“Typically I look forward to your editorials…” began one response. It arrived after I suggested shop-at-home operations are not “real” retailers. I was flattered by that whiff of faint praise, but those were just the first few words. “Your [editorial] left me with some indignation,” it continued. It was a sentiment expressed by a number of NFT readers. No one was nasty or even remotely insulting, but it’s clear I hit a nerve. People who run shop-at-home operations do not enjoy being lumped in with big box stores or Internet sites that sell flooring on the cheap. Their point is well taken. So I thought a follow-up was in order. 

My editorial comment in our November 2007 issue was titled “In praise of retail stores (Real stores, I mean!)” The intent was to honor specialty flooring stores that focus on customer service, installation expertise and a broad selection of merchandise. Aside from the real estate slump, they are faced with more and more competition for the flooring consumers’ dollar. A good bit of it comes from big box stores. There is also no shortage of marginal players who compete almost entirely on price. Such an environment can be daunting. That prompted me to observe that there is no substitute for a showroom that is “comfortable, tasteful and staffed with real pros who know flooring.”

The responses I received suggest that not everyone agrees. I heard from a number of people who go directly to the consumer’s home to offer flooring. They scolded me for my insensitivity and reminded me that they too possess passion for our business. They spoke of their years in flooring, their deep reservoir of product knowledge and their focus on service. A shop-at-home business owner from Mesa, Ariz., recounted how he successful completed a tricky bathroom installation after a local flooring store “backed out.” With tongue firmly in-cheek he wrote: “But of course, we are not true flooring experts of the kind Al Stewart is writing about in his editorial.” Then he let me have it:  “We live and breathe flooring 10 hours a day and are passionate about what we do, what we create, and how happy we make our customers.”

Got it. And there was this from Ocala, Fla.: “I run a mobile showroom… Before you push me aside, I am actually giving the customer the expertise of an experienced installer. I started selling after customers complained about pushy obnoxious salesmen at the showrooms and the lack of help at the big box stores…I provide a lot better service than the showrooms in my area.”

There was frustration evident in these responses: “It’s hard to compete when [big box stores] are selling so cheap” …“I sell a quality product with quality installation and [the customers] says ‘I can get it cheaper.’” There was also a clear effort to distinguish themselves from those simply trying to elbow their way into flooring. One reader said he carried over 5,000 samples, another said 3,000. “We attend continuing education, are members of the WFCA, and the Better Business Bureau,” he added.

A couple that runs a shop-at-home business in Mt. Laurel, N.J.-the people who were nice enough to say they usually like my editorials-put it most succinctly. They noted that I was wrong to use “a broad brush” to characterize such a well-established segment of the flooring business. “Today’s consumer does not always want to run from store to store,” they wrote. “We are passionate about our mission to service our customers at their convenience, in their environment, with their lighting.”

They’re right, of course. Brick and mortar specialty flooring stores may always be the most visible and vibrant part of our business. And, clearly, a nice showroom promotes our industry and instills consumer confidence. But, thanks to these and other responses, I understand that there are also top-notch shop-at-home operations run by people who have a great understanding of flooring. Their passion for our business is as real as anyone else’s.