Best Practices - Aug/Sep 2012
By Brian Hamilton
“We fix $39 Installations. No Hidden Costs.” That was a recent message on a billboard opposite a home center by Columbus Flooring & More, taking a jab at big box retailers’ too-good-to-be-true carpet installation offers. Not only did the ad help shoppers realize that $39 might not be the whole story regarding cost, but that it might also invite shoddy work—and, of course, that all that can be avoided by shopping at Columbus Flooring, the local experts.
As the sign implied, for the Columbus, Georgia Carpet One affiliate, the flooring business isn’t about selling a product at a low price, it’s about providing “a turnkey solution,” according to co-owner Al Gaston. In that sense, it’s a process, not a transaction. It’s about making sure the customer buys the right product, knows exactly what’s involved with an installation, understands how to take care of the new floor, and realizes that Columbus Flooring will stand behind a product warranty and not defer to the manufacturer or installer. It’s about creating a project the customer will be proud of.
“What the large print giveth, the fine print taketh away,” Gaston says about the big box ads. He says that his deals are often less expensive than a big box store’s, once all the adjustments are made to a $39 installation offer (pad, moving furniture, disposing of old flooring, etc.)—often hundreds of dollars less for the same product. He’s focused on making sure his potential customers understand the difference between shopping at his Carpet One store and shopping at a home center or anywhere else. “Give me ten minutes with a customer to tell the Carpet One story, and I can offset that low price, but I can’t battle it with a sound bite,” Gaston says.
Gaston’s sales staff works with customers using an elaborate checklist that’s designed to educate shoppers about everything involved in a flooring purchase. He notes that customers are good at shopping price but not so good at shopping service, partly because they don’t understand everything that’s involved with a flooring purchase. Customers are encouraged to consider the whole process, including things like the advantages of installing an upgraded pad, especially if there are kids or pets in the home.
“We are in the solutions business, and we preach that,” Gaston says. “I have no problem with a consumer going out comparison shopping but they need to know enough to compare apples to apples.” He has designers on staff who work with customers, and it’s not unusual for a customer to take one of their designs and shop it around town. “That’s frustrating but it is a valuable service and we don’t charge for it.”
EMPHASIS ON INTERNET ADVERTISING
The focus of Columbus Flooring’s advertising is finding qualified leads so Gaston’s staff can tell that Carpet One story.
Gaston spends most of his advertising budget on the Internet, specifically with a lead generation service. although he also advertises in local high end magazines as well as the Yellow Pages, which research shows many people in his area still use. He also uses a little radio and cable advertising and he’ll use billboard advertising a couple of times a year if he has a short message that lends itself to that medium, such as “We Fix $39 Installations.”
Gaston likes Internet advertising because it generally results in fairly high quality leads and the expense is known. It’s also where most people begin their search for flooring. He uses a lead generation service that ends up costing $45 per qualified lead. As part of the program, the service has created a website, columbusgaflooring.com, and it drives traffic there through its own pay-per-click programs. It also comes up at or near the top of a Google search for “Columbus GA flooring.” Gaston has stopped using his own pay-per-click program to focus on the specific lead generation program.
“We’ve morphed our thinking on advertising, from aggregate cost to cost per lead,” Gaston says. “We’re trying to drive that down.” Gaston’s annual budget has advertising budgeted by month, but the amounts aren’t necessarily set in stone if circumstances change.
Magazine advertising often promotes Carpet One’s Healthier Living installation system, which Gaston says is a big selling point for his store. He offers various installation packages—all of them carry the same services and warranty—but the difference is simply in the quality of the cushion. Ads have also promoted custom tile shower enclosures, and Gaston is a fan of Schluter Systems. In addition, ads also talk about quality, reliability and trust and encourage shoppers not to be fooled by big box teasers.
The store’s website is fairly comprehensive and visually oriented and contains everything from information about current promotions and products to an expert blog, featuring all kinds of flooring topics. Gaston is the expert blogger, and often he’s addressing issues posed by customers.
EMPHASIS ON INTELLIGENCE, INITIATIVE
Providing a high quality installation is a key to ensuring customer satisfaction, which is the lifeblood of Columbus Flooring & More. Gaston goes to great lengths to make sure his subcontracted installers can meet his high standards.
“We provide training,” Gaston says. “We will pay to have someone come in and work with the installers on technique, moisture, seaming technologies—we take the lead on that. We spend a fair amount of money on training, almost as much as on advertising, so it’s not an insignificant amount. We encourage certification. We haven’t made it mandatory but we’re going down that path.” Gaston says the rates he pays installers are in the upper quartile in the Columbus area, and they’re high enough to keep the best installers loyal to his business.
Two qualities that Gaston looks for in all his employees (as well as in his installers) are intelligence and initiative. He wants people who believe in lifelong learning and, as he says, “will leave the campsite better than they found it,” taking a cue from the Boy Scouts. In other words, he wants employees who are enthusiastic and want to make a difference and improve the business.
NEWBIES BUY THE BUSINESS
Al Gaston and his wife, Barbara, purchased the Carpet One store in 2008, which at that time was known as the Columbus Carpet Mill Store. The business got its start in 1964 as the retail outlet for Columbus Mills.
Neither of the Gastons had any experience in the flooring industry before acquiring the business. Al, the chief operating officer, was trained as a CPA and had a career in turnaround management, working with private equity groups. Barbara, the CEO, was a design consultant early in her career but more recently she worked at IBM and has held development and fundraising positions for area educational and non-profit organizations.
Today, Al Gaston says carpet makes up less than 50% of sales, down from 55% two years ago. Wood is a growing category, and "we still get some traction on laminate." Builder and commercial sales each make up about 15%—down from about 30% and 20%, respectively, a few years ago—with retail taking the rest. The Gastons also have a Steamatic franchise, offering carpet and tile cleaning, duct cleaning, mold cleanup, and emergency services such as flood cleanup. They operate this as a separate division.
Copyright 2012 Floor Focus