Competing with Giants: Brick-and-mortars are finding their unique identities in an effort to stay competitive against Internet retailers - July 2021

By Meg Scarbrough

The retail flooring industry has for years grappled with how to stay competitive in a world in which e-commerce is not just a convenience but an expectation among consumers. And if the past year has taught us anything, it’s that consumer behavior was likely altered permanently as a result of mandatory shelter-in-place orders, and the desire for online services is stronger than ever.

The debate over how to sell flooring online has been brewing for more than a decade, and for much of that time, brick-and-mortar retailers have remained steadfast that flooring, as a sizeable investment and tactile product, is one that consumers for the most part just don’t feel comfortable buying on the Internet. Online mega retailers have been working to challenge that theory. Amazon, for example, now offers installation and assembly services on a wide range of products, including flooring. It’s a stark reminder that some consumers are increasingly reliant on the Internet for just about everything.

The good news for brick-and-mortar retailers is that there is so much Amazon can’t do, and with a good online and in-store strategy, they can leverage their unique strengths-sales staff with expertise, installation and design services, personalized experiences, and competitive pricing-to rise above the online competition.

The idea that independent retailers must find a way to sell online is starting to take a back seat to a consensus that

websites should be used as a tool for reaching consumers while they are in the research phase of the buying journey and for pulling them into the brick-and-mortar store, not necessarily just making a sale.

Says Deb DeGraaf, co-owner of DeGraaf Interiors in Grand Rapids, Michigan, “Even as a brick-and-mortar store, we need to be diligent and focused on our online presence. To compete with online retailers, you have to show up in the mix. We can’t assume that every client around here is going to come in the door to us first or even think about us first. Everybody is going online first. So with a good website, we can show them what we offer in that online virtual arena.”

She says her company invested in its website about a decade ago, understanding even then that it was a necessity that would always need to be improved upon as technology evolves. The ability to remain nimble became apparent last year during the height of the pandemic as Americans sheltered in place and became eager to update their homes. DeGraaf says, “Everybody was stuck at home, so a lot of things shifted to online. We added a room visualizer to our website. Before Covid, it was like, ‘Wow! You can do that? Oh my gosh!’ Whereas now it’s like they almost expect those sorts of online tools.” Some retailers have also added live chat features that will connect consumers with a sales associate who can answer questions, while others have tweaked their virtual product lineups or added virtual consultations. Ultimately, it’s about fostering connections with consumers that online retailers just can’t touch.

To help stay atop the ever-evolving Internet beast, DeGraaf has enlisted the help of an outside marketing team, Velocity, to revamp the company’s website and create an engaging virtual “front door,” as DeGraaf puts it.

Part of DeGraaf Interiors’ online messaging centers around creating a sense of personal connection. Its website features a large image of DeGraaf and her husband, Dean, also a co-owner of the company, on the home page. Elsewhere on the site, there’s a section that highlights the company’s staff through photos and introduces them with brief bios written in their own words. DeGraaf says that personal touch can help set the retailer apart so that when the consumer finds something on Wayfair and realizes they don’t have that same personal connection, “they may think twice about purchasing online.”

Retail strategists Patricia Johnson and Richard Outcalt, of Outcalt & Johnson, say, “Your website can be a powerful resource for you and a means to introduce you to more and more people. And so long as your website is consistent with what you have in-store and your specialization, your particular strengths, then it’s working for you.” They highlight the need for the online message and aesthetic to reflect the in-store experience.

Johnson and Outcalt add, “These days, in particular, people do so much research on the web before they ever go to a store. They’re looking around at all different websites, and you bet they form an opinion of it. If your website does not do justice to the quality of your store, your service and the products, you need to adjust it.” They say an added benefit of quality online content is that it can help shape an in-store message, as well. “If it’s done properly, it will also give you content that you can use on video displays to help educate, to provide signage, to provide more consistency in your message so that people see the same content they saw on the website and then they come into your store to find out more information there.”

One thing to avoid, they warn: “You don’t want to have a website with a bunch of stock photos of some a glamorous store when your store actually looks like a warehouse. You’re trying to build the reputation of the independent store.”

Sam Roberts, president of Houston, Texas-based Roberts Carpet & Fine Floors, says, “There’s a large majority of folks who are going to end up being your customers and are certainly going to do a bit of research and look you up on the Internet to try to get a stronger feel about who you are and the quality of work you do. I’ve always felt like the store-the quality of the stores, the way they look from the outside, the way they look on the inside-says a great deal about the company, and they’re communicating something subliminally to that consumer.”

Beyond being a virtual showroom and education resource, a strong website can provide valuable-and real-time-data to retailers, including demographics about who is visiting the site, as well what type of content and products they are engaging with. But, as DeGraaf points out, retailers are busy and many don’t have the time, or perhaps lack understanding, to fuss with analytics, and she says that’s been one of the benefits of working with an outside company like Velocity that can manage the data.

On a recent day, Todd Saunders, CEO of digital technology provider Broadlume, asked a group of retailers a question on Facebook: “If you could start over, how big would you make your showrooms?” Answers varied from “double its current size” to “scale it down.”

While Saunders wasn’t asking specifically about websites or e-commerce, the replies underscored the urgency retailers are facing in addressing market shifts in a digital world. And as they weigh their strategies against the giants moving forward, the showroom and how best to showcase its biggest attributes must be part of the conversation.

Chris Ramey, a retail expert and owner of Affluent Insights, had some advice for Saunders’ group: “The purpose of a showroom is to seduce your prospects so they can’t imagine shopping anywhere else. The most famous musicians are not known for the notes they hit. Instead, it’s the space between the notes. The best flooring merchants do the same. They know it’s not the product; it’s the customer experience.”

DeGraaf says, “Once we have them in our store, we need to give them an experience, not just sell them a product.” And that starts with a focus on service. DeGraaf adds, “We try to portray the value of which they’re paying to us to have a professional installer in their home schedule that measurement for them-versus them measuring it and providing measurements-help with design and selection right in your home, and then we’re there for you if there’s a problem.”

Roberts says retailers can and should leverage their expertise, something online competitors can’t even come close to matching. He says, “Rarely will a website do a really good job of fulfilling all of that quest for information in order to make good decisions. So, a lot of it has to do with just being able to talk to somebody who knows what they’re doing and give them some quality information.”

Johnson and Outcalt say, “That’s where the independent retailer has an opportunity to really shine because of the personal service that they can offer and the knowledge of their own market. What works in some of their states or some other county isn’t necessarily going to work here. And that’s what they have to give themselves: permission to be special for their own market and what their needs are.”

Roberts adds that conversations about installation are also a strength for independent retailers. He says, “Thank God we have a product that needs to be installed. Consequently, the customer is not coming in just to choose a product, they’re coming in also to find someone that they can select a product from and then install it into their home. That’s much more difficult to do over the Internet. In a lot of ways, we’re very fortunate in this industry that we do have a product that requires installation or Amazon would have knocked us all out of business a long time ago.”

Roberts says a good strategy can also include offering private labels and more competitive pricing. He says, “Involve yourself with vendors who are more exclusive with their distribution. Sometimes, you can even get products where you have exclusivity.” Some retailers also offer price-matching.

Retailers also note that playing an active role in local neighborhoods is also key. Says DeGraaf, “We do a lot of sponsorships in the community. If somebody is at an event and they see that we’ve participated, they may feel good about having bought from us in the past, or they will remember us in the future when they go to make a purchase because we supported their kids’ school or their kids’ baseball team or the church they attend. The community is why we’re here and still in business, so I think the ethical and moral thing to do is support those who supported you.”

Ultimately, Johnson and Outcalt say, there are a host of ways to have a competitive edge. They advise, “Choose a priority and make everything in the store reflect that primary strength that positions you in your marketplace to be different. Then make sure that everything that you’re doing matches up with that. It helps you answer how and where to advertise, who to hire, what all kinds of music to play in your store.”

Roberts agrees, saying, “Every brick-and-mortar retailer needs to decide what it is that they offer that is specific to their community, then decide for themselves, ‘Who is our customer, how best can I service them, and how best can I become the company of choice for them?’”

Copyright 2021 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Lumber Liquidators, The International Surface Event (TISE), Broadlume