Best Practices - Aug/Sep 2011

By Brian Hamilton

 

Avalon Carpet, Tile & Flooring, the 22nd largest flooring retailer in the country with 14 locations and $74 million in sales last year, might be in the sweet spot for a flooring retailer. It’s large enough that it can generally compete with the home centers on price, and aggressively advertise itself, but small enough that it can provide top notch customer service like a mom and pop operation.

Avalon’s typical customer is a woman age 25 to 65, and the company works hard to appeal to that demographic.

“When that customer comes in, she wants to see a great selection of product, fair prices and good warranties, and she wants to deal with a company she feels good about,” says president and CEO Maryanne Adams. “She wants to deal with happy employees who are well trained and educated in products.”

Size enables the Cherry Hill, New Jersey based firm to keep its prices low. For example, it imports over 300 containers of tile a year from Italy and Spain, giving Avalon a huge cost advantage. It’s no accident that tile is its largest segment, followed by carpet and wood.

Avalon, which is aligned with Mohawk Floorscapes, also offers private label tile, marble, wood and laminate through its Avalon Collection, which again provides a cost advantage and lets Avalon hold its margins better than other competitors. This also works, in part, because customers can’t easily compare Avalon label products to anything on the market, especially through Internet research, which is where most shoppers start these days.

“We can focus on selling the features and benefits of the product,” as well as Avalon’s warranties, Adams says.

Private labeled imports, of course, are common in the home centers. But where the giants fall off is in customer service.

“We really focus on the training of our sales staff,” says Adams, who has 140 salespeople among her 280 employees. The stores are open a total of 60 hours per week, so a fairly large staff is needed. “When a new employee comes in, we have a buddy system, where they are actually shadowing, watching the process, and learning about products, all at the same time.”

Through this process, it takes about a year to get a salesperson entirely up to speed, Adams says. Avalon salespeople don’t have product specialties, and every salesperson learns to sell every product in the store.

“If we hire someone from the industry, they might know one product well,” Adams says. “We look for someone with a strong sales background. We will teach them about products.”

Avalon’s product managers hold quarterly sales training sessions at company headquarters. The company also makes heavy use of Mohawk University sales training and selling programs, bringing Mohawk representatives to New Jersey instead of traveling to Georgia. In addition, Avalon takes advantage of other vendor training programs and online training.

Secret shopping of Avalon stores also helps management know who might need more training.

Though this training takes both time and money, the upshot is a knowledgeable sales staff that can get customers the right flooring and keep a customer from going back to a home center and buying strictly on price.

“Price is a big consideration,” Adams says. “But if a customer gets great customer service and is offered a good price, I think they will buy from us.”

Avalon also provides training for its sub-contracted installers, through the Certified Floorcovering Installers group, as well as other sources like manufacturers. Avalon has a standard 12 year installation warranty on hard surface products and a lifetime installation warranty on carpet.

AGGRESSIVE ADVERTISING
Avalon invests heavily in advertising, allotting 3.5% of sales, which translated to over $2 million last year alone. Television is a promotional mainstay, accounting for about 40% of the ad budget, and Avalon even posts its somewhat humorous TV ads on its website. Because it does business in the heavily populated Philadelphia area, it makes sense to be on the airwaves.

Avalon also invests in Sunday newspaper inserts, printing over a million copies for distribution once per month. These are eight page inserts that are far more call-to-action than image building and focus on all products. One feature takes a standard size room and offers finished prices with carpet, wood and laminate, so shoppers can get a good feel for the differences in price.

Billboard advertising is also in the mix. At any given time the company has six to eight billboards and Avalon moves those ads around to different locations.

“With the economy the way it is, I don’t think anyone is doing image advertising,” Adams says. “Now it’s call-to-action, and you have to pay close attention to what works.”

When Avalon holds a sales event, it may only use one or two forms of advertising. When the event is over, Avalon compares the sales to the same event the previous year in an effort to gauge the effectiveness of its various methods of advertising.

Avalon also uses its Facebook page to promote everything from sales to things like its participation in the Grand Slam Career Fair, and useful informational stories like “How To Keep Sand Out of the House.”

Avalon also has a full-time web specialist and a separate budget for search engine optimization.

OTHER PROMOTIONAL AVENUES
Avalon also works to build its reputation in other ways. About three times per year it holds a regional Designer Night, in which it invites local designers, suppliers and other interested parties to network and enjoy heavy hors d’oeuvres and an open bar.

“It’s a chance for designers to talk to suppliers and vendors and make them aware of new products,” Adams says.

Avalon employees, and the company, are active in the community. Avalon works with designers for the Make A Wish Foundation and provides flooring free of charge in those projects. Employees also collect nearly $100,000 per year and donate it to organizations like the American Cancer Society and the American Red Cross.

Each store also has a promotional budget, which is used to support school teams, charities and other local causes. 


AVALON CONTINUES TO GROW

Avalon Carpet, Tile & Flooring was founded by John Millar in 1958. Millar, who died in 2008, was originally a commercial installer who benefited from the fast growth of the Atlantic City casino industry. In the early 1990s Millar decided to get out of the commercial business and started adding retail stores. Today, about 70% of Avalon's business is traditional retail (including window treatments), and the rest is mostly builder and mainstreet commercial. John's wife, Mary, still owns the chain but is not involved in the daily operations.

Millar had put together a solid management team, grooming Adams to become chief executive. However, Millar's death hastened the transition somewhat just as the economy was starting to collapse. "It was a learning experience," Adams says. Avalon, like many companies, had to lay off employees (mostly in support role positions), but has recently started hiring again.

Avalon just opened its 14th store in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. It has ten stores in New Jersey, three in Pennsylvania, and one in Delaware, and most of its customers are middle to upper middle class consumers who tend to buy at middle to upper price points.

Avalon is set up so that its stores are all very similar inside (all about 25,000 square feet), so a shopper who has a main home in Philadelphia and has purchased flooring there can walk into a store near their beach house on the Jersey shore and feel right at home. Each department is rearranged at least once a year, and flooring is changed at least twice a year. Merchandising is another major point of emphasis for Avalon.

Because the store are so similar, along with the fact that Avalon is a highly structured organization, employees can transfer between stores easily, and that happens more often than might be expected. "We will have sales staff who ask to transfer," Adams says.



Copyright 2011 Floor Focus 



Other Archived Articles

Home Builder Sentiment Ticks Down in January   Full Article
Washington, DC, Jan. 20, 2015 -- U.S. homebuilder sentiment edged lower in January but remained well in positive territory, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

Remodeling Market Index Hits Record Level   Full Article
Washington, DC, Jan. 20, 2015 -- The National Association of Home Builders’ Remodeling Market Index posted a record-high result of 60 in the final quarter of 2014.

Fuse Alliance Names Gordon Executive Director   Full Article
Laguna Niguel, CA, Jan. 20, 2015 -- Fuse Alliance, a member-owned organization of professional, commercial flooring contractors, said it has named Geoff Gordon as executive director.

RAK Ceramics Selling Stake in RAK Laticrete   Full Article
United Arab Emirates, Jan. 20, 2015 -- RAK Ceramics plans to sell its stake in RAK Laticrete as part of the company’s strategy to focus on core assets, the firm said.

Julius 'Bud' Shaw, Founder of Shaw Industries, Dies   Full Article
Cartersville, GA, Jan. 20, 2015 -- Julius Clarence "Bud" Shaw, age 85, founder of Shaw Industries, died Jan. 16.

TISE East Changes Location, Dates   Full Article
Dallas, TX, Jan. 20, 2015 -- Informa Exhibitions said that the second annual International Surface Event East 2015 dates have shifted to Nov. 2-5 and the location is moving to Orlando, Florida at the Orange County Convention Center.

Shaw Introduces New Carpet Backing, Protection System   Full Article
Dalton, GA, Jan. 19, 2015 -- Shaw Floors said it is introducing LifeGuard, a new carpet protection system that covers the entire product, from face fiber to backing.

Valinge, System SpA Form Printer Partnership   Full Article
Viken, Sweden, Jan. 19, 2015 -- Välinge Innovation and System SpA have entered into a strategic partnership to supply the flooring and building panel industry with industrial single-pass printers .

Surfaces Show Featuring Booth Crawl Challenge   Full Article
Dallas, TX, Jan. 19, 2015 -- This week's Surfaces show will feature a Booth Crawl Challenge, a new show promotion.

Ceramics of Italy Contest Deadline Extended   Full Article
Bologna, Italy, Jan. 19, 2015 -- The submission deadline for the 2015 Ceramics of Italy Tile Competition has been extended to Jan. 23.

Polley To Be Inducted into WFCA Hall of Fame   Full Article
Anaheim, CA, Jan. 19, 2015 -- David Polley is the newest inductee to the World Floor Covering Association Hall of Fame.

HPS Schönox To Name Contest Winners on Thursday   Full Article
Las Vegas, NV, Jan. 16, 2015 -- HPS Schönox will present the winner of its Schönox Worst Subfloor in North America Contest at Surfaces next Thursday at 11 a.m..

Shnier To Distribute Metroflor's Aspecta in Canada   Full Article
Norwalk, CT, Jan. 16, 2015 -- Metroflor Corp. said it has formed a partnership with Shnier, a leading Canadian floor covering company, to distribute its commercial Aspecta LVT.

Dealer Discovers Rug Owned by FDR   Full Article
New York, NY, Jan. 16, 2015 -- John Ahdoot of Ahdoot Oriental Rugs recently discovered a rug in a New Jersey couple’s home that once belonged to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Consumer Sentiment at 11-Year High   Full Article
Ann Arbor, MI, Jan. 16-2015 -- Consumer sentiment in January surged to the highest level in 11 years, according to the preliminary reading of the University of Michigan/Thomson Reuters consumer sentiment index.

Consumer Prices Fall Most in Six Years   Full Article
Washington, DC, Jan. 16, 2015 -- U.S. consumer prices fell 0.4% in December, the largest drop since the end of 2008, according to the Labor Department.

Pharr Yarns Invests in New Space Dye Technology   Full Article
McAdenville, NC, Janu. 15, 2015 -- Pharr Yarns said it has invested in space dye technology for its McAdenville facility to handle the growing demand for sophisticated design.

Engineered Floors Using Dye, Stain Technologies in Soft Nylon   Full Article
Dalton, Ga., Jan. 16, 2015 – Dream Weaver Carpet and Engineered Floors say they are using technology they developed for coloring polyester fiber and applying it to soft nylon.

IVC Deal a Good Sales Opportunity for Mohawk   Full Article
New York, NY, Jan. 15, 2015 -- Stifel Nicolaus still has a "buy" rating on shares of Mohawk Industries following Mohawk's announced acquisition of vinyl firm IVC for $1.2 billion.

Producer Prices Decline in December   Full Article
Washington, DC, Jan. 15, 2015 –- Producer prices fell by 0.3% in December, according to the Commerce Department.