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Flooring America members urged to step up integrated marketing strategy

HOUSTON—The imminent economy recovery—whether actually under way is the subject of much debate—will fuel an increase in consumer demand for floor covering, much of that pent up for the last few years. The home centers know it; Invista knows it and both have announced aggressive national marketing campaigns this fall. Flooring America/Flooring Canada members are poised to capitalize provided they get aggressive in their local markets.

“The [home centers] are at the gate, looking to take your customers,” said Vinnie Virga, president of Flooring America and newly named president of retail groups for CCA Global Partners. “Home center investments are an advantage for Flooring America members. All it takes is a willingness to invest in marketing your business, layering local advertising on top of their national campaigns. Let them do the heavy lifting while we opportunistically strike at the right time.”

The key, said Virga and Deb Binder, senior vice president of marketing, is an integrated marketing strategy that includes traditional media like television, radio and print ads along with virtually all things online: Internet, social media, blogging and more. It’s a strategy that was successfully implemented for the recent launch of Tigressa. “Members really latched onto it. They even partnered locally with zoos. Some wrapped their cars.”

Binder noted that Flooring America has developed a specific blitz campaign to help members take advantage of the sizeable dollars others will be spending this fall. “We have produced all the marketing members will need to advertise during that period.” She cited two campaigns from which members can choose. “One centers on free installation, because we know that works and is unavailable at Lowe’s. The other focuses on Stainmaster, because we know consumers can’t get that at Home Depot.” She suggested members continue using the mediums they have been utilizing but ramp up the dollars and make sure the campaign is as integrated as possible.”

Binder stressed members must embrace online advertising and integrate it into their overall marketing plan. “The reality is those members who advertise consistently, those who put their website in all their advertising, are the ones having better results. They are getting more leads, higher tickets and more sales.”

The reason: The flooring customer today begins the shopping process online. “She visits yours and your competitor’s websites. She wants advice. If you don’t answer that online question, she will find someone who will.”

The proof is in the pudding. Virga noted that the average ticket of an online lead is three times higher than the standard average ticket of a walk-in customer. What’s more, the better users are closing nearly as high a percentage of their online leads as walk-in customers. Randy Luitjohan, owner, Luitjohan’s Flooring America, Highland, Ill., understands the importance of online marketing. “The Internet is the future. Many of our members are old school but we have to embrace change. When I get back from convention I’m utilizing the lead management system first thing. I tried doing it on my own but with Flooring America it is all there. It does everything I want.”

Many members have been turning to the younger generation to handle the Internet component of their marketing. Original member Larry Porter, Porter’s Flooring America, Beaumont, Tex., told FCNews while he is computer literate he is “not so good” with the Internet. “My grandson is now general manager, so I’m letting him take the reins on this one.”

BG Home Decorating, Sulphur Springs, Tex., has a website and Facebook page, but owner Brian Ross said he relies on his 22-year-old son to help with the store’s Facebook page and Twitter account. “It’s good that Flooring America focuses on the Internet and social media. My [generation] didn’t grow up with computers.”

Darrell Black, Flooring America of Milledgeville, Ga., is also a Facebook fan. “If you’re going to be successful in anything, you have to do it through Facebook. We are taking baby steps with the website and online marketing. I have an older staff so when I get back I’m going to hire someone young. The older group is good with customer relations but there’s a lot of potential [online].”

Product

According to Randy Upson, vice president of merchandising, Flooring America’s mission is to “deliver fresh, new products with clear and compelling differentiators from your competitors.” With that, Flooring America took the wraps off the Downs Hardwood Collection, the first initiative to spawn from the direct selling arrangement with Armstrong announced six months ago.

“We see wood as a huge opportunity for 2010 and 2011,” Upson said. “And the performance element has proven to be the backbone of success.”

Merchandised as 5-star products, the collection offers unique features and benefits, such as the “revolutionary” DuraBlock finish that offers several layers of aluminum oxide infused with nano particles. “This is the hardest finish you will find,” Upson said.

But the hook is that new technology yields performance without sacrificing any of the color or graining, according to Paul Murfin, vice president of sales and distribution, Arm- strong. “What we are offering is a finish that we think is the optimum combination of durability, scratch resistance and color clarity.”

As such, Flooring America has attached a 50-year warranty to the Downs line along with the proprietary Confidence Plus guarantee. If a consumer is not completely satisfied after 60 days, Flooring America will replace the floor. “With a big ticket purchase, female consumers are afraid of making a mistake,” Virga said. “This is one of the ways we can give her confidence and thereby justify investing a little more money to get that guarantee. It’s a big differentiator amongst our competitors.” Opening price points begin under $3 a square foot and trend to the upper end.

“This exclusive collection is the optimum combination of looks, species and styles that will offer broad appeal to all types of consumers in all parts of the country,” Murfin said. “There is also a good cross section of price points that ranges from lower-mid to high end.”

Members quickly embraced the program. “Downs’ exclusive product line and warranty gives us an advantage,” said Mark Maly, sales manager, Sergenian’s Floor Covering, Madison, Wis. “Exclusivity of a product is key because the consumer can’t shop the product elsewhere with a sample. That’s a big trend among today’s buyers. Everyone’s shopping these days so to have something unique is very advantageous. And, the information on the display is great for the consumer because it is easy to read and sets us apart.”

BG Home Decorating’s Ross has been a member for less than a year, but it didn’t take long for him to determine where Flooring America needed to improve. “I was glad to see the wood update. The group has been extremely focused on carpet. Wood was a weak point; it needed the most focus.” Upson noted the Downs Hardwood Collection is the first of three phases in Flooring America’s 12-to-18-month plan to upgrade members’ wood flooring departments.

The next phase, expected to be unveiled in January, will surround “some high-style stuff” in the Design Distinctions brand. Phase 3 will be based on member feedback.

Upson said the overall plan is to have brand-consistent displays that are easy to use for both the retailer and consumer. Mill brands will continue to be weeded out.

“The mindset is to demonstrate the visual beauty of the products,” Binder said. “The trend is toward much bigger samples that give the consumer a compelling reason to look inside the racks.”

Other product news

Flooring America is looking to catch lightning in a bottle one more time with IVC, the company that supplies the group with NatureCor floating sheet vinyl, one its most profitable ventures ever. Next up is an exclusive LVT program that was previewed here but won’t be formally introduced until January. “LVT represents less than 1% of Flooring America member purchases but is projected to have an industry market share of 4%-5% by 2012,” Upson said. “We have a huge opportunity coming that can parallel the accomplishments of NatureCor. IVC has done a phenomenal job of creating the most realistic and inspiring visuals. Combine that with the growth potential of LVT, and that becomes exciting.”

Armstrong is re-merchandising its sheet vinyl with an all-in-one display encompassing Stratamax, felt and fiberglass. Flooring America members get a private-label version to maintain differentiation from the competition.

Bits and pieces

  • Virga was recently promoted to president of retail groups for CCA Global, a position that sat vacant since Evan Hackel resigned two years ago. Virga now has oversight for Carpet One, Flooring America, IDG and The Bike Cooperative. Each group’s management team remains in tact. “I will be coordinating our resources to maximize efficiency on behalf of the members we serve,” he said.
  • Despite an economy that has claimed its share of flooring retailers, the Flooring America roster still numbers about 375, representing approximately 450 storefronts and about $1.2 billion in sales. “We picked up as many members as we lost in the last six months,” Virga said. “Right now, if you are an independent flooring retailer, you need a compelling reason to have consumers walk in the door. When these independents hear about the economic benefits of joining Flooring America, it really is a no brainer.”
  • Flooring America stores that have transitioned to Vision are realizing a 46% pre-tax profit compared to their peers. About 25% of members have done major elements of the showroom concept.