Floors of Distinction finds ways to adapt to the new generation of consumer: Best Practices - July 2017

By Jessica Chevalier

Bruce Beaudoin started Floors of Distinction with a commitment to selling high-fashion, high-quality product. That strategy has kept the Minneapolis-suburb store humming for nearly 30 years in an area where competition is intense. However, just because Floors of Distinction started out with a winning strategy doesn’t mean it hasn’t evolved. In 2015, Beaudoin brought in interior designer Christina Burns as his business partner. Burns has helped Floors of Distinction navigate a challenging transition: adjusting to serve the new consumer while staying true to itself.

WHAT HAS CHANGED
A good example of how Floors of Distinction has adjusted its angle to stay current can be found in the company’s name. When Beaudoin chose “distinction” as part of the retail store’s moniker, he was focused on the concept of high-end, luxury product. Today, responding to the market’s preference for customization, the company has rebranded the idea of “distinction” as “distinctly for you,” meaning that it is focused on identifying how a customer lives and finding the best solution to suit their style, value needs, desires and performance requirements.

While that may seem more conceptual than operational, it speaks to Burns’ larger design philosophy, which hinges on designing a space, not simply selling a floor, and that certainly impacts how day-to-day business is done and what products the business offers. “I like to have control of the whole design,” the designer says. “Being involved in the whole process-from design help to installation-that’s where we shine.” To that end, the company began selling countertops and backsplashes in 2010. It also sells paint and plumbing fixtures and is considering adding cabinetry and accessories as well-not wallbase and stair treads, but rather design accessories like lamps and pillows.

In addition, the company, which is almost fully residential, has expanded its physical footprint to a fourth bay in the strip mall in which it resides, creating greater visibility-a boon in a market with a dozen big boxes within a three-mile radius, not to mention additional independent flooring stores and design outlets-and has streamlined its showroom for a look that is cleaner, more organized and more enjoyable for the customer. Burns acknowledges that organization of the showroom and attrition of products is a tough process, but one worth doing, adding, “We strive to be very organized and to give people enough to look at without overwhelming them. It’s tough, but we always try to remember that more is not more.”

The company is also in the process of rolling out a new virtual showroom that is bent on attracting Millennials. “The new website is more fun and engaging; the old one kind of looked like we were realtors,” Burns says with a laugh. “With the new site, we show that we are proud of our look, we emphasize the ‘buy local’ concept, we highlight our great brand and team. We want them to know that there’s a difference coming into our store because our team is highly educated on design.”

Believing strongly in the value of the referral, Floors of Distinction has shifted its advertising strategy to focus on Houzz, in particular, as well as Pinterest and Instagram. On Houzz, Floors of Distinction is a pro dealer and has garnered more than 30 reviews. In addition, the company has revamped its magazine advertising concept, moving from more aspirational, high-brow publications like Artful Living and Architectural Digest to community publications, hoping to capitalize on the market’s preference for shopping local.

THE PARTNERSHIP
When Beaudoin, a former installer, and an interior designer partner started Floors of Distinction in 1989, they were ahead of their time with their design-oriented approach to selling flooring. Floors of Distinction, true to its name, carried unique products and focused on selling higher-end goods. “Most stores were carpet and vinyl then, maybe hardwood,” says Burns, “but Floors of Distinction carried unique products, custom products. Today, everyone has those, but back then it was rare.”

Beaudoin bought out his partner in 2008, just before the recession hit. “It was terrible timing,” explains Burns. “I say that Bruce was in his dark period until 2010, just trying to keep the business going and preserve everyone’s jobs. Many flooring businesses closed, but Bruce stayed open and got through it. As things started getting better, he decided he wanted a partner again.”

Burns majored in English literature in college-with minors in music composition and biology-but after graduation found herself compelled by her first love: interior design. Having grown up in a 1912 Victorian home in Parker’s Prairie, Minnesota, Burns loved all things design from an early age, with a particular affection for flooring. “No one says, ‘I’m going to end up in flooring,’” Burns notes, “but it’s always been my favorite element of design. I went back to school in 2010 to get a design degree. I needed to learn to articulate more about design, and the formal education gave me the confidence to design an entire home, to offer the full package.” When Beaudoin set out looking for a new partner, he didn’t have to look far because Burns was his leading salesperson and a buyer.

Burns eagerly stepped into the partner role but reports that the transition has been challenging. “I was doing a lot for the company and trying to be helpful,” she says. “I had five years as a buyer under my belt. I could find what was pretty, but I learned that I also had to find what was profitable. Some things look good, but they are a race to the bottom on price because everyone has them. I’m learning more from Bruce all the time.”

Ultimately, the pair intends to partner for around five years before Beaudoin segues out and Burns buys the business outright.


WHAT HASN'T CHANGED
What hasn’t changed at Floors of Distinction is just as important as what has. First and foremost, the company focuses on selling quality. “We don’t sell low quality floors,” says Burns. “They don’t make the customer happy, and we don’t like the headache.”

Burns has two sayings she repeats in relation to this philosophy: “What’s cheap isn’t less expensive” and “We want to help people find the right flooring at the right price, versus the wrong flooring at the right price.”

To this end, Floors of Distinction typically skips good-quality products in favor of the better and best. On the hard surface side, the retailer sells all standard product categories as well as cork, bamboo, leather and linoleum (Forbo’s Marmoleum). The company also sells a mix of rugs-both pre-made ones from companies like Milliken and Masland, and rugs created through custom programs.

Burns and Beaudoin are comfortable with the fact that their approach to selling better-end goods won’t suit every customer. Burns says, “We have competitive pricing, or we wouldn’t be here. But if a customer simply wants the lowest price, we won’t race to the bottom. Other stores can do that. We don’t play that game. We’re proud of our prices, our work, our products, our business model of paying installers and employees well. If it doesn’t resonate with everyone, it’s okay.”

Service is key to the Floors of Distinction approach. While the company will sell flooring products for DIY installation, it prefers not to in favor of collaborating on projects with customers. Those collaborations end not with a note or flowers, but with a celebration. “We are trying to get out to every single home to celebrate,” Burns notes. “For us, it’s all about the end result, and when a job’s done, it’s high-five time. It’s the most rewarding part of the job. Of course, it takes time to do that, but I’ve made it part of the brand to tackle this-going to see every completed project.”

In addition to simply celebrating a job well done, this approach allows Burns one last chance to discuss the product’s attributes and maintenance needs with the customer. “It’s a good time to walk through a punch list,” Burns says. She also uses the opportunity to take pictures of the finished product, which she “blasts everywhere” across social media. “That’s our future,” she says of photos of the finished products. “We won’t succeed in having simply transactional sales. I don’t have something here that you can’t get somewhere else.”

Burns takes great care to determine when the customer is comfortable with her visit, adding, “Sometimes I will go out when the installers are finishing up, but for the most part I let customers get more settled in their new space. It’s stressful to have work done in your home. Sometimes customers are crabby and need time to nest. There is no set time for the celebration. It depends on the customer.”

INSTALLER STALL
With a business model and culture built on not just selling product but also offering the customer a full design and installation package, Burns is gravely concerned about the installer shortage.

“Everyone in the industry is talking about the installer problem,” she says. “And everyone is scratching their head. We have a deficit of workers in those jobs, and until our culture of telling kids that they need a four-year degree changes, I don’t see the problem getting any better. Most people don’t understand how much money installers can make. But the fact is, I can’t do anything without installers. They are the executors of my designs. Without them, I have no business. It can be a financially rewarding job, and it’s in demand, but a lot of kids don’t want to work that hard.”

In filling Floors of Distinction’s installer ranks, Burns seeks out either college students with student loan debt or those in school for the trades, and she trains them. And while many of her seasoned installers appreciate the freedom of being an independent contractor, Burns believes that the mindset of younger generations is different. Having been raised through the recession and cognizant of the high cost of healthcare, employment is a much more attractive bet for young adults today, and Burns believes that the industry may need to change its employment model if it is to attract a new generation and ultimately solve the installer shortage crisis-i.e., hire employees as installers rather than utilizing them as sub-contractors.


GOALS GOING FORWARD
Burns, an athlete with a strong competitive streak, has a clear idea of where she wants to go-she’s got her eye set on $5 million annually-and a strategy for getting there.

• Keep installers from burning out and recruit new ones.

• Hone the brand. “Be proud of what we do and own that. Be sure the team is strong and ensure that they buy into the store culture,” Burns says.

• Stay atop social media. Burns looks to another Minnesota company, countertop producer Cambria, as a model of social media success. With more than 70 Houzz reviews, Burns says that the company is “amazing” and strives to achieve the same online success.


Copyright 2017 Floor Focus