For the last two years we have had the opportunity to attend the Arley Wholesale Tile and Stone Expo in Scranton, Pa. In case you’ve never been or aren’t familiar, it’s a trade show, golf tournament, fun time and all around summer blowout that’s been going on for 13 years and gaining strength with each passing year.
A big part of the unique Arley story is the transition it made from a distributor of carpet and all the basic floor covering groups to become solely a distributor of ceramic and stone and all the countless ancillary products that go along with them.
The rest of the story—and really the biggest part of the story—is the approach behind this organization’s growth to cover nearly half of the country and build a base of loyal and ardent customers.
We’re in a position to make a judgment about the Arley’s customer loyalty because we had the opportunity to interview several of its retail customers at the event. We also interviewed Scott Levy, executive vice president of operations at Arley.
The following are some excerpts from the Levy interview, but you can listen and view the entire conversation, along with interviews of Arley customers in the video and audio archives section on the TalkFloor.com website, which is also accessible via Floor Trends’ website, floortrendsmag.com.
TF: We are in the last few hours of the showroom portion of the Arley Expo, with the golf tournament beginning in a few minutes. Fill us in on what has been happening here over the last couple of days.
Levy: This Expo has been extremely exciting. We do this every year; we bring the best and the brightest together. All the [suppliers] come, and a great many of our customers come. At the Expo we are able to show some of the things that are really changing within the industry—and it’s changing very, very fast now especially with digital technology. The technology, for example, permits us to show customers what the possibilities are and we have seen a huge response as a result.
TF: We have been able to talk with dozens of your customers over the past couple of days and a common thread seems to have run through most all of these conversations: They have all been extremely positive about Arley, the guidance and education they get from the company on product selection and installation technique; they all talked about the positive relationships they have with staff members and the outstanding service they receive. Talk about the company’s philosophy that has produced these kind of results.
Levy: I really believe that for any company to be successful and for the vision to be shared, everyone needs to be linked-in to the success of that company. And if everyone buys in because they can profit from the overall success of the company, and if your customers can profit from it as well, the result is a relationship where everyone is working together. With customers, the same approach holds true. We approach customers with the attitude [of] what can we do to make your life easier?
Many of our customers had to downsize during the recession. So as the economy is coming back they don’t have the staff on hand to perform many of the tasks above the basics. They need to become active in social media, they need to be able to understand marketing plans, and they need to know what sells and what doesn’t in their stores.
We provide this information for our customers; providing them necessary market research and background information to make their lives easier and help them sell more product.
We are also different from most distributors in that we do not sell retail. We concentrate solely on wholesale. Our basic philosophy is when someone comes up with an idea, ‘How will it benefit the customer?’ If it doesn’t match that criteria, we don’t do it.
TF: How would you describe your customer? How would you describe a typical retailer?
Levy: A typical retailer today has too many things going on. They are wearing so many hats that it’s hard to be an expert in everything.
Our approach has been to hire people who are experts so we can to provide that expertise to help our retailers.
The perfect example is social media. Social media is extremely important if you want to sell anyone 50 years of age or younger. The world is changing; the relationship has become peer-to-peer. People want to be a part of your organization; they want to feel that they are part of your family.
So we hired a social media coordinator. We have done the research ourselves and have made it available to our members and our customer base. [We are] sharing it with them because they are time-strapped and find it difficult or impossible to do it themselves.
TF: As mentioned earlier, I’ve talked with many of your retail customers during the Expo and they have raved about the help they regularly get from their salespeople—some have even told me about the help they receive from the truck drivers. I’ve been interviewing retailers for over 20 years and I have never heard one praise the work a truck driver does. Where is that coming from?
Levy: First, everyone in our company is customer service. No matter who you are, you are in customer service.
The truck driver will see a customer two times a week. The salesperson will not see them with that frequency. So the truck driver will have a better relationship with any given customer, [meaning] the truck driver has to be involved as well.
It goes back to what I said before: We’re a huge believer in the concept that everyone wins. If the company is making money we share those profits with everyone. We have had profit sharing and bonuses for people almost all the way through the recession as well. So everyone profits when the company profits.
It’s really not about the money. It’s about servicing the customer. We feel that if you do the right thing the money will come.
TF: People at this event are having a good time [and] make a point to attend every year. What’s the secret to building that kind of following and this kind of attitude?
Levy: We’re a fun organization. As the world gets more and more corporate, we’ve become even more unique. It has always been our goal to go out and have a really good time, do a lot of business, do the right thing, but to not take ourselves too seriously.
It’s important to realize that people need to blow off a little steam every once in a while and we’re the perfect company for them to do that with. We’re all friends.
TF: The ceramic industry is never short of new and exciting products and I’m sure you have salespeople calling daily to present you with tons of products hoping you will be adding them to your offerings. How do you decide on the products you ultimately buy?
Levy: When you get to be our size things change. The first thing obviously is, it has to be pretty. The look and the price are obviously important, but also important is who is making it. How reliable are they as a supplier? How financially strong are they as a supplier and can I get product?
Now very important is, what is the availability? We have the sales, but can I satisfy the customer? Can I ensure the customer will ultimately be happy with us? We have been changing some manufacturers to make sure we are doing business with the strongest and biggest suppliers in the world—where I am assured I can get product.
The customers are trusting us. They don’t care about a situation [in which] I can’t get a particular product; all they know is I told them they could have it and now they can’t get it.
We always make sure we are dealing with the right suppliers that will also work with us. We design many of the lines with our suppliers. We tweak the colors for the United States; we tweak the colors for the East Coast.
TF: Many floor covering retailers have seen their businesses change. Their markets and their customer bases change. They have carpet sales gradually decline. They may have a smattering of ceramic or stone in their showroom but they’re not really serious about the category. What would your advice be to those to make a bigger commitment to ceramic or stone?
Levy: First, tile is sexy. It’s also fun and tile is design. People will pay for design. They will pay for differentiation and uniqueness. It’s hard to do that with carpet, and I’m an old-time carpet guy—it’s where I came from.
As a retailer they will find that tile is different, it’s unique and it’s much more profitable. With tile there are many things retailers can do to differentiate themselves from their customers and make the product ‘you.’ We offer a host of options with the goal of helping retailers differentiate themselves.
One of our prime messages this year is that you are the brand. You are the reason you are successful. Don’t let the power go to the manufacturer, don’t let the power go to Arley. You are the brand. Private label everything. Make it unique; make it a fun experience with your customer.
Design the room with your customer. That’s something you can do with tile. And when you do it, it’s very difficult for them to walk away and go somewhere else.
Editor’s note: As mentioned, there is a great deal more to this interesting interview than space permits. To see the two-part conversation in its entirety visit TalkFloor.com, click on the TalkFloor TV logo and scroll down to the parts titled, “Scott Levy, Arley Wholesale – The 2015 Arley Expo.” In addition, there are other videos as well as audio conversations from people who took part in the Expo you may find both interesting and educational.
We’d also love to hear your feedback of this and other conversations you’ve watched or listened to on the site, as well as any ideas of people or companies you’d like to see interviewed. You can contact either Dave Foster at email@example.com, or Matthew Spieler at firstname.lastname@example.org.