Make yourself at home. When Leonard Nagel (inset) wanted a new look for one of his design centers in Southern California, the goal was to create a comfortable environment for customers that also reinforces the company's upscale image. Pictured here is the newly re-modeled reception area.

This isn’t the time for anyone in the floor covering industry to be spending money frivolously. Now that I’ve stated the obvious, bear with me and I’ll let you know where I’m going with this. By now you may have cut back on your advertising. You are most likely watching your inventory very closely. And more than ever, you are being very prudent about sample and overhead costs. Why then would you consider an investment to update your showroom right now? Good question. Let me share with you the perspective of some very savvy business pros who maintain you should do just that.

First, let’s consider that this customer “drought” is lasting longer than anyone thought or hoped. Unfortunately this slowdown means you have more downtime on your hands too. If you are in your showroom right now, stop reading for a moment and take an honest look around. (Key word here is honest.) Are you pleased with what you see? What do you have installed on your floor?  Do the selections you’ve picked to display represent the most current products?  If you’ve added new lines recently, are you using vignettes to show them off? What creative applications of different materials are you featuring?

Leonard’s Services in Anaheim, Calif. is an awesome example of foresighted thinking. Leonard Nagel, the founder and owner, is a genuine veteran of the floor covering industry. He started his company in 1960 with two installers. Now, nearly 50 years later, Leonard’s operation includes 13 design centers in California that serve new homebuyers. He now has over 200 installers on staff! This is one gentleman who has seen the best and the worst of times. When I interviewed Leonard back in 2007, he had some incisive comments about our soft economy. “This downturn is different from previous downturns in the market. Rather than a slow decline in sales, the new home building market more or less ‘hit a brick wall’ and plummeted.” 

The nosedive in sales allowed little time to prepare or regroup. For the weathered veterans of the flooring business, experience is a compass that helps them navigate through stormy seas. While Leonard Nagel has logged many years at the helm of his ship, one thing stood out to me as I spoke with him more recently. The challenges now are unlike what he has seen in the past. It has prompted him to chart a new course.

For one thing, Leonard said he has never paid too much attention to what his competition was doing. Rather, he focused on the strengths of his own company and ways to drum up more business. His is a pioneer mentality that says I’m not going where others have been; I’m going to try something new. It is a sentiment that elicits criticism, but Leonard doesn’t care and never has. He is believed to be the first in our industry to train residential installers on the mechanics of commercial installation. While some said this would never work-the skill sets were too far apart-the move turned out to be a strategic turn that brought new life to the company’s growth. It also helped assure work for the installers while the new homes market is still struggling to recover.

That is just one example of becoming what I call a professional chameleon. It’s the ability to quickly adapt and change. It is exactly what makes one company successful while another struggles. It means you have to venture out of your comfort zone. It demands that you think creatively and identify new avenues to attract new customers. It requires risk but what is the alternative? Wait around for the residential market to recover?

This is the time to analyze your key strengths. What do you and your people do better than anyone else? Remember all those people who have bought flooring from you over the years because you and your staff are knowledgeable and friendly? Go back to your loyal customer base and reconnect. This is an excellent way to build sales. Also, if things are slow for your installers, now may be a great time for them to get some advanced training. While you do all this, don’t forget your business skills. Renegotiate your lease or other business deals. Consider a few changes to your roster of key vendors--or maybe paring it down. It is better to be important to a select few than an afterthought to many. 

Leonard’s Services did all of that-and more. After taking that honest look around one of his showrooms, he launched a remodeling project. While it is difficult to make a major investment in your business when credit is tight and business is slow, there is another way to think about it: The best time for a major redesign is when you are not crazy-busy with customers.

Leonard called on my design skills a few months back and asked me to create a fresh design to update his San Diego showroom. We decided to implement the project in stages (first the lobby and offices, then the showroom). This way the design center could still operate efficiently while the work was in progress. 

That’s what I hope you do as well. A major overhaul is a daunting task, so break it up.  Update your showroom in sections so you can still conduct business while the “facelift” is underway. First impressions, especially in the builder business, are critical. And that is true of retail as well. Even if you do not have major square footage to play with, don’t be concerned. Done correctly, even small spaces can be designed to make a big statement and set a tone.

Customers don’t usually see your offices, so that’s not where you should be spending your design budget. But your entry, and the surrounding showroom space should create an ambience that says we have style and we have taste. It’s a subtle but unmistakable way to tell them who you are and what you can offer them.

For Leonard’s San Diego Design Center, I added some design elements in the lobby that truly define the company, and visibly send a message that this company is creative, efficient, and attentive to details. For instance, we created a coffered ceiling in an octagon shape that allowed me to incorporate a crystal chandelier. It’s the first thing customers see when they walk through the double front doors. Even before they set foot in the showroom, customers know Leonard’s is a stable, classic company that offers unique, creative designs.

Next up was a custom design reception desk that says “welcome.” It was important as it is the first point of contact. We went with a horseshoe design in a burl wood finish (which also matches the wood-rose color on the accent walls). The desk’s countertop is matte black, and the finishing touch is a brass kick plate at the base. It provides an executive look with a welcoming feel.

The colors for the lobby were carefully chosen as well. A soft green wall covering with gold marble-like veining dresses the walls. Leonard’s is very attentive to sustainable design and promotes products that are eco-friendly. Using shades of green in the design effectively conveys a bond to nature. To complement the green, several accent walls were painted the deep wood-rose color I mentioned earlier. All the new furnishings chosen were scaled down in size to give the appearance of a more spacious receiving area.

Leonard’s does a great job installing all kinds of carpet and hard surface flooring materials. They even have the capacity (in their Perris, Calif. facility) to fabricate custom granite countertops for model homes and production home installations. Their installers have the expertise to handle large-scale commercial jobs and have the track record to prove it. With this design, I wanted a way to show off these wonderful creative abilities. So in the lobby, there is one entire wall clad in iridescent shell-like tile (from the Elements Collection, Arizona Tile). A dramatic 2-foot wide black tile stripe runs vertically from floor to ceiling to accent the wall. The end result is pretty dramatic and shows, rather than tells, what this company can do. I added several touches of black throughout the lobby to spice up the design. One important thing for you to know is that continuity and well-planned repetition are basic elements of a good design.

We also moved some walls and repositioned doors. This allowed us to create arched doorways (rather than squared). Little details like this add so much to a design. We considered a solid wood panel door to separate the lobby from the office area, but opted instead for a full-glass panel door. Leonard’s carries a new product line called “Tableau.” It looks exactly like wrought iron, but is actually a lightweight resin and wood composite material. We incorporated it as an inset  (antiqued in black and gold) on that door. Not only does it offer semi-privacy, it is another viable selling tool. (Tableau is distributed by Southern California Shutters in Corona, Calif.)  Do you see a trend here? Get creative with the products you want to promote.  When showcasing them in style, consumers will take notice.

The signature design you create for your place of business is one of your most powerful selling tools. Dollars spent on a re-design are dollars well spent. To the people who walk through your front door, design conveys unwritten messages, the most important of which is this:  If you are looking for style and design expertise, you are in the right place. Then, let your newly designed retail floor “show” and “tell” exactly how creative you are.