Flooring's Slow Start, Marketing Strategies, Social Media: Strategic Exchange - Mar 2016

By Kemp Harr

Did February seem like a long month to you? Many of the industry’s seasoned veterans will tell you that February is not their favorite month, and it didn’t help that this year it had an extra day. We heard the good news early in the month that Punxsutawney Phil didn’t see his shadow, but floorcovering sales at retail continue to trudge along at rates below what we saw for the same period last year. 

Certainly, there are pockets of activity, especially in the hard surface and rug categories, and also in the builder sector of the market. The mild fall allowed builders to get more homes under roof, and now we’re seeing the floors go in.

There’s been some major cheese-moving going on in the retail flooring business in the last couple of years. Thanks to the Internet and a surge in hard surface sales, retailers are starting to recognize that they’ve got to adapt to survive. 

Gone are the simple days when the owner could just run down and unlock the store in the morning, go over the installation assignments for the day and then spend the rest of the day selling mostly carpet to the steady flow of walk-in customers—customers who, back in those good old days, knew you were there because of your listing in the back of the phone book, augmented with the occasional sale ads you’d run in the Sunday edition of the local newspaper. 

Granted, everyone is keenly aware that the Internet killed the Yellow Pages about ten years ago, but the intricacies of how you set up the digital solution that puts the dealer front and center during an Internet search continues to evolve. Considering that the leading buying groups and aligned dealer organizations in the floorcovering business devote much of their training curriculum to this topic, it is clear that digital strategies are constantly changing, with more options than ever. And the optimized solution varies, depending on the size and scope of your operation and whether you service an urban or rural market. Without a doubt, you have to have a website, and then you need to drive traffic to that site, and your options for this are either search engine optimization (SEO) or pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. 

Another key facet of a digital solution is social media. Options for social media used to be limited to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, but have now expanded to include Houzz, YouTube and Pinterest, among others. And lastly, you need to consider reputation management, also known as online reviews. More and more consumers—especially within the Millennial generation—consider comments of previous customers a differentiator when it comes to choosing a service provider. Options in this area include many of the social media sites mentioned earlier, as well as specialists like Yelp, Google Reviews and Angie’s list.

One of the first steps in the process of building a digital plan is to determine how much you can spend. As a general rule, most floorcovering retailers should be spending a minimum of 4% of their total revenue toward promotion, so for a million-dollar retailer, that’s $40,000. The general consensus within our industry is that about 45% of your budget should go toward digital marketing so that works out to be $18,000 a year or $1,500 a month. Again, these are minimums. The rest of the budget should go toward other types of advertising, which integrates with this effort. But for now, let’s stay focused on digital.

There are two options for making sure that your site pops up when consumers are using an Internet search engine like Google, Yahoo or Bing to look for flooring in your market. The first option, SEO optimizes the design of your site so that it organically pops up whenever someone is looking for flooring in your area. And while there are tricks that make this happen—which seem to change on a frequent basis—the retailer is not being charged a fee when its site is listed during a search. On PPC, however, that is exactly what happens. Google, for example, will list your site near the top of the search results and charge you a fee, normally around $2 per search. Many of this industry’s buying groups and aligned dealer programs offer bulk services and discounts in this area. 

Before we leave this topic, there is a new digital tool called retargeting that allows a retailer to tag a consumer’s browser and feed ad messages to them for a period of time while they are doing other things on the Internet. These ad messages only cost pennies per impression and can be very effective in building your brand to a consumer who has indicated, based on a previous search, that they are in the mood to buy floorcovering.

As mentioned earlier, the options in this area have expanded and evolved, but the more sites you use, the more time it takes to manage the process. The key here is to assign this responsibility to someone who can actively take a few minutes a day to monitor the activity. The two most popular sites for flooring retailers to interact with consumers using social media today are Facebook and Houzz, followed by YouTube, Pinterest and Twitter. In a more B2B environment, LinkedIn is important. Facebook has evolved in the last several years and now has an effective ad program to drive brand messaging, and Houzz was developed to show visual options to homeowners during a remodeling product, so it is well tailored to the flooring business. YouTube is also effective, but only if you have video content. It offers a great free area to post your television commercials.

The last component of an integrated digital program deals with getting recent customers to post online reviews. The trick here is to be proactive and ask for the help. Naturally, you are seeking favorable reviews, and most retailers make this part of their post-installation customer satisfaction survey call. 

Based on the complexity of this topic, it is probably a good idea to seek advice from the same marketing consultants you use to help you with advertising. Virtually all of the buying groups and aligned dealer programs recognize how important this topic is for building store traffic, so they are another potential resource for advice. There are also two specialists on this topic that focus solely on the floorcovering business—Creating Your Space and FloorForce.

Another game changer for retailers is the continued shift from carpet to hard surface products. I mentioned last month in this column that the home centers and warehouse clubs are better suited to sell hard surface, since it’s sold in a box and therefore easier to purchase on a cash and carry basis compared to a 12’ or 15’ wide roll of carpet. In addition, more and more hard surface products come in a floating or click format, making it easier for the mechanically inclined homeowner to install without assistance. 

So does this mean that it’s time for independent retailers to look for a new line of work or something else to sell? Not at all. Retailers that have looked in the mirror to ensure that they are offering the consumer more than a vast warehouse showroom are continuing to grow. Fortunately, most consumers today—even among Millennials—are looking for knowledgeable advice, experience and personal attention. The trick is to reduce the clutter in your showroom and train your people so they give impeccable and insightful service. 

Most of the retailers we talk to are telling us that while less carpet is being sold, homeowners are choosing more expensive patterned products that work to individualize each room, rather than have the same carpet in every room. But this is a trend that must be taught by someone in your store who is knowledgeable enough to sell fashion.

It is not the role of this publication to weigh in on political candidates, and we will refrain from doing that. From a historical perspective, however, I’ve got to ask our more seasoned readers if they remember the first time they heard the name Bernie Sanders. 

Let me refresh your memory. In June 1993, Sanders, who was serving his first term as a U.S. Congressman of Vermont, helped drive the movement to label carpet as a hazardous material based on VOC testing done by Anderson Laboratories. In the end, the EPA exonerated the carpet industry because the test could not be replicated.

Right before press time we learned that Ron Van Gelderen had died at the age of 80 from complications related to his struggle with Parkinson’s disease. Van Gelderen served as the president and COO of the Carpet and Rug Institute for 20 years and stepped down after being diagnosed with the disease. Werner Braun succeeded him in this position in 2000. And from 2003 until 2006, Van Gelderen went on to serve as the first president for the Synthetic Turf Council. 

While at the CRI, Van Gelderen was a consensus leader and often worked to resolve conflict by bringing people together in the interest of finding middle ground. The carpet industry went through much of its supplier consolidation under his watch, moving from 285 mills in 1980 to less than 75 in the late 1990s.

In his spare time, Van Gelderen was a car enthusiast, serving as president of the Cadillac & LaSalle Club for two terms and publishing a book titled La Salle: Cadillac’s Companion Car.

Van Gelderen’s last act of helping was the request that his body be donated to science in the ongoing search for a cure for the disease that has taken so many.

If you have any comments about this month’s column, you can email me at kemp@floorfocus.com.

Copyright 2016 Floor Focus

Related Topics:Broadlume, Creating Your Space, Carpet and Rug Institute