Woo them. Sell them. Sell them again. Sell to their friends. That, in a nutshell, appears to be the key for floor covering retailers battling through a slump in residential sales. On the heels of a year that is widely described as a high water mark for the industry, retailers say they are becoming more savvy about luring shoppers into their stores and servicing them once they get there. They also make it clear that repeat business and word-of-mouth are the twin engines that power a successful flooring retailer.

An exclusive survey commissioned by the World Floor Covering Association asked members of the trade group for their view on a wide variety of operational areas as well as their strategies for customer retention and loyalty. More than 50 WFCA members participated in an extensive, one-on-one, phone interview. The report, “WFCA: Exploratory Research on Selling to Consumers,” was compiled by Clear Seas Research, a sister company of National Floor Trends. It suggests that the retail side of flooring is evolving into a far more sophisticated business.

Retailers say it is a question to responding to market forces. The competition, they agree, is stiffer than ever and consumers these days are much more knowledgeable about flooring. Still, they note that even the most well-informed shopper is usually not familiar with all the flooring options available. The object is to appeal to consumers without overwhelming them.

Overall, the key findings of the survey included these:

Retailers make it clear that much of their residential business is either repeat or referrals. For some it accounts for almost all their business: About 10% of those participating said it accounts for at least 90% of their sales.

Robust sales in 2006 were fueled by increased demand for hard surface product lines which typically offer better profit margins.

Other factors driving the gains seen last year included a greater emphasis on customer service, introduction of new products and stronger high-end sales.

A clear majority of those interviewed said their main competition comes from other specialty flooring stores in their area. Only a handful identified Big Box stores as their greatest competitive threat.

Retailers say the best way to differentiate their operation from the competition is service including “quality installation” and the availability of “highly trained sales associates.”

Also evident is the need to eliminate clutter in the showroom. Retailers said that a customer’s initial impression is critical. Asked how they viewed their showroom, many evoked descriptive words such as “clean,” “organized,” “neat,” “colorful displays” and “beautiful.” They expressed concern that consumers can feel “overwhelmed” given the steady stream of products, colors and styles vying for attention. The situation has placed a premium on store layout, product organization and placement of displays, survey participants said.

The study also confirms that today’s flooring retailer is likely to embrace a formal customer sales strategy. The idea is to take each step that assures “complete customer satisfaction.” A recurring theme, for example, is that shoppers should be greeted “immediately” upon entering the store. Retail salespeople say it is important to strike up a conversation, listen carefully and ask questions. After the sale, the salesperson should personally make certain the installation is handled properly and follow up with a phone call and/or a thank you note.

Determining what type of flooring is suitable for the consumer’s lifestyle, taste and budget is also a major concern, retailers said. As such, they noted a key element of their sales approach is an informal interview process that touches on lifestyle (pets, children, floor traffic) and style preferences. They also use the opportunity to ask how the customer heard about the store and get a sense of the expectations for the product they choose.

Retailers interviewed said they favor simple and straightforward tactics to close the sale and win a customer’s business. Many said they will often simply ask for the business. It they find resistance, they try and identify the objections and respond accordingly. In doing so, they emphasize warranties, installation service and the benefits of choosing the product.

Even so, retailers note that there is no universal playbook for selling. The sales associates interviewed for the survey noted that there is no typical question that can be expected from a consumer. Rather, it can range from “I’m interested in carpet” to “Do you handle installations?” They added that consumers expect store sales staff to be highly knowledgeable about a product, including its durability, installation issues and warranties as well as the attributes that set it apart.

Another area of wide agreement among retailers involves the consumer’s general knowledge. While flooring suppliers do not command the brand recognition that other consumer products enjoy, consumers are doing far more research using a range of sources including the Internet and home makeover TV shows. As such, expectations are higher. Shoppers often expect detailed information about fibers in a specific type of carpet or how the finished product will look installed in a specific room/setting.

For the most part, price is an important factor in the final purchase decision; however, many sales associates feel this “depends upon the customer.” For some, product quality and service are bigger priorities.

Editor’s Note:This is a snapshot of the report “WFCA: Exploratory Research on Selling to Consumers.” The study was commissioned by the World Floor Covering Association and conducted by Clear Seas Research, which is a unit ofNFT’sparent company BNP Media. The research included 54 one-on-one phone interviews with WFCA members who are responsible for retail flooring sales. The telephone interviews averaged more than 30 minutes and were conducted between March 26 and April 6, 2007. The full report is made available exclusively to WFCA members. For more information on joining the WFCA, send an email to info@wfca.org.