Having lived in Vermont where most homes still heat with woodstoves, this headline has special meaning to me. When it’s 30 below with the wind howling and you’re in a non-insulated farmhouse built in 1840, there is no modern heating system that will keep you warm. But the heat from an old-fashioned stove strategically placed in our seven-room, two-story farmhouse can be too much if you don’t keep it under control. Unlike the places where most of our readers live, wood stoves are a way of life in these parts.
Of course this means country parents teach their children early on that you don’t have to touch a stove to find out if it’s hot. Do so, and you’ll get burned. It’s the same with business. Unfortunately, my experience has taught me that most floor covering retailers feel they must “touch the stove.” That is: they make mistakes that have already been made by others and needlessly get burned. Not that I was any different. Still it always made sense to me to copy what the successful retailers do and listen to mentors.
As a young retailer, many of my customers were savvy businesspeople and only too happy to offer advice to a 23-year-old neophyte. I learned early on that paperwork must track every piece of merchandise that moves through, in or out of the store. Even though my operation was small, they impressed upon me the need for records. This way, as I grew, every product and every cost was tagged with an identifying number, location and price. I don’t know how much this saved me because I never touched the stove.
I was fortunate. I never experienced unexplained shrinkage. But I did learn how costly even a simple misunderstanding can be. One of our warehouse inventories came up $20,000 short. Why? Turns out our new warehouseman learned to measure 4” full and he used this practice when making cuts for us. Well, 4” onto every cut translated into a total equal to the shortage. Listening to other dealers who experienced shortages on mill rolls, we learned to measure everything that came into the warehouse and back-charged the mill. Hearing the explanation from the mill guys that carpet shrinks after being rolled didn’t cut it with me. Some of the shrinkage was 6’ or more.
At a recent dealer meeting, a good-sized retailer told us she always lets her salespeople order their own materials. She said she didn’t want to hire someone just to place orders. This is foolish. Over 47 years, I have personally heard the horror stories of inside shenanigans and measuring mistakes costing retailers millions (and sometimes their businesses). You can hire a lot of people with those numbers. You don’t have to touch the stove.
We small businesspeople often have cozy relationships with our employees. We can’t believe they would steal. There’s a lot of ego in this as well. But as likable as you may believe you are, the most “syrupy” of your employees may be just the ones who start their own “profit sharing” system. And it isn’t just theft that will burn you. Insufficient insurance, sloppy bookkeeping and bad tax advice can also put you out of business. In the ‘70s and ‘80s the IRS decided that outside installers weren’t subcontractors. Even tiny retailers got hit for not withholding taxes. Many of those dealers bit the dust.
With all the resources available, it is inconceivable that some retailers still believe they are protected if the customer signs off on a substandard subfloor. The perpetual problem of floors being ruined by the moisture content in cement subfloors is proof positive that some retailers have to touch the stove, no matter how hot. My dear friend Lew Migliore preaches, cajoles and writes about this all the time. Retailers are vulnerable when they are ignorant of installation procedures or don’t know what materials to use on a given job. Think of the preponderance of installers who still refuse to use seam sealers on carpet.
As a young man, I figured out details like proper store hours, merchandising and where and when to advertise by copying my most successful competitors: the department stores. I advertised when and where they did. Much later I actually learned why they did what they did, but by just copying the pros I learned buying, advertising and demographics. I never touched those extremely hot stoves.
Watching the skilled pros in action was half the battle. At markets, I stay close to the big buyers. I learned that advertising rules were for everyone else, that dating was widely available, that ad money could be 100%. Mentors are everywhere.
One of my best decisions was joining the Retail Floorcovering Institute, a true mentoring organization. That’s where I met Walter Moomjy of the legendary Einstein Moomjy stores in New York and New Jersey. After hearing my plans to add an area rug section, Walter invited me to visit his flagship store in Paramus, N.J. He graciously offered the services of his now deceased partner Teddy Einstein, who had the reputation as one of the best rug buyers in the industry. Teddy took me on a tour of his department. “Buy this!” “Don’t buy this!” When preferred styles came from an importer or manufacturer who had exclusives in my market, Teddy told me who to see and what to tell that person: “Ted Einstein said to give me the line!” - which they did. Why would anyone want to touch the stove when there are so many talented and knowledgeable mentors who selflessly offer invaluable advice? We desperately need another mentoring association like the old RFI.
I admit it: I have stolen every bit of knowledge I possess and every good idea I have ever had. They came from someone else, which is another way of not touching the stove. In fact, the idea for this column came from my good friend David Elychar, aka Big Bob of Big Bob’s Flooring Outlets. This is not the only time David has influenced me. In 1988, he asked me to write a sales book for his storeowners and their salespeople. When I sent him the rough copy, he cancelled the project because he didn’t like it. So I rewrote it and published it under the title of The Art of Selling Retail Floorcovering. It became the largest selling book of its type in the floor covering industry with over 20,000 sold. So David’s high standards drove me to write my most successful book.
And it didn’t stop there. Five years ago, David advised me to produce a DVD sales education program in conjunction with a favorite client, Floor to Ceiling stores. We produced one customized for their 200 stores and another generic edition called Unleashing Your Selling Potential which has sold 2,000 copies, including to three major retail groups.
David is among the most creative individuals in our industry and when he reads this he will surely recall the dozens of other ideas I’ve appropriated from him. Other ideas I’ve “borrowed” include incredible merchandising plan from J. Homestock Furniture which help me become a top flooring retailer in six market areas. In 1973, Bigelow’s carpet labels included a wonderful wear rating system. I converted the label to our own and that transformed the way our salespeople presented carpeting. Whether you copy successful ideas or follow the advice of successful mentors, what you are really doing is letting someone else take risks for you. They are touching the stove so you will never get burnt.
I remain committed to disseminating this information to retailers and salespeople so they can avoid making costly mistakes that have already been made by someone else. My repeated admission to audiences (and you readers) is this: “It’s not my information; rather that of the greats, past and present.”