It’s been said that a recession is when your neighbor is out of work and a depression is when you are out of work. That certainly seems applicable to the current slump in the flooring business. I keep coming across retailers who lament the slowdown in flooring sales. They speak with authority about the factors that have contributed to the situation. Many can recite real estate stats and wax eloquent about consumer confidence, fuel prices and the cyclical nature of the business. Yes, they tell me, of course they are concerned. Then, in the next breath, they say they are planning to add a new store and that sales this year are up over last year. “Everyone is struggling,” one such retailer told me, adding “Luckily we haven’t really felt it.” 

Such is the beauty of running an independent business. Not only do you call your own shots, you can literally create your own reality. That seems to be what many savvy specialty retailers are doing. They are well aware that the housing market has dipped significantly. They know that remodeling projects have been put on hold and consumers are wringing their hands about everything from global warming to the prolonged war in Iraq. They are well aware of big box stores and Internet-only competitors who undercut prices to move tonnage. They know the climb is getting a bit steeper. But there is a sizeable universe of floor covering specialty retailers who refuse to be defined by external factors or even industry trends. They have seen it all before and they know how to respond. That’s why when the subject of slumping sales comes up, they can honestly say, “We haven’t really felt it.”    

What I have learned from these retailers is this: Your destiny need not be determined by housing starts, mortgage rates or the price of a gallon of gasoline. No matter how choppy the water, it is still your skill, passion and energy that will determine if you sink, swim or sail on by while others flounder. If the demand for new flooring is soft, let the big boxes and marginal players take the hit. Retailers who are passionate about the business know what they are talking about. If you are in it for the long haul you will win out in the end. Whether you have a few big stores and are part of a major retail group, or a modest one-store mom and pop operation, this is a message every independent flooring retailer and contractor should take to heart.

I saw ample evidence of this recently at meetings in Cincinnati for the retail groups Carpet One Floor & Home and Flooring America. Take, for example, a survey of the Flooring America membership released at the meeting. More than half of the members said their business is up compared with a year ago. Fewer than 20 percent of those responding acknowledged that sales are down. Those not quite as fortunate may conclude these rosy results can be attributed to wishful thinking, revisionist history or maybe even denial. While these upbeat findings may fly in the face of current industry trends, they reflect the true strength of an independent retailer: the flexibility to adapt and overcome obstacles.

“You are outperforming the market,” Flooring America’s president Vinnie Virga triumphantly told his members during the general session. He went on to note that most of the retailers reporting a decline saw only a minor dip in their business. He, and many others addressing the group, suggested that adversity is just opportunity in disguise. They urged members to become more aggressive about drumming up business. Use financing and other incentives, increase your marketing and remember always that this business has a history of being cyclical. Those reassuring messages should resonate far beyond the members gathered for the meetings in Cincinnati.

The floor covering industry is in the throes of major changes. Savvy retailers know that standing by idly and waiting for things to pick up is not a viable option. Those who understand this are the ones who look at the current downturn in the flooring business and can say, “Luckily we haven’t really felt it.”