Floor Care-Products and Services: Cleaning products and floor care services can be powerful tools for sustaining client relationship - April 2020
By Darius Helm
For independent flooring retailers, their entire livelihood depends on how well they leverage their advantages over big boxes, home centers and the Internet in order to hold onto their share of the residential flooring market. Product knowledge and personalized service are the most essential weapons in the retailers’ arsenal, and the challenge is how best to use them, including how to nurture and sustain client relationships in order to drive return business and referrals.
Independent flooring retailers have been steadily losing marketshare to big box stores-Home Depot, Lowe’s, Walmart-for decades, and more recently national chains like Lumber Liquidators and Empire Today have swiped a chunk of the market, as have warehouse clubs like Costco. With the exception of area rugs, the Internet has not impacted retailers’ flooring sales, but it has changed and complicated the process by informing (sometimes inaccurately) and empowering the user and upending the selling system. For many retailers, it feels like they’re floundering in the wake of these retail behemoths. Too often, they’re struggling just to stay afloat and strategizing their way out is beyond their command.
Nevertheless, strategies do exist. For flooring retailers, one of the most straightforward is diversification. This includes diversifying to add non-flooring products (for more on this topic, see Diversification: Beyond Flooring, starting on page 59); diversifying into other markets, like multifamily and contract commercial; and diversifying beyond flooring sales and installation to floor care and maintenance.
FLOOR CARE SERVICES
Of these three options, floor care and maintenance represent the biggest departure from the retailer model, though at the same time, it’s the only option that keeps business focused on the residential flooring market. Diversifying into non-flooring products is a natural extension of the sales model, and diversifying into commercial or other flooring markets extends the range of expertise in flooring products and installation; however, getting into floor care, particularly by offering cleaning and restoration services, means adding an entirely new kind of service business-new equipment, new skills, new sales models.
It also means competing with specialists-like Stanley Steemer, which has over 280 operations across the U.S.-that are entirely focused on these types of services: carpet cleaning, grout and tile restoration, and even intensive programs like hardwood sanding and refinishing.
Only a small percentage of flooring retailers offer these sorts of services, but those that do are mostly enthusiastic about the results, in terms of profits as well as generating new business by sustaining relationships-the floor care service becomes the thread that leads back to the retailer for subsequent flooring purchases.
It’s worth noting that, even though Stanley Steemer, ServiceMaster and other cleaning specialists have the built-in advantage of a national presence and brand focused on cleaning and maintenance, flooring retailers hold perhaps the most important card in the deck: the customers. Stanley Steemer franchises don’t know the who, when and where of carpet purchases, so they can’t do targeted programs. But every retailer already has pre-approved potential clients for floor care-clients who are enthusiastic about their purchases and are primed to invest in looking after them-and complete knowledge of their specific flooring and its floor care profile.
OPERATING THE BUSINESS
One flooring retailer that has been in the floor cleaning business for over a decade is Montgomery’s CarpetsPlus in Venice, Florida. Following a conversation the owner Mike Montgomery had with Jon Logue and Ron Dunn, the co-founders of Alliance Flooring, the umbrella group for CarpetsPlus and Color Tile, about how the cleaning service to which Montgomery had been referring business for a decade had never funneled anything back his way, Montgomery decided he could do it better himself.
He took a seminar and invested in a fully outfitted truck, an over-sized utility van wrapped with the store’s logo that came with stocked with scores of different cleaning chemicals, along with all the necessary wands and hoses and cleaning tools. The Alliance Flooring program also included training for a technician.
Montgomery invested in promotion, as well, running weekly ads, and when business took off, he switched to a larger Dodge transport van, offering cleaning services for carpet and ceramic tile, along with some wood flooring and other hard surface materials.
A couple of years ago, he added a second Dodge van using a government tax break, and he is outfitting it this year. In addition, he has a smaller van with portable equipment for condos and other residences where he’s not able to run hoses from the curb.
Montgomery’s advice when it comes to entering the floor care business is to go all in. Get all the equipment you need and, crucially, find someone to run the operation, to promote it, schedule it and perform the floor care. “It’s a full-time, dedicated job,” says Montgomery. And rather than recruit someone from Stanley Steemer, find and train a good worker. According to Montgomery, it’s not the initial investment that stops people from pursuing this line of work, it’s finding the right person to run it.
Ron Dunn agrees, adding that “the perfect candidate is someone in good shape, younger, who wants to grow in their business.” When you go to the client’s house, Dunn suggests, post flyers six houses on either side and across the street. It also helps if the technician can work flexible hours.
Only half of Montgomery’s floor care business comes from existing customers. In addition to residential remodel work, which accounts for about 80% of floor care revenues, Montgomery also services about nine retirement communities, which he notes “keeps us busy when everyone else is slow.” Most of the work is carpet and ceramic tile. The margins are better for tile, and the tickets are higher, but carpet is easier and faster.
Of all the big flooring groups, Alliance Flooring is the only one that helps drive its members toward cleaning and maintenance programs. It created the cleaning program in 2009 while still in the throes of the recession-in fact, the first member retailer to sign on was Montgomery’s CarpetsPlus-offering everything from the machinery and chemicals, the marketing plan and business plan, the ROI algorithms. The van itself was the responsibility of the retailer at a cost of $20,000 or less.
In the first few years, dozens of members signed on, but as the economy strengthened and business activity picked up, retailers grew less concerned about keeping their customers close with cleaning services. At the group’s latest annual show, for the first time in years, the cleaning truck was not on display.
Not all retailers manage to turn floor care into a profit center, but it’s still often worthwhile because it allows them to keep customers close and also raises the visibility of the business. But in recent years, as the market has strengthened, flooring retailers haven’t felt the need to pursue these sorts of business endeavors. Also, digital tools have been developed that enable retailers to efficiently target consumers, including existing customers, with well-timed offers and opportunities, potentially reducing the importance of using floor care relationships to achieve those same ends.
For instance, Arizona-based Baker Brothers, a member of the National Flooring Alliance, had a floor care division for about a decade until it shut it down last year. The retailer did it for the marketing, not the money. With the manpower and resource needs, it wasn’t a profitable business, but it did help Baker Brothers stay close to its customers. But in the end, as the retailer developed new strategies to reach out to its clientele, the division didn’t offer enough value and was shut down.
Instead, Baker Brothers guides customers to iicrc.org, the website of the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification, which can link up homeowners with certified floor care providers. And many other retailers that see the value of offering floor care services but don’t want to invest in building a division of their own will choose to partner with restoration and cleaning firms. This way, they can ensure that their clients always keep their flooring looking its best, which at the very least enhances their reputation.
It’s worth noting that the economy has abruptly changed. It might be a grim observation, but the fact is that the coronavirus pandemic is going to put the U.S. economy and global economy into a hole for a while. It will mean a frantic and competitive market as everyone struggles to find their equilibrium. Independent flooring retailers need to prepare to keep themselves relevant and necessary when the market starts to come back to life.
For some, that will mean hustling like crazy and suffering narrow margins just to make ends meet, but those that are bold and have the ability to invest maybe $20,000 will be in a position to keep their clients close and at the same time generate a steady revenue stream.
FLOOR CARE PRODUCTS
While Alliance Flooring concentrates on cleaning services, the other major buying groups, like Abbey Carpet & Floor and CCA Global’s Carpet One Floor & Home and Flooring America, focus their members on cleaning products, both as an added revenue stream and as a way to keep the customer engaged.
Around the same time that Alliance Flooring was promoting its floor care service program, CCA Global started rolling out its first private label cleaning products under its Resista brand. It launched the program with its Resista Dry Carpet & Rug Cleaner, which is made by Milliken Chemical, a division of Milliken & Company-as is Milliken Floor Covering. The same product goes to the consumer market under the Capture brand. The Resista name came from a private label polyester product successfully introduced a couple of years earlier, marketed for its ability to resist stains.
The program was immediately popular, according to Jim Aaron, CCA Global’s vice president of merchandising at Carpet One Floor & Home. And the firm added Resista hard surface cleaners, with formulations designed exclusively for CCA. The products are offered in merchandising displays, but retailers offer incentives to encourage their use, like a free bottle to start with and 25% off coupons going forward.
The first few years saw a wave of members adopting the program, but the momentum has slowed-again, as the economy has strengthened. Nevertheless, for the dealers that do offer the Resista cleaners, it’s a profitable venture.
Abbey Carpet & Floor’s carpet cleaner is the same product, but under the Capture brand. And on the hard surface side, it offers cleaning products from Bona. Abbey believes that both of these lines have strong brand equity and are at the top in terms of quality. In addition to the dry carpet cleaner, both CCA and Abbey offer spot cleaners.
Just last month, Bona came out with its PowerPlus Antibacterial Hard-Surface floor cleaner. Bona, which is headquartered in Sweden and just celebrated its 100th anniversary, started out in hardwood floor finishes and has since expanded into a leading producer of wood flooring products, covering everything from installation to renovation and maintenance. Starting about ten years ago, it expanded to offer products for all hard surface flooring.
In Floor Focus’ annual retailer survey, Bona is the perennial winner in the Cleaning Equipment and Supplies category.
The firm’s new hard surface cleaner is hydrogen peroxide-based, which, according to the firm, is a safer formulation than most chemical cleaners. When used as directed, it kills 99.9% of household germs.
At the beginning of this month, the Environmental Protection Agency released a list of cleaners that can be used to combat COVID-19, and Bona’s new product is on that list.
Bona made the following claim: “Bona PowerPlus Antibacterial Hard-Surface Floor Cleaner has demonstrated effectiveness against viruses similar to SARS-CoV-2 on hard, non-porous surfaces. Therefore, this product can be used against SARS-CoV-2 when used in accordance with the directions for use against Rhinovirus on hard, non-porous surfaces. Refer to the CDC website at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/ for additional information.”
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