Best Practices - March 2012
By Brian Hamilton
Foremost Interiors of Salt Lake City caters to medium and high end customers who are looking for one-on-one assistance with home renovation projects. The company approaches this market with a different twist from most independent flooring retailers by focusing heavily on the design and coordination of projects. In fact, the firm offers some services that might be more closely associated with a building contractor, such as providing a good plumber, electrician or carpenter when projects get more complicated than a simple flooring replacement. The firm also only deals with top notch installers, and it pays them a higher rate than other retailers.
“In some cases we’re more of a project manager,” says design manager Terry Ann Olsen. “We have people on staff who can draw and design and we have a core of subcontractors we can turn to. We want to take the fear and mystery out of the process. Most people don’t do these kinds of projects more than a few times in their lifetimes. We work hard to find the things that other [retailers] don’t want to be bothered with and try to make the process enjoyable for our customers. We don’t want our customers tearing their hair out. We take responsibility for all the follow-through.”
Foremost Interiors shifted gears somewhat after Olsen and her husband, Steve, joined the company in 2009. The Olsens had owned Steve Peterson Interiors, a design studio in nearby Orem. They purchased the business in 2000 but decided to close it in 2009, partly due to a rugged economy. They’d had an ongoing relationship with Foremost owner and founder Dave Aland, and the Olsens struck a deal to join the company.
Until then, Foremost had been a more typical flooring retailer that concentrated on quality products. Now, however, about 30% of business is with the design trade, 20% is with contractors, and the remaining half consists of consumers and other end-users. About 25% of its business is mainstreet commercial. Foremost has commercial clients ranging from physicians to restaurants and resort properties.
The shift toward expanded service and emphasis on design and fashion has paid off. The firm has grown its flooring sales through the downturn from $1.2 million in 2009 to $1.5 million last year.
This focus on project management, especially for homeowners, is a fairly recent development. The firm, like many during the downturn, reassessed where the business opportunities were and shifted its business model. With the housing market depressed and people unable to sell or build a new home, there was a larger opportunity in remodeling.
“With the economy, people were more hesitant to build a new home and they can’t get the value out of their current home, so they want to upgrade, especially if they have a good home in a good neighborhood,” Olsen says. “So they’re going to open up their kitchen or put in an outdoor living space. Plus, the contractor business was kind of drying up and it’s becoming so competitive. Looking at the big picture, we had relationships with those kinds of subs, for even the small things, like baseboard that needs to be replaced or a door moved.”
Foremost also hired a design graduate who specializes in computer aided design. If a client has a floor plan, Foremost can work with that, or if need be the firm will take its own measurements.
Foremost has also taken more steps to develop relationships with local designers. It has a Premier Professional Program for designers and contractors, which includes access to the Louis A. Dabbieri Collection, a high-end line of carpet and rugs offered through the International Design Guild, of which Foremost is a member. Also included in the program is a designer website that contains information on design trends and color forecasts, and offers design education opportunities. The program also offers the chance to reduce costs and increase margins by using Foremost’s select partners. “We’ve opened our resources to help designers who don’t have relationships with all the people that we do,” Olsen says.
AN EVOLVING BUSINESS
Dave Aland started Foremost Interiors in 1982 and still owns and runs the company as president. He had spent the previous decade as a carpet installer and flooring salesman. He began by only offering carpet, but has since expanded to include most types of floorcovering, as well as window coverings, countertops, sinks, and some furniture. He's always focused on higher quality products aimed at designers and contractors as well as consumers. Today, hard surface makes up about 60% of flooring sales, split about evenly between hardwood and tile, with a much smaller share of resilient and laminate; 40% of sales is carpet, and wool is becoming increasingly popular.
Steve and Terry Ann Olsen joined the business in 2009 after closing their own design firm, Steve Peterson Interiors. Steve had spent his entire career in various aspects of the flooring business, and for a time was a sales respresentative for Shaw Industries. Terry Ann has worked in interior design for 30 years and has won many awards, including Utah's Best of State award for interior design. She's also appeared on HGTV's designer challenge. While Foremost has always had a specialty in flooring design, Terry Ann has broadened the design focus to include color coordination and other design aspects. "People are seeing flooring as more of a design element than a cover up," Terry Ann says. "Flooring is the foundation of every room. People still want things to have a nice look but they also want lower maintenance3 and design that enhances their lifestyle."
Promoting the business
Beginning two years ago, Foremost Interiors backed away from most traditional forms of advertising, the exception being the Yellow Pages. It does use some co-op advertising through suppliers like Karastan and Hunter Douglas (window coverings) and it is listed in some specialized directories. Its greatest competition probably comes from home furnishings chain RC Willey, Olsen says, but few companies offer the same level of service, and even at that, she says, price is never an issue once a Foremost specialist can talk to a customer face to face.
However, Foremost has embraced social media as well as more traditional forms of networking. It has an extensive Facebook page that links from the company’s primary website, which also has wealth of company and product information.
“We focused on Facebook first,” Olsen says. “We’re very active there.” Olsen also has her own professional Facebook page, which links from her personal information page on the company website. There she talks about products, design and other topics. Olsen says that potential customers send her direct messages—often questions—through Facebook and she’s getting solid customer leads this way by making sure to follow up.
Another big social media avenue for Olsen and Foremost is the two year old website Pinterest.com, where people organize photos around interests, such as home decoration or weddings.
“A ton of Facebook followers are seeing me there,” Olsen says. “I have recently begun using it to post design ideas I come across, and to create specific ‘pinboards’ for my clients to see products and ideas I am proposing for them. It’s also a good resource to browse what others are pinning that may inspire or showcase products I would be interested in.”
Olsen has also become a fairly regular poster on Twitter, writing about everything from wool carpet to wood, usually with links to articles or websites. Recent tweets included “Expecting to see hardwoods as more than floorcoverings in 2012” with a link to a photograph showing a wall covered in wood, and “The Seven People You Need To Involve in Meetings” with a link to a story by that name.
“Social media has increased my exposure,” Olsen says. “It helps people get a comfort level. They can go in and get information without direct contact.”
Olsen has social media experts occasionally give seminars at Foremost Interiors, describing how to get the most out of those services.
Foremost also uses customized online newsletters as a way to disseminate information on new products, such as the recent “Just Shorn” wool carpeting and rug introductions from Louis Dabbieri.
“We use the dealer ignition services through the International Design Guild, which helps us with templates that are geared specifically to our design trade and a different template for our general clientele,” Olsen says. “We also love to share design tips and current trends in color and styles. Through newsletters we can keep our clientele up to date on all types of events we are offering.”
The company also makes good use of banners on the front of the store because it is located just off a freeway. However, Olsen says less than 10% of its business comes from walk-in traffic.
Foremost is also involved in more traditional forms of business networking through groups like the chambers of commerce and remodeling and home builder associations. Foremost gets referrals from those organizations, for example, by getting on their preferred subcontractors list. Olsen has served on the boards of some of these kinds of organizations. Steve has also served on the board of the Utah Floor Covering Association.
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