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Dealers use the three Ss to compete against the boxes

Ever since the first home center started carrying floor covering products the specialty retailer has been engaged in a constant battle to not just maintain but gain market share. Throw in the mass merchants and membership clubs, and the fight takes on monumental proportions.

One of the areas where the battle has been the most ferocious is in laminate flooring. As a product that has, over the years since coming to the U.S. in the mid 1990s, become more and more consumer friendly in how it is installed, the home centers have become the perfect place to sell something that is do-it-yourself (DIY) friendly.

The stats

Though the laminate category overall accounted for just under 7% of all industry sales in 2010, nearly 97% of them remain in the residential sector. When viewed in the context of the entire industry doing more than $16.2 billion in sales at the manufacturing level last year, that still amounts to more than $1.1 billion in annual sales, which when brought down to the retail level is no small change.

While it is still a product that manufacturers say should primarily be done by a professional installer, its popularity among the DIY crowd has helped the boxes, mass merchants and others gain overall market share, especially in the last five years as prices have come down due to the recession.

For instance, in comparing market share by sales in 2006 specialty stores accounted for 60% of the business while home centers had 19%. By 2010, the specialty business dropped to 44% while the home centers jumped to 30%.

Despite these figures, there are still some specialty retailers who have been able to not just compete but do so successfully against the boxes when it comes to laminate flooring.

What retailers had to say FCNews spoke to some of them to find their secret for success. While the order in which they gave their reasons differed, in nearly every case, retailers cited three things as keys to being able to hold their own against the larger home centers, mass merchants and other competitors: service, stock and style.

“With a local store,” explained Patrick Flaherty of Flaherty’s Flooring America in Cypress, Texas, “we can outshine the boxes with service 10-to-1. Our people are not only knowledgeable about the products, when they measure, they are able to give decorating advice and use accessories that you don’t get from the centers.”

At National Wholesale Flooring in Nevada, Joe Zigler, said the 40-year-old retailer, “stocks it. About 50% of the product people buy we have on hand. The other 50% is when people want special colors and such that we have to order. But having the product available is a big thing because it means we can schedule an installation right away.”

For Eric Montdragon, hard surface manager for RC Willey, it is about offering consumers the chance to see how the better styles are more to their tastes. “We handpick the products we carry; we don’t just take an entire line from a manufacturer. Then we place them in steps based on price groupings. In doing so, we don’t put the best products in the first step. This forces the consumer to see the differences in the visuals. It also helps to know what the boxes are offering at the price points to make sure we have a better looking product at that level. Once they to see the differences in style and design it becomes a much easier sell.

-Matthew Spieler