Noting that just about everyone got “punched in the face” from the Great Recession and those who are still here should be “congratulated,” Keith Spano, president of Flooring America, told members of the buying group at their recent summer convention now is not the time to sit on your laurels but to invest in your stores because “the consumer is looking for inspiration and seeking expertise. Is your store laid out so that at first glance it gives her confidence you are different from everyone else?”

With that, Flooring America/Flooring Canada (FA/FC) kicked off its next three-year plan, which continues the buying group’s quest to become the most recommended flooring store in North America.

Frank Chiera, FA/FC’s vice president of marketing and advertising, said in 2012 the group launched its “Where Friends Send Friends” campaign which was the starting point of getting real customers to give what he calls 4- and 5-star recommendations about their experience with their local FA/FC store. In 2013, he and other executives hit the road to personally speak to consumers and get their recommendations and feedback on video, and “now we have an online library.”

At the summer convention, he said the group was taking this strategy to the next level with the “Road to Most Recommended” campaign. The idea is for each member to get 20 reviews before the 2015 winter convention, and with over 500 members in the group that amounts to at least 10,000 “glowing” recommendations about FA/FC which will allow the organization to launch the campaign in its entirety.

Chiera pointed out in today’s fast-paced, technologically oriented world, recommendations from real people can be the difference between getting a consumer to walk through your door feeling confident about you or avoiding you altogether.

“Online recommendations really impact sales,” he said, pointing out how 85% of consumers read reviews and 80% trust them. “We feel reviews are more important than advertising. In today’s world of social media, reviews and recommendations are the new word of mouth and we feel we are at the point where we can quantify we are the most recommend flooring store in North America, but we need your help in getting there.”

While the group places a high value on recommendations it is certainly not abandoning its advertising efforts. In fact, Spano noted they are being expanded not only with more exciting national promotions that are tied into exclusive partnerships, such as with Braava and its intuitive iRobot hard surface floor cleaner—which is not sold in home centers—but by giving members the ability to dictate when they want to hold a sale and FA/FC will be there to help generate the marketing and excitement.

During the national “Hard to Beat Flooring Sale,” consumers who purchase certain hard surface flooring will be given a free iRobot. Using the Northstar Navigation System, the whisper quiet machine literally knows where it has been so will only make one sweep of the floor, and it will not bump/scratch furniture or accidentally get stuck on rugs and soft surfaces. It also has two cleaning modes—dry and damp mopping—making it even easier for consumers to keep their floors and home clean.

“Let’s face it,” Chiera said, “today’s consumer, especially the younger ones are working longer and harder to make it and the last thing they want to do when they come home is sweep, mop or vacuum. The goal of iRobot fits in with the goal of FA/FC, which is to make products and services easier for customers.”

Spano added, it is also about “putting fun back into flooring. We need to generate excitement, especially among new customers and this is a great way to help accomplish that.”

Back to being the most recommended concept, FA/FC executives recognize the consumer is changing—whether it’s the new millennials who are coming into the market or the baby boomers who are redoing their homes—people in general are more tech savvy than ever. And retailers need to keep up with today’s hottest and newest “toys.”

This can be a daunting task and it is why FA/FC created FAST, a comprehensive turnkey program that allows members to have their businesses connected on today’s most popular social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Houzz and more, and in ways that can help drive traffic to their stores.

Although the program has helped generate over 45 million impressions for the buying group, as 80% of all members are taking advantage of the program, at convention, FA/FC unveiled its fourth generation of FAST, which now includes Instagram.

Why Instagram? As Chiera said, it has over 150 million users and growing, it has a collection of 5 billion photos and growing, and it’s growing quicker than Facebook, which is why the social media leader purchased it for $1 billion.

“Instagram is eye candy for showing your store and products,” he explained, “plus it can be shared through other social media networks. And, it’s a great hyper local content marketing tool. And you can even post short, 15-second videos on it and videos are extremely hot right now.”

He pointed to a car dealership that is using this feature to show a customer driving off the lot in a new car. “There’s really no limit to what you can do.”

The one drawback is FA/FC cannot directly upload content to an individual dealer’s Instagram site like it does with other social media platforms, “but it is creating national material to post and will also give dealers items they can upload themselves. “It sounds harder than it is, but if you’re already on Facebook, Pinterest, etc., you’ll realize it’s just as easy,” Chiera explained.

On the technology front, the company has also partnered with Google. Kate Bossart of Google explained the company’s new Business View service, which allows members to take 360-degree views of their store so consumers can literally shop your store online. “It’s like Google Street but in your store. And it enhances your business on Google search, maps and Google +, plus it works on a desktop, or any mobile device.”

Speaking of tablets, FA/FC wants members to not only be tech savvy online, but in their stores. To that end it unveiled a number of in-store apps such as The My Floor Guide, which Chiera said provides customers with an “amazing in-store experience” from electronic pricing and product info to customized product information. And the second generation of the CASH program that will become the new CRM system for members.

Being all tech savvy and greeting customers with an iPad is all good and well, but if your store is not up to par with how she perceives it should be all the gadgets in the world won’t matter.

That is why FA/FC implored those members who have not taken advantage of the company’s Vision store design system featuring the Evolution display to get on board.

For one, “It is a proven fact, members with the Vision system have higher profit margins,” Spano said. At convention, he noted 35% of the members have the full system in place, while 65% have elements of it as it is designed to allow storeowners to integrate it as opposed to doing an entire makeover at once.

Nancy Trafford, vice president of member services, asked, “Do you want to be known as Kmart and compete on price or do you want to be a Nordstrom and compete on service? And because it can be done in segments, it is easy and affordable. Plus with Evolution, it can be customized. It’s a very versatile, very uniform look that takes away the confusion and overwhelming her when she first walks in.”

Theresa Fisher, vice president of store design and visual merchandising, said, “I’d put Vision up against any other retail design—especially with the integration of Evolution. It creates an easy journey through your store so she won’t be just wandering around lost in a sea of product.”

Spano stressed one of the purposes of Vision is to get the buying group “out of the display business. We are about fashion, not about selling displays every year—plus it’s something no dealer wants. We created a system that is flexible to remain up-to-date for many years, and it’s a proven winner with those who have it.”

Members overall seemed very happy with what they were seeing and being presented—which also included a number of exclusive product offerings from companies such as IVC, which Paul Murfin, co-CEO, credits FA/FC’s parent company, CCA Global Partners for “putting us on the map 10 years ago, even before we had any distribution,” as well as special wood and laminate offerings from Mannington, among others.

Mark Conner of Conner’s Flooring America in Perry, Ga., said, “I really like the direction I see our group moving. Our marketing is focused on building the Flooring America brand by focusing on building it locally at each of our member’s stores. The focus on building referrals and testimonials is key to the success of any local small business.”

Erik Chesher of Carpet Wise in Longmont, Colo., noted, “I love how Flooring America is moving. Especially in regards to how they are helping us to market the store. I’m super excited about the upcoming iRobot promotion and all the cutting edge sales we have that allow us to compete with home centers but not copy them.”

Patrick Flaherty of Flaherty’s Flooring America in Cypress, Tex., feels as a group “the management team is the best we’ve every had. They are really involved, and not just in throwing stuff down the pipe but in really asking for member opinions and thoughts and then coming through with items that meet those.”