Some flooring retailers try to make a bold statement with their storefront while others take a more subtle approach. Whichever you choose, ask yourself what the exterior of your store says about the quality of the service and merchandise available inside. What message are you sending the customer before she walks in?

Fifteen years ago, before my first speech to flooring retailers, Home Depot and Lowe’s had begun expanding their flooring business. Other retail giants, mass-merchandisers like K-Mart, Target, and Wal-Mart had already decimated independent “Main Street” retailers all over America. Carpet retailers feared they would be next. The scuttlebutt back then suggested that “big box stores” may put 50 percent of the flooring retailers out of business by decade’s end. Dealers were worried.

My job was to teach these worried dealers how to face this formidable threat. I encouraged dealers to ask themselves, “Whyhave so many Main Street apparel and hardware retailers disappeared all over America? Why were they easy prey for mass-merchants?” If the dealers hesitated, I’d ask, “Well, why doyounow shop mostly at mass-merchandise stores?” That one they could easily answer. The big stores were easier to shop, carried more products, were clean and new, and offered competitive prices.

The two shopping experiences contrasted vividly. Main Street merchants continued to do business largely as they had in mid-century. Faced with little competition, they could charge practically what they wanted. Often, they had grown complacent about business methods and appearance. Outside, their storefronts reflected their neglect: peeling paint, dirty windows, poor signage, cracked sidewalks with weeds sprouting up and litter in the gutter. Inside, their stores looked shabby and disorganized. It seemed fair to say, “You’ve seen one; you’ve seen them all.”

Then, I asked the dealers, “How do most independent flooring stores compare?” After a moment’s thought, they realized their vulnerability. Typical showrooms had little more than standardized racks, carpet fuzz, dust, and more carpet fuzz. Old and faded posters and banners had hung for years, long past the sale they announced. Displays, lighting, and merchandising had changed little over the years. The stores looked stodgy and felt dreary. Until now, that had been okay, because no store offered anything better. Owners could earn a good living. Some evenshortenedtheir business hours to accommodate their lifestyles. But such stodginess would no longer attract customers.

Some flooring retailers try to make a bold statement with their storefront while others take a more subtle approach. Whichever you choose, ask yourself what the exterior of your store says about the quality of the service and merchandise available inside. What message are you sending the customer before she walks in?

I shifted the spotlight from stores to customers and discussed how customers had changed. Alert mass-merchandisers realized that many consumers worked more hours and felt time-starved, so they sought one-stop shopping. They also craved new stores with style and they were willing to travel farther to find one. So, the big retail chains built stores to suit these new-age consumers. In our seminars, we discussed how the Main Street retailers, whichdeclinedto adapt to the new consumers, quickly become “downtown dinosaurs.” Most were now extinct.

During the 1990s, how did our flooring dealers respond? Unfortunately, some did not adapt, and failed. Even the largest flooring retailer in America quit selling retail broadloom. (That was the juggernaut, Sears.) Wisely,manyindependent flooring retailers did modernize. They upgraded their stores, installed new computer gear, developed more efficient systems and applied better selling skills. As a result, these dealers grew along with their worthy competitors at Home Depot and Lowe’s, even though the “big boxes” captured more than a third of the market.

What lesson do you draw from this history? I learned, again, that retail flooring stores are largely customer-driven. When customers’ tastes evolve, retailers must evolve along side them … or wither. Customers shop where theyimaginethey will be well served. That brings us to what you can do to keep your store alive and “a-thrive.” Teach customers to imagine that you will serve them well.

This is all a rather long introduction to this month’s habit: manage your customers’perceptionsof your store. Remember thatpeople believe what they perceive.They may perceive reality-or something a shade different. What matters is not reality, but what they perceive is reality. If consumers in your market have a mental image that you are unable to meet their desires – even though their perception may be 180 degrees distorted from reality-they will shop elsewhere.

Consequently, you need to shape both the reality and the customer’s perception of it. As you take steps to assure that every customerreallydoes enjoy a superior shopping experience also take steps to elevate theirperceptionof shopping with you. You want to generate a positive mental picture.

You can elevate their perception in three dimensions – the Visual Image, Emotional Image, and Functional Image.

The Visual Image includes all that customers see. Thevisualimage is typically much less important to men shoppers, because they are on a mission, highly focused and blind to most visual elements in your store. By contrast, women tend to notice everything. A survey found that about half of the reasons customers choose to enter a store relate to itsoutsideappeal. They judge …
  • Is the parking lot clean and well lit?
  • Is the signage clean and clear?
  • Is the store clean and clutter-free?
  • Does the store look like its designer understood color and design?
  • Are there wide aisles and open spaces?
Of course, they also judge the interior of your store, including...
  • Do the inside signs make it easy to shop? Is every product marked?
  • Are the bathrooms well kept?
  • Are the employees friendly, neatly dressed and professional?
  • Is there a child’s play area? How about a husband’s play area? (I know a store in Canada with nine vibrating chairs and a big-screen TV. It’s packed on Saturdays.)

Emotional Image reflects a customer’s personal experience within the store, primarily with your salespeople. Does she feel good about having been in your store? You can elevate her perceptions by providing great service. But also make sure shenoticesyour service and feels cared about as a result.

Consider expanding the ways you influence customers to perceive that you care. Does each salesperson spend quality time with the customer listening patiently, without making the customer feel rushed? Is the salespersonthere, just for her? Totally present and focused on her? Does the salesperson use words of affirmation, such as freely given compliments, asking permission, and using kind, respectful, and encouraging words? Affirming words boost and brighten people. Do your salespeople routinely give gifts - a soda, cup of coffee, or bottle of cold water? In the afternoon, do you bake fresh cookies and share them with customers? (Recall how strongly certain aromas affectyouremotions.) Do your salespeople take the initiative to serve ... even go out of their way? Carry samples to her car. If it’s raining, take an umbrella and escort her from her car to the showroom, and then back. Help carry a baby’s things or herd small children into the store. Ask a male customer about his car or truck to open a relationship. The main reason customers never return is their perception that employees were indifferent.

Customers perceive extraordinary service when you give something of yourself that they do not expect. When they find a great store they feel excited and enticed. Thay have been seduced and romanced and magnetized. They feel good about themselves and you.

The final image is Functional-the customer’sperceptionabout how you do business. Are you organized? Do salespeople serve skillfully, with no abrasions or hassles? Do your installers do likewise? Will she get value for her money? When I get on an airplane or see a doctor, I watch how well they “do” the business. Your company’s systems and procedures tell customers how good you are at following through.

I invite you todiscoveryour customers’ perceptions in these three dimensions, and then work to elevate them. Ignoring these perceptions may lead to lower sales, margins, closing rates, average tickets and customer loyalty.

Can you affordnotto make perception-management one of your habits?