While attracting and selling consumers of today is still priority No. 1 for retailers, technology and the way society now communicates means there is an opportunity to build relationships with tomorrow’s flooring shoppers.
That was part of the message at the summer convention of Flooring America/Flooring Canada (FA/FC) in Denver last month as the buying group showed members “The Big Picture” in terms of how to be more interactive and engaging with both current and future customers.
With membership back to 2009 levels and growing, Keith Spano, president of Flooring America, said the convention’s theme was “about taking a conversation-driven approach to the way in which we share information with our members, and obtain their feedback on how we can help them leverage the strategies and innovative programs we have established to help them grow their businesses.”
Beyond that, he and Frank Chiera, FA/FC’s vice president of marketing and advertising, told Floor Trends during an exclusive interview with business starting to pick up throughout most of the country the goal is to not only help their members succeed now, but tomorrow as well.
“We’re not just focused on the here and now,” Chiera said. “We’re focused on the future and we want to help position our members to be successful tomorrow. We have a long-term vision and we’re starting to see the fruits of it as members realize we care about them.”
Alan and Genie Shupe, owners of two Riteway Flooring America stores in Colorado and New Mexico, said since Spano and Chiera came on board a couple of years ago there is a “new energy” within the group. “There’s more openness between management and the members—it’s now a two-way street.”
The couple, which initially joined Flooring America back when it was known as Carpetmax in1996 and not affiliated with anyone else (Editor’s note: Today, Flooring America is a division within CCA Global Partners, the industry’s largest independent network of franchise/co-operative organizations), added, “We are getting stronger everyday thanks to people like Keith and Frank and the rest of Flooring America’s management. We are feeling like our own entity and not like little people anymore.”
Murray Mansch, owner of Flooring America by Carpet Smart stores in Arkansas and a member of the group’s member advisory council added, “We’re part of something bigger, but everything that starts with FA/FC runs through the advisory council.” He even encouraged other members to become a part of it or to join a committee, saying the experience will be both beneficial and gratifying. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever been involved in.”
He compared it to being a great baseball player. “If you’re not on a team, though, no one knows. So you need to get involved on a weekly basis and don’t just come to convention once or twice a year.”
Howard Brodsky, CCA’s chairman, co-founder and -CEO, said the group has “always been member-driven. We take their great ideas and spread them throughout the organization.”
In presenting the big picture to the membership, Flooring America executives looked at the present by first noting what many of the members were saying: Business is getting better. Yes, some members continue to struggle, but overall Spano noted 40% of members were up at least 20% over last year.
Brodsky added, FA/FC has “great momentum, and the energy and commitment is outstanding.” He pointed to a recent membership survey and “every benchmark we use was at its highest in 10 years.”
And the best part is there are good indicators for the flooring industry to continue to grow. Not at the tremendous rates of a decade ago, but a slow, steady climb which is expected to last for at least a couple of years.
He said some of the key indicators that have historically driven the industry, such as new housing and overall housing prices, are on the upswing, But there are other factors, such as new household formations, that point to the industry being able to grow and gain back some of what it lost over the last five-plus years.
Charlie Dilks, CCA’s Chief Product Officer, said “This is the best year the industry is having since 2005. The first quarter was good and the second was better. Home values are up 8%, starts are up 27%, refinancing activity is picking up…”
And, he added, the products being sold are “better goods. Hard surface is growing more than soft but it was still up over the first six months of the year.” Even laminate, Dilks noted, is up for the whole industry. “It’s still a very tough category,” which is why he encouraged members to simplify their assortment and consider going with the group’s programmed display system as it makes it easier to understand and sell.
To ensure members are ready to successfully handle the expected growth overall for the industry, FA/FC executives pointed to certain programs that differentiate the group from others—from its referral partnership with Stanley Steemer; to its charitable cause, the non-profit Pets for Patriots organization, and from its private labeled soft carpet program, Tigressa from Shaw, to its Just Shorn Wool affiliation—while unveiling an exclusive, private-label groutable LVT called PürStone.
Featuring 22 SKUs and its own display system, Theresa Fisher, CCA’s vice president of store design and visual merchandising, said “the display has everything you need to sell this 5-star product and the name is only to FA/FC.”
Dilks said it is organized in a way to make it “easy for consumers to shop.” And because it is made to stand up to today’s active consumer lifestyle, as well as offering popular colors and styles, “price should not be a factor. If you can show her the value of a product—and this product has plenty of value built into it—an extra dime or less a foot is not going to be an issue.”
Just Shorn is a wool carpet program run in conjunction with wool growers in New Zealand. Originally launched through CCA’s International Design Guild (IDG) buying group, the program has now been tailored so members of other CCA organizations can participate, such as FA/FC members. While it was announced at the group’s winter convention in January, the program took center stage with the PürStone rollout.
Fisher said many of the group’s members never sold wool carpeting before because they thought it was either too expensive for their market or didn’t understand it. For those who did sell wool, they “are now selling even more thanks to the program.”
Just Shorn executives from New Zealand were on hand to answer questions and sign-up new members and noted the activity was “wonderful.” Stu Chapman, director, noted members not only showed a great deal of interest, “they were placing orders.”
No Summer Blues
The aspect that members came to the summer convention to buy was a mantra raised throughout by vendors, with many saying they sold more during the first day than they did during the entire winter market—and the summer shows are typically slower.
Amie Gibson, national retail account manager for IVC US, said members were “very upbeat and certainly taking advantage of what is being offered. We couldn’t be more pleased.”
Ronald Trbovich, director of products and services for Stanley Steemer, said the partnership formed with the group has “exceeded our expectations. The members are professional and have been a fantastic extension of our brand. There are so many more possibilities we hope to explore based on the success we’ve had so far.”
Steven Frankhouse of My Floors in Galion, Ohio, praised the Stanley Steemer partnership, calling it an “incredible experience. We’ve gotten great leads from them and want to do more to be partners. It’s been a real blessing.”
Member Ralph Fiore of Boston Carpet Flooring America in Springfield, Mass., who was one of the members chosen as part of Flooring America’s first leg of a national tour where executives stopped at stores to gather customer testimonials for a major marketing initiative, was very happy about many of the programs and initiatives but was most excited about the wood products he saw under the Baroque Flooring brand by Global Direct Flooring. “These are some of the most beautiful floors and displays I’ve seen. This is it; they certainly got it right.”
Keith Rhodes of The Floor Trader Carpet & Floors in Mississippi and Alabama, was shopping for Made in the USA items over at the Shaw booth, noting “we buy all types of products from them, but right now the hot items are those that are made domestically. Mentally, people want to support companies who make products here, but they still want value.”
While there was a great deal of products and information for members to take back to their stores and implement to be better prepared as business continues to climb, FA/FC executives also had their eyes on the future, noting thanks to the Internet and social media, now is the time to start capturing the attention of buyers 10 years from now. In other words, the “millennials.”
“If we can start engaging them now,” Chiera told members, “then when they are ready to make their first flooring purchases, they will have us top of mind and will seek you out.”
That is one of the reasons why the group spent six months logging over 10,000 miles collecting customer testimonials directly from members’ stores. “Video testimonials are huge,” Spano said. “And it fits directly into our ‘Where Friends Send Friends’ campaign.”
Guest speaker Garrison Wynn, agreed, noting, “They’re gigantic” because they are “all about leveraging relationships. Making a good first impression is important; it is the filter through which everyone judges.” And video testimonials can help make a great first impression to consumers who spend the majority of their time online researching products and companies before they actually step into a store.
“You cannot walk in another generation’s shoes,” he added. “History changes and people change with it. Action and adoptability are important keys to long-term success.”
Andy Valeriani, FA/FC’s senior director of online marketing, said while the company has the ability to directly feed content to members’ social media platforms and was even expanding the amount of social media avenues it reaches such as Pinterest, he still encouraged retailers to put up their own content and connect with current and future customers.
“Flooring America is about technology and being ahead of the pack,” he explained. “We can provide messages, videos, features, live chats and more.” Nonetheless, he added, “Your competitors are starting to figure out how to market to millennials so Flooring America needs its own strategy.”
Though members were given insight into the group’s social media strategies, the organization formed the 30 Under 30 Council and sought members to participate and help steer the group toward tomorrow’s buyers.
The idea is to help develop products and strategies on how to attract young buyers and those who will become purchasers of flooring in the near future. “We want to ask them why they purchased from us so we can craft a unique marketing program,” Valeriani said.
There was even a special breakout session on marketing to this group, namely people aged 23 to 30, which presented members with not only the “Owner’s Pledge” program in which members can detail “what makes them unique,” but also ways to help get this future generation of buyers into the store. The important thing for members was to understand this is a group of people who will listen to them for their expertise, but they don’t want to be “sold” or told from the get-go why the research they did prior to coming to your store is no good.
Brian Ross of BG Design Center in Sulphur Springs, Tex., said while Flooring America gives members the autonomy to be their own businesses, it still gives them a national presence with “great marketing programs” such as what the group wants to do to attract millennials. “I don’t see anyone doing as much as they are doing—it’s exciting. They are tapping into our customers 10 years from now so when they are mature and at the point of making their first flooring purchase they will already be familiar with us.”
Lastly, members were encouraged to make their showrooms inviting and appealing, meaning use the FA/FC selling system to give the store a consistent—and appealing—message: This is a store which the consumer will be proud to shop and talk about.
Nancy Trafford, vice president of member services for FA/FC, noted more members “are converting” to the company’s Visions showroom program and taking advantage of the products offered by the group’s core suppliers, and those who have done this are “seeing better results.”
Roger Pope of Floor Covering Central in Decatur, Ill., and a Flooring America member for eight years, noted he has been in business for 35 years and has three Visions showrooms. “This is state-of-the-art. It makes it so easy to sell. Everyone should have it. The space really works. We expect a lot from our salespeople and they expect us to give them the tools to help them succeed, and this type of showroom is it. It allows us to compete and gives our people a place they like to come to and sell.”
Fiore agreed, saying he has been doing some remodeling to accommodate the Visions program as he has a 6,000-square-foot showroom, and even with that size the concept creates a “Wow factor, which is what the customer wants.” And, he joked, “it even makes me happy to come in every day.”
As guest speaker Wynn said, the old adage about making a good first impression holds true no matter the age group. For example, “If you’re selling floor covering and the floor in your store doesn’t look good, that’s not a good sign for the customer. Also, do your employees look professional and competent? The top performers take advantage of the tools and systems provided. These things work, so use them.
“Things are getting better,” he added. “There is opportunity out there: Floor covering dealers are the foundation of civilization; we will always have floors under us no matter what so get out there.”
Spano pointed out while business is getting better the company understands things are still tough. As such, he told members who have yet to convert their showrooms, “You don’t have to do it all at once; you can build it in bit by bit. But you need to participate.”
Mel Greer of Greer’s Flooring America in Evansville, Ind., agreed members need to participate in the program. “We’re seeing an uptick in business, but the things we get from Flooring America—from national advertising to marketing to its social media and web strategies—are second to none. They are worth the cost of membership in and of themselves. Then throw in the exclusive products and private labels and it’s a no-brainer.
“But,” he concluded, “you do need to participate, otherwise what is the point of joining the group?”