It’s often said that a ‘recession’ is when your neighbor loses his job and a ‘depression’ is when you lose yours. I hope that makes you smile just a bit because this column is devoted to the brighter side of the drab economy we’ve been muddling through. As the media bombards us with every negative spin imaginable, it’s time someone offered a glimmer of hope-or at least puts things in perspective. For the many of you who are floor covering veterans, these cyclical downturns are nothing new. You have seen long lines and soaring prices at the gas pump. You likely know the sick feeling of seeing a neighbor’s home go into foreclosure. I am not trying to depress you. Just the opposite-I want to remind you that we have been here before. As with any dip in the road, you will navigate this one. And the best of the best will come out of it even better positioned than ever.
Your biggest asset is your mindset. Your responsibility right now is to stay positive and stay focused: Look for ways to increase business. Think up ways to capture more customers. Be creative and stay active-or “proactive” if you prefer-in every area while you ride this out. If you sit around and wait for customers to walk through your front door, you will probably create your own personal depression.
A recent comment from Douglas Duncan, chief economist of the Mortgage Bankers Association, reminds us that, with our 24/7 news cycle, things can get blown out of proportion. According to the Washington Post he warned that we should not “be misled by predictions of imminent crashes.” Why? “Because the reports of doom ignore the positives in the current marketplace.” Even the Federal Reserve’s vice chairman, Donald Kohn, spoke out: “The rhetoric is just way overwrought.” He called the housing slowdown a “correction” that will take us back toward more “normal conditions.” Low interest rates, a fairly stable stock market, and moderate unemployment numbers make this a softer downturn-pardon me-correction than many of those past.
Take, for example, the new home market. While at the International Builders’ Show in Orlando, Fla. earlier this Spring I heard one expert after another assure us that even through the current slump, there has been a sizeable consumer base still looking to buy new homes or redecorate the ones they have. This is especially relevant to the floor covering industry. As the downturn improves you will see this activity pick up, like fragile Spring flowers pushing their way up through frozen ground. But nonetheless, it is a first step.
In my role as sales and marketing specialist for Leonard’s Services & Design Centers in Anaheim, Calif., I work closely with builders in the area and often interact with sales agents showing model homes. Both sides report that would-be buyers are finally emerging from their hibernation. In the Spring months of 2008 the traffic through the model homes was more promising than anything seen over the preceding twelve months. This means consumers are warily dipping their toes in the water. On the remodeling side, there is also good news. People fed up with the constant drumbeat of bad news want to feel good about their personal space-their cocoon. That means room makeovers and possibly room additions. It often means upgrading flooring throughout the home (rather than upgrading to a brand new home). All of these changes can interpret into new floor covering sales.
The interior design aspect is often overlooked. You ask: Aren’t these times of economic constraint? You wonder: How can people looking at $4 for a gallon of gas also re-do their den? Let me explain. Design can and does affect the psyche. When our dollars are not stretching as far as they once did, we stay closer to home. When we need a lift mentally, we (women especially) gravitate towards updating the home-and adding new color! And that is good news for you. Maybe you won’t be selling mega rolls of that $85 per yard wool carpet. But you will be selling carpet, or wood, or tile. And this is the time to really push color. Every room is a blank canvas that becomes the backdrop for the family’s lives. Design is a “layering” process, and usually the first artistic layer to that blank canvas is flooring!
So think of yourself as an artist. Now that you have more time to spend with each customer, your goal should be to move the conversation from products to the process of creating a beautiful home that reflects her tastes and lifestyle. Talk to your customers and help them personalize their home. Ask questions so you can interpret specific needs. Focus less on price than on style and color. Once you fully grasp the power of design-and the emotions it can yield-you will elevate your sales process to a whole new level.
Earlier this year, whenBetter Homes and Gardenssurveyed more than 2,000 homeowners who bought their homes within the last decade, they confirmed the growing popularity of eco-friendly building and interior design. (This will come as no surprise to regular readers of this column.) You have been reading about sustainable design products from me for quite a while. If you still haven’t studied the “green story” of every product on your floor, you are a little behind in your homework. Why not sit down with each vendor and ask about the ecology-smart story behind their products? Remember the earlier reference to elevating your sales process? Well if you successfully incorporate eco-savvy features into your sales story, you just moved up another notch.
The editor ofBetter Homes,Gayle Butler, may have said it best: “What we’ve discovered is that home continues to be our emotional center and the sweet spot of everyday life. Economic uncertainty aside, we won’t stop spending, improving or dreaming when it comes to home.”
So, as consumers start to emerge, and floor covering’s bumpy road begins to smooth out, I leave you with the Boy Scouts’ motto: “Be prepared.” Consumers who have been hibernating will appear in your store. You may have only one chance to show what you know (and what you have learned during your sluggish period). You can be the ‘technical artist’, and help your customer achieve the home of her dreams (and do it in an environmentally responsible way). Meanwhile, the guy down the street (who probably doesn’t readNFT) will still be sweating it out, slashing prices, cutting deals and avoiding creditors. And that says it all.