Retailer Guide to Merchandising: How flooring retailers are making the shopping experience easier for consumers - Jan 2021
By Meg Scarbrough
Countless hours have been spent by researchers and businesses over the years gathering data on how consumers interact with products within stores and the ways merchandisers can close a sale. Does a certain genre of music keep shoppers in a store longer? Does it matter where new product lines are placed? What makes a display successful? When it comes to the consumer experience, merchandising can make or break a sale. The rise of the Internet has changed shoppers’ expectations, and retailers, especially amid Covid-19, have been forced to take note and adjust their strategies. From reducing clutter to improving signage and displays, everything is on the table; it all comes down to making it easier for the consumer.
ASSESS STORE LAYOUT & DISPLAYS
Store layout is key, according to Jim Dion, a national expert on consumer engagement and retail. “It’s managing the customer path,” he says. “How do you want the customer to experience your store?” It means deciding which products should go where and organizing displays in a meaningful way that influences the consumer to buy.
He says retailers employ different philosophies. One is what he calls the “bread and milk” theory, which holds that you put the bread and milk (essential items, ones you know the customer is already going to purchase) in the back of the store. It forces the customer through the store to expose them to a lot of other products before they get to the back. Dion adds, “If there is a product that’s being constantly used by installers, put it in the back because you know they’re going to come in and find it and get it. If it’s a brand-new product you want to draw attention to, put it up front.” Dion says it’s important to keep in mind that with the rise of the Internet, consumers are seeking out more convenience, and retailers need to be aware of that when laying out a store.
Putting most popular or high-demand products in the front gives consumers an immediate introduction to a retailer’s best offerings. Says Darren Braunstein, vice president of New Jersey-based Worldwide Wholesale Floor Coverings, “We keep hard surface in the front and soft surface in the back. In hard surface, we feature hardwood as the first thing you see.” He says the showroom then transitions to a hybrid department that features products like SPC and WPC before heading toward the back, where carpet and rugs reside in the soft surface department.
As part of the customer path, signage is playing a larger role in showrooms, directing consumers to flooring departments in more prominent ways. Says Jim McKay, vice president of sales for Washington-based Great Floors, “We’ve made huge changes in recent years where we’ve upgraded our signage. Now you’ll actually see large banners that indicate what department you’re in. In the last year, we’ve also added a lot of what we call ‘top cards.’ They attach to the sides of displays, and they basically say ‘Have you thought of this?’ Or ‘Did you know this?’ It’s like a silent salesman.”
Flooring retailers say one challenge is updating their showrooms on a regular basis as retailers with easier-to-move inventory do. McKay points out that in a perfect world, it would be like Nordstrom, where clothing racks and displays are changed frequently. “It’s harder to do in the flooring business; it’s really difficult to keep up with it,” he notes, adding that they try to do updates every six months.
Dion says technology can play a role for retailers looking for more nimble showroom floors. “The more digital you are, the more flexible you become in moving your store around on a moment’s notice,” he says. “You can have monitors on wheels; you can have a lot of different ways of experimenting. Good retailers are always sand-boxing-playing in that sand box and trying different things-like putting a product up front for a week and seeing how customers respond to it and then moving it somewhere else.” But he adds, “There is no one specific answer for every store and product.”
In recent years, retailers have made strides to reduce clutter and simplify displays with the hopes of improving the consumer journey. Dion says it’s been similar to coming out of the Dark Ages. “If you went into any flooring stores ten years ago, you would see a sea of vendor fixtures,” says the consultant. “Every vendor had their own fixture. Some of them were awful. And most of them were really awful. As a consumer, if you went into any flooring store, they all looked alike.” But he says in the last couple of years flooring retailers have been moving out of the mold to the benefit of the consumer.
McKay says Great Floors has started limiting the number of manufacturers displayed on the showroom floor. “The thing that really gave us a brutal realization was about two years ago in the early summer, we had all of our managers in a store,” he recalls. “We were walking the store, looking at what’s good, what’s bad, what’s working, what’s not. And we walked into an area that had probably 40 LVP displays. It was like someone hit you in the nose with a bat. We thought, ‘This is just ridiculous. We can’t even tell the difference between all these things. How’s a customer going to do that?’”
Since then, they have limited presentation of suppliers in every category. He says it’s created more of a partnership program with suppliers. “It’s good for both of us,” McKay notes. “And we’re going to support a manufacturer that’s supporting us and try not to allow distractions to their presentation.”
The result is that it’s made the shopping process easier and less confusing for consumers. McKay says, “We have big stores, and it’s really easy for a customer to walk in that front door and be overwhelmed. So we’ve tried to simplify it.” By putting an emphasis on leaders in each category, they aim to direct the sale and eliminate confusion.
Other retailers are removing or limiting manufacturer branding in an effort to create a more streamlined and cohesive appearance, one that tells the retailers’ story.
Worldwide Wholesale, which recently opened a new location this summer, is among them. Braunstein says the new opening brought with it an entirely new merchandising strategy for the company. One reason for the dramatic shift was that they were working with a smaller store footprint than the company has traditionally used, so they were seeking a better organizational system that would be consumer-friendly and more updated and appealing.
Unlike their other locations, the new store features custom-made displays and no manufacturer racks. Braunstein says, “Everything has a very consistent look, from the flip rack fixtures we designed and built to the actual samples that go into them.” He says that allows them to organize the showroom based on product category rather than manufacturer. For example, in the hardwood section, all wirebrushed offerings are in one spot and all smooth wood in another, and so on. Manufacturer names, product information and specs are located on the backs of samples. He said the format makes more organizational sense to the consumer when they are shopping. “We have seen so far that the consumer has really appreciated it and has liked the way the store is laid out,” he says, adding that the model has been so successful that Worldwide plans to transition all of its locations to mimic this one.
While retailers don’t have to give up on manufacturer displays, it’s important to work with them to find displays that work well within their spaces and amplify the consumer experience, not detract from it.
DEVELOP AN ONLINE PRESENCE
In the early days of the Internet in the 1990s and early 2000s, retailer websites often reflected what was only offered in-store, meaning what was on the shelves was presented in a digital format, and that was it. But as e-commerce evolved, it became evident that websites could present offerings beyond four walls, and these days, retailers can have a seemingly never-ending catalog for flooring options. Says McKay, “Online I’m unlimited. I can draw products from pretty much everywhere; I can present it in any which way I want. And I can do it in the comfort of the consumer’s home.”
As technology and e-commerce have improved, customers have come to expect that the online and in-store experiences will be similar. A high-end store, for example, should have a high-end website, one that reflects a cohesive aesthetic and tells the retailer’s story.
McKay says, “When the customer sees the website and they come into the store, they expect a certain experience.” And he says they are comparing the flooring retailer not against other flooring stores, but against ones they shop with online and in-store every day.
Dion agrees. “They compare a flooring store to all the stores they go into,” he says. “Yeah, it’s a little different to buy flooring than a refrigerator, a dress, new plates, but it’s still all shopping.”
Recognizing that factor, Braunstein says Worldwide is working on a new website that will be deployed soon in an effort to improve cohesiveness between the online and in-store experience. “Giving a consistent and uniform experience is the ultimate goal,” he says.
And in a time in which the pandemic has people staying at home, more consumers are doing research online before they ever enter a store. In the past year, an increasing number of retailers have made adjustments to the websites, improving search functions, adding visualization tools, providing virtual consultations or streamlining product offerings. “We have put a lot of energy into our website,” Braunstein says. “We had a pretty good site over the last two years, but we have really fine-tuned it since February and March when the pandemic started to make it more user friendly and simple and promote other methods of buying products,” like their shop-at-home program. (For more on Shop-at-Home, see page 46.)
The digital shift hasn’t been a fast one, but, Dion says, “Some retailers are getting it. They are going into homes now to get estimates with iPads, and they’re actually demonstrating some of that technology in the consumer’s home, showing them what different finishes would look like in different rooms of their home.”
And in spite of the vast capabilities of the Internet, Dion says brick-and-mortars will remain a critical component for shoppers.
For starters, shopping for flooring isn’t like buying a shirt online. It’s a major purchase, one that takes a lot of thought-and money. If a consumer makes a mistake on flooring, they can’t just send it back and get a new floor. Retailers say consumers in recent months have been doing more research online prior to coming into stores, but they largely still depend on RSAs to help make final decisions. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, flooring is a sensory experience. “As much as we talk about the virtual world, a lot of consumers still want to touch the merchandise,” Dion says. “They want to see that carpet; they still want to feel it. They still want to see the tile and feel it. They still want that sensory experience before they commit. While technology has its benefits, it still doesn’t demonstrate some of the questions I want answered. What happens if I spill something on it? In a store where I’m actually with a product, I can see what happens. So stores are still going to have their place.”
And Dion only sees the need growing as the world seeks a return to normalcy post-Covid. “We are going to see consumers flocking back to the stores that are left,” he says. “I think the thing that the pandemic is doing is a little bit of a Darwinian winnowing of retailers, but the ones that have been able to weather this will be in a better position when they open again.”
STUDY OTHER RETAILERS
Dion says it’s critical that flooring retailers become students, not only of the customer, but of other retailers, as well, and understand what’s working well in a particular market. He says it’s not just looking at other flooring retailers, but ones that sell anything from refrigerators to stoves and everything in between.
He points to one large retailer, Abt Electronics, in Chicago as an example. Despite having only one location, the company is on track to record $1 billion in volume this year alone. He says it comes down to the customer experience. From child-friendly play areas to a flooring recycling center to a replica of the Bellagio Hotel fountain in Las Vegas, he says it’s about customer engagement. “They have a bunch of stuff that’s not about selling anything. Go study others and see who is rallying excitement,” Dion recommends.
Another component, he says, is that business owners can do simple things like looking at websites they enjoy shopping on, as well as asking people close to them how they shop. “Ask your husband, your wife, your nieces and nephews, how they shop for clothes, books, music, whatever. And some of that may surprise retailers,” Dion says.
The biggest mistake retailers can make is to do nothing at all, Dion warns. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, he says it might be easier for a retailer who has been holding it together to say, “‘My business is doing OK, I’m just going to sit here and ride this out.’ No. The world is going to shift once again. While home improvement is on course to continue to do well, it will plateau. That’s the cyclical nature of business. Be careful, don’t become complacent.”
Conversely, he says it’s equally important that retailers don’t go overboard with changes. “Don’t be Chicken Little.” Finding the middle ground will be crucial for retailers, he says, and the best way to do that is through sound budgeting and planning. “And most importantly, involve all of your team in input, because very often, the answer is within your company, you just haven’t been listening.”
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