By Darius Helm and Kemp Harr
With the housing decline now officially into its sixth year—the market turned in August 2006—flooring retailers and contractors have by now firmly readjusted their expectations. For many, this slowdown has brought wisdom and deepened understanding of the business. Those who are growing and taking share have successfully retooled their sales strategies, broadened their client base and expanded their product offering. The last couple of years have seen some significant attrition among retailers and contractors in the residential market. In the end, many businesses that had managed to hold on for the first two or three years, fighting for their slice of a shrinking pie, were unable to maneuver into more favorable positions, overrun by their balance sheets in a climate greedy for debt and stingy on credit. Some were acquired by larger players, while others filed Chapter 7 or 11. By some estimates, the number of brick and mortar independent retailers has fallen from 14,400 to about 11,000 over the last five years. This year’s Top 100 list reflects growth by many retailers, largely through acquisitions or share gains in markets where competitors went under. Others, through shrewd diversification or sheer willpower, posted organic growth. Large numbers of retailers and contractors have successfully targeted parts of the commercial market, or have gained a foothold in the low margin, high volume multi-family market.The overall flooring market will probably be up close to 3% this year, with gains in the commercial sector and a slight loss in the residential sector. The good news on the residential side is that the market has pretty much stopped falling and is as close to stable as it’s been in five years—cold comfort to retailers who must spend long hours turning over rocks and scouring the bottom to eke out every square foot of flooring opportunity.For retailers across broad swathes of the nation, a brutal winter hampered sales through the first half of the year, and those regions by and large reported a turning of the tide around the month of August—and since then, business has been stronger. Others reported that business has been up and down all year long. And nobody is willing to prognosticate on what 2012 will bring, though several retailers pointed out that election years can have a stifling effect on sales, in part because of how political discourse tends to focus on all the ways things are going wrong in the country—making a nervous populace even more nervous.Unemployment arguably has the largest impact on the vitality of the residential market, though consumer confidence also affects spending habits. Nationally, unemployment stands at about 9.1%, down marginally from 9.6% this time last year. However, there are huge disparities between the states. For instance, unemployment stands at 10.7% in Florida, 11.1% in South Carolina and Washington, D.C., 11.2% in Michigan, 12.1% in California and a whopping 13.4% in Nevada. By and large, retailers in those states had a hard time making gains this year—except for the notable exceptions gaining share because competitors went under.For the complete story of the Top 100 Retailers, see the November 2011 issue of Floor Focus Magazine.