Do you remember when the flooring industry went through the big controversy about whether to switch the sales of carpet and vinyl from being sold by the square yard to being sold by the square foot?

I certainly do because I studied it and wrote about it at the time. During this period, those of us retailers were a bit confused as to just why this change was even happening. Also, there was big confusion as to just who was spearheading this change.

After all, carpet had been sold by the yard going back long before Americans started to produce it on this continent; back to Europe where carpet production was made by hand or man-powered machine looms that produced 3-foot wide pieces of goods.

So the 3-foot wide by a 3-foot length was a square yard or nine square feet. In fact, our first wall-to-wall carpets were done by sewing—seaming—the 3-foot wide woven strips together until they reached from wall to wall. At the time they were mostly woven wools that were not stretched and had to be attached on the edges with tacks.

I remember learning about this when I first started selling flooring back in the mid 1980s. One day I heard an older salesmen call tack strip, tackles strip. I asked why. He explained how the installers of old would put a wad of tacks in their mouth—to speed things up—and spit out one tack at a time as they moved down the wall. That was appropriately called “spitting tacks.”

When carpet looms became standard at 12-feet wide here in the U.S.—a width dividable by three—and was now being stretched from wall to wall over cushion, the wood tack strips already had the nails pointing up for stretching purposes so spitting tacks was over. Tackles were now the new normal.

Survey Says

Fast forward to when the industry started trying to change us retailers from presenting carpet and vinyl by the foot instead of by the yard. Being a curious veteran of flooring, a “Trusted Sales Advisor” and industry columnist, I wondered if other retailers were as confused about the reasoning and just who would promote and therefore profit from the change.

At the publication I wrote for at the time, I asked the editors if I could do a survey as part of my column. They told me surveys they had done produced little interest and only a handful of responses, but they let me try it anyway.

My column presented both sides of the argument as I saw it. The voting ballot at the bottom of the article simply had a check box for ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to change to square-foot pricing. Within about a week of the issue’s mailing, my home mailbox started to get packed with votes. As memory serves, I received over 400 responses in about a two-week period.

Obviously I had struck a nerve in the retail industry.            

The fun part for me was not just the vast amount of responses, but the amount that came with a letter attached. Most were from old timers that were actually mad about possibly having to change what they had done for their entire career. You’d have thought they were being asked to learn the metric system. We all know how Americans adopted to that trial. We thought it was like learning a new language.

In this case, though, we already knew how to do square footage because to get to yardage you have to get the footage first. For example: a 12 x 10-ft. room is 120 feet. Then divide by nine to get 131/3yards. But even I liked the yardage method better because I had memorized it to look impressive.

One letter said, “I hate this idea because I can tell my customer that has a 10 x 10 room that it takes 131/3yards, but if I tell her it takes 120 feet she thinks I’m cheating her.” He would rather keep her in the dark than to have to explain the waste factor.

The letters I received that I got the biggest kick out of were 10 that pleaded with “me” to not let this change happen. These readers actually thought I—a columnist—had the power to prevent this industry from making this change.

The end result of the survey was that over 90% of my readers—retail specialists—wanted things to stay the way they were.

What Really Happened

The long and short of this change was that carpet manufacturers realized that their market share for their products purchased by the end user was slipping dramatically. The share of a house that was carpet back in the 1970s was almost 90%, while in about the year 2000 it was just above 65%.

Hard surfaces were increasing so much in the average new home over the years. So the idea being the apples to oranges theory, because homebuyers did not understand that carpet on average costs about one-third the cost of hardwood or tile installed. That the average carpet installed back in the year 2000 might sell for about $27 a yard—$3 a square foot—while the average hardwood or tile installed price was about $9 to $10 a square foot. So after all the confusion it came down to comparing apples to apples.

My advice after the mills and distributors started to bill us by the foot to change our minds was simple: Put both prices on the showroom floor price tags. Meaning put $27 a yard and $3 a square foot on the same label.

Enough time has passed now that even most of us old timers have switched to presenting carpet solely by the square foot. What’s next, tackling the metric system? This square yard to square foot switch was almost too much for us Americans already. Thanks for reading.