Best Practices - January 2012
By Brian Hamilton
Highland Hardwoods of Brentwood, New Hampshire is kind of a throwback business in that it focuses on one thing—wood, primarily hardwood—and its goal is to be the best in New England at that one thing. Highland Hardwoods knows wood and concentrates on wood the way Harley-Davidson specializes in motorcycles and nothing else. It hasn’t gotten distracted by offering unrelated products and services.
The firm is primarily a hardwood lumber distributor, supplying more than 50 species, from cherry to walnut, for furniture and cabinet makers and other businesses that need top quality wood. However, it has also found high end hardwood flooring to be a profitable retail niche, focusing on brands like Homerwood, Somerset, Mirage and several others. It can also provide custom made hardwood flooring in up to 12’ lengths and 9” widths.
The flooring business (which also includes some laminates) has held up remarkably well during the downturn, especially compared to the lumber business, according to company president Rick Lang. “Flooring has maintained itself,” Lang says. “We’ve not experienced a huge drop in flooring sales.”
While Highland Hardwoods carries hardwood flooring at a variety of price points (although it avoids commodity products), one of the main reasons for its success is that it focuses on high end flooring, mostly prefinished solids. Engineered flooring accounts for about one third of flooring sales, as taste preferences in the Northeast, as well as climate conditions, tend to favor solid flooring.
“We really can’t compete at the lowest price level,” Lang says. “We lose more low-end business in this kind of (economic) climate. We maintain good sales because of carrying high end product and our salespeople offer a lot of product knowledge, and people come here because of that as well. Customers like to deal with people who know what they’re selling.”
Another part of the winning formula is carrying “a little bit of a lot of things.”
“We have such a diverse inventory that if a customer wants something, we can offer it,” Lang says. “We can draw from a vast inventory of lumber.”
AN AFFLUENT CUSTOMER BASE
Brentwood is about 45 minutes from metropolitan Boston, but more importantly it’s near the affluent and heavily populated coastal areas, and Highland Hardwoods draws a lot of customers from those areas for high end applications. Although there are discounters like Lumber Liquidators and Home Depot not too far away, those companies don’t carry the kinds of products that dominate the Highland Hardwoods inventory. Well-to-do customers aren’t so price sensitive and are willing to pay for high quality products that will last a long time, Lang says.
Over the years, Highland Hardwoods has gained the reputation of being the area’s top hardwood specialist, not just a hardwood flooring retailer, where customers can go for advice from people who know wood inside and out. That reputation for hardwood expertise in general has spilled over into the flooring business, so shoppers go to Highland Hardwoods knowing the experience there will be different than anywhere else.
Despite the fact that it’s selling high end flooring, about a third of the firm’s customers install the products themselves. Lang says that any homeowner with aptitude can install it these days because the manufacturing process has gotten so precise and the finishes are so good. And Highland personnel can provide valuable advice for those homeowners.
“As we are a major hardwood lumber distributor, our knowledge of hardwood lumber and its properties is unsurpassed,” Lang says. “That is very important and is essential to the customers we serve. This knowledge helps educate the customer about elements that may adversely affect their hardwood floors. Most customers come to us thirsting for knowledge about hardwood flooring, which is terrific as that is one of our greatest strengths.”
The company’s 20’ by 30’ flooring showroom has some different touches from other hardwood retailers. For example, the firm has a pull-out display—designed by the sales staff—that holds 4’ by 6’ samples of all the solid hardwood flooring Highland offers. Those large samples can be laid down to give customers an idea of what a whole floor will look like. Overall, the showroom has about ten different displays, and they’re all very different from each other, showcasing everything from handscrapes to exotics. Customers can also take samples home.
Because of its longevity and the reputation the company has gained for its expertise, combined with the economic downturn, Highland Hardwoods doesn’t do a lot of advertising these days. Most of its promotion is through television advertising at smaller market stations rather than Boston market stations. Highland has two major month-long flooring sales events each year, in the spring and fall.
Highland used to do extensive yellow pages and print advertising but Lang doesn’t believe those are very effective anymore. Its understated website is basically an electronic brochure and there’s a huge amount of product and company information, but there’s nothing screaming at visitors to buy now. The firm also has almost no social media presence. It has a Facebook page but the only real information is Highland’s phone number. There’s no link from or to the website. Today, Highland generally depends on word of mouth referrals from satisfied customers, so it concentrates on exceeding customers’ expectations.
Oddly enough, that doesn’t include installation. Highland refers customers to well established and skilled installers in the area, but otherwise doesn’t get involved in the transaction. Lang says the company isn’t equipped to take a more active role.
“Anything that goes wrong comes back to us, so we recommend really good people and they need to have a good track record,” Lang says.
AN IDEAL LOCATION IN BRENTWOOD
Highland Hardwoods is marking its 25th anniversary this year. The firm got its start in 1986 in Kingston, New Hampshire as a supplier of kiln dried Northern and Appalachian hardwood to the New England woodworking trade. It sold truckload quantities to furniture companies, flooring manufacturers, and other large users of wood. The next year it moved to Brentwood, just a few miles north on Route 125. About 10 years later it relocated into newly constructed quarters in Brentwood, also on Route 125. The firm has sold flooring since it moved to Brentwood. The current location has become one big factor in Highland Hardwoods' success. The north-south Route 125 is one of the most well traveled roads in the area, and Highland has concentrated on high quality signage to draw passersby. It's also near another heavily used road, the east-west Route 101, which goes to the coast.
Flooring customers tend to come from about a 45 minute radius. However, it's not unusual for customers of the hardwood lumber business to drive four or five hours, because of the high quality and extensive inventory. Some of those lumber customers also become flooring customers.
Copyright 2012 Floor Focus
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