The Importance of Merchandising: Creating a streamlined approach to showroom merchandising pays dividends, though many stores remain cluttered – Feb 2022
By Jennifer Bardoner
When it comes to merchandising, industry and luxury marketing consultant Chris Ramey has a saying: A confused mind walks. Yet, he says, the majority of the flooring showrooms he visits seem to have confused the role merchandising should play, trying to be everything to everyone through a multitude of crowded displays instead of using them to offer a distinctive and curated experience.
CONFUSING THE CUSTOMER
Ramey recently experienced this phenomenon firsthand while helping his daughter shop for carpeting at a high-end retailer in San Francisco. “It was one of the worst experiences of my life,” he says. “I was lost, and I’m in the flooring business! You’re selling a big-ticket item-and confusing the customer is a very bad idea because a confused mind shifts downward in price or doesn’t buy anything at all.” And missed or fumbled sales mean that the dealer doesn’t get the chance to establish a working relationship with a potentially repeat customer.
Carpet Exchange president and CEO Bruce Odette has spent 30 years honing his showrooms’ look and feel, and it seems to be paying off. The retailer was number 26 on Floor Focus’ Retail Top 100 list last year, bringing in $137 million in residential flooring sales across its 17 stores. “It’s been my goal to make it as easy to shop as possible and still direct consumers to the products we want to sell,” he says. “If you go into a typical retailer, you’re going to see a sea of racks from every supplier and no real rhyme or reason or organization. That’s confusing to a consumer.”
David Chambers, director of flooring for Nebraska Furniture Mart-number 17 on our list with $245 million in sales-agrees. “Merchandising is how you differentiate yourself to the consumer against your competition,” he says. “Most consumers don’t shop for flooring that often, so you have very few opportunities with those consumers. Your merchandising has to be on point; it has to really speak a message about what you and your company stand for and offer and how you’re going to make this experience easy for them. I’ve been in lots of flooring showrooms where I don’t get inspired and there’s nothing that stands out about what I’m looking at and why I might be inspired to buy.”
CURATING YOUR SELECTION
In the case of Carpet Exchange, Odette uses the showroom’s design to highlight products that he’s negotiated with manufacturers for the best pricing and that offer exclusivity but also high performance and durability. Those “core products” are prominently featured in the showroom, with more niche or otherwise peripheral products relegated to the edges of the showroom in case a customer doesn’t find what they’re looking for among the featured products. “It’s not only making it easy to shop for the consumer, but easy to navigate for our sales associate,” Odette says of the largely streamlined selection. “They’re going to be more comfortable through that sales process, especially for new hires or new people coming into the industry.” The amount of floor space each category receives correlates with the percentage of sales it makes up overall. “We’re trying to max out the ROI on everything we’re doing,” he adds.
At Nebraska Furniture Mart, prominent placement is given to stock products versus those that are special order, and the impact has been borne out in the five-store chain’s sales. “Over the last two or three years, the percent of our business from stock to special order products almost flip-flopped,” says Chambers. “We’re doing way more stock business than special order.” Odette notes that Carpet Exchange’s featured items account for more than 70% of overall sales.
CREATING A STREAMLINED AESTHETIC
“Less is more,” Chambers explains. “It’s really about letting the products speak for themselves, giving the products the stage to do that and giving them a preferential spot on the floor.” Nebraska Furniture Mart uses 24”x48” feature samples for hard surface and 8’x2’ samples to display featured soft surface patterns. Large samples better help the customer envision a product in their home, says Chambers, something which Odette echoes in both mentality and his showrooms.
Such streamlined aesthetics can be at odds with manufacturers’ approaches, which tend to favor displays laden with samples and showrooms jam-packed with them. “Manufacturers have a philosophy I was taught when I was a manufacturing rep: ‘Loaded is loyal,’” Ramey says. “The overarching trend is to show smaller samples so you can squeeze more products into your store. This is not a good trend. In fact, it’s a bad trend. You put more and more swatches on the back of a board; it further confuses the customer.
“Manufacturers don’t really sell samples anymore, they sell displays, and they all want to find more ways to put more displays in a showroom. They think if they don’t have something they’ll lose a sale, when in fact it’s the opposite. There’s been extensive research on consumers’ buying habits, and it’s been proven empirically that the more products you have, the more confused the client gets, and the more confused the client gets, the more likely they are to leave the showroom.”
Ramey also notes that displays help distinguish you from the competition, telling customers the minute they walk into your showroom what you’re about and what they can expect. “If you’re buying the same displays they see in other stores, it’s telling the walk-in customer you’re the same, so you should work very hard to not have the same displays, and I would argue that you should work very hard to not have mill displays, so the brand that matters is your brand, not X brand,” he says. “Remember, they’re going to walk into, say, three stores, and if they see the same thing everywhere, price is the only thing that’s going to matter.”
Nebraska Furniture Mart has taken this to the next level, creating its own displays for the Des Moines location’s refresh three years ago. It proved more challenging than feasible. “In theory the concept is great, and it looks wonderful,” Chambers says. “But it’s very hard to maintain when you have custom samples and you have product launches from a vendor. They’re not making your product samples ahead of everybody else’s, and you’re a little late to the game.”
The company now utilizes “less obtrusive” displays, providing parameters for manufacturers that work with their traditional samples but that meet Nebraska Furniture Mart’s standards and are mirrored across each of the showrooms. “It’s still a consistent look and feel-not as consistent as Des Moines, but that’s something we had to give in on a little bit,” he says.
ESTABLISHING CONSISTANCEY WHILE EXPERIMENTING
All of the sources with whom we spoke agree that consistency is key. It’s also one of the biggest challenges. “If you go into any of our 17 locations, they all vary in size but they all have the same look and feel,” says Odette. “That’s really hard to do. In fact, that was probably the hardest thing. Getting consistency throughout a multi-chain brand is very difficult, and you can get away from that and not even know it.” He lists exterior signage as a prime example. “You have to have them all look the same, but over the years and years in business, sign looks have changed.”
Chambers recommends continuously evaluating your showroom’s design and making regular tweaks and trying new things. Touring other showrooms, networking with fellow industry professionals and talking to customers about what drew them into your store or to a certain display can yield insight. Nebraska Furniture Mart is experimenting with a new way of displaying its tile selection after hearing about it from another National Flooring Alliance member, and it has carved out an area of the showroom for in-stock products-an approach that will further evolve this year-based on sales associates’ and customers’ feedback. “We have a philosophy that I call the ever-changing showroom,” Chambers says. “You should never just chunk a huge capital investment and update your showroom all at once; you should always be updating your showroom, so you’re able to try new things and learn from new things. If you do a huge capital improvement project, you’re locked into that for however many years. And with regular updates, you’re always giving the consumer something new and fresh to look at.”
CLOSING THE SALE
While merchandising is the first thing a customer will notice, it’s not the only thing that’s important, our sources agree. It sets the stage-“If your store looks like a mess it’s going to be tough to convince someone your service is going to be good,” Ramey says-but what will often make or break a sale is the sales associate. Culling your selection also makes the shopping process easier on them, giving them a better chance of knowing the ins and outs of featured products and targeted upsells. “Perhaps there are some salespeople that know everything, but my guess is that the more edited your selection and showroom are, the easier it is for the salesperson,” Ramey continues. “But it’s also the faster you build trust with the customer, because you appear to be intelligent and appear to know what’s on your floor.”
By Odette’s estimation, this can even help with employee retention. “We are not only trying to create a great experience for our customers, but for our employees every day, too,” he says. “It really comes down to having great people; they’re going to be your success at any level no matter what. Merchandising, yes, I think we do it at the highest level, but if my people aren’t right, it doesn’t matter.”
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