand were more worthy of the recognition. I came away saying to myself, “It’s just amazing that Shaw produced this type of event dozens of times a year all over the country.”

Flooring America

Another huge difference now from when I was in retail: retail and manufacturing merchandising groups. They have created evermore sophisticated competition in the retail market by educating their members and offering proprietary products as well as better pricing, rebate programs, advertising funds, marketing expertise and so much more. It makes me wonder how unaligned stores survive.

And as if these groups weren’t enough competition for the independent flooring store, home centers are aggressively competing for “price-oriented” shoppers. I contented with none of this in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. A few weeks back, I was invited to Las Vegas where a couple of veteran retailers had just converted their operation to a Flooring America store. Although the owners, John Lefebvre and his partner Glenn Wolfe, were highly experienced and their store was already a success, they were truly excited by their move to the Flooring America team. A lot has changed but not the presence of the owner’s work stations. They stayed right out on the floor amongst their staff and customers where they could provide hands-on assistance.

They set high standards for their salespeople, each of whom averaged over $1,000,000 a year in sales. It was an honor for me to be invited to work with this elite sales staff. John mentioned that someone selling “only” $700,000 worth of product did not make the cut on his team. How many of us would jump at the chance to hire their castoffs?

I met the partners at a recruitment meeting for the co-op. Focused and aggressive as always, they had many tough questions for the Flooring America brass trying to win them over but their questions and concerns were handled proficiently.

I have found that one of the realities of life is that successful people have a perpetual desire for even more success. At the same time, the people who really need help often lack the desire to even take the first step. I suppose this is why it’s almost always the successful flooring stores that join merchandising groups and only the best salespeople who show up for sales training. Ultimately, John and Glenn’s Las Vegas showroom was transformed into a showplace by the merchandising magicians of Flooring America. Any retailer who has the opportunity to visit John and Glenn while in Las Vegas will profit from the experience.

For retailers and their salespeople, the message here is that competition is only going to get tougher not easier. If you are losing ground, the time to act is now. I admit it; it’s increasingly difficult for me to stay ahead of the curve to help my clients. It’s getting so I spend about as much time learning as I do teaching. Yes, competition is tougher and customers are fussier about what they buy and sophisticated about what they want. But help is out there. The groups have answers to most of your concerns and the mills have made huge advances in their programs and professionalism since I was in retail. The book I authored on the subject,The Art of Selling Retail Floorcovering, has been updated five times because the marketplace has changed so much. The knowledge I glean daily from the successful people in the industry will be passed on to you in the form of high impact retailing just as fast as I can absorb it.