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A race to the bottom

by Warren Tyler

I belong to several discussion groups and one of the bright lights are the number of small retailers who really care—about their customers, about their products and about what happens to their products after the sale. Kelly Kramer targets these people in his book “Selling Clean.”

Through the years, all of us have dealt with the shysters in the industry, those who would lie about face weights, performance and retail pricing, but because they were based in stores similar to ours and didn’t have the weight of national advertising and those humongous emporiums, they lacked credibility.

Things have changed drastically in our industry and it may have started with stain-resistant products. Customers were dissatisfied because they did stain and DuPont, to its credit, took thousands of yards back. Acting quickly to stem this reverse flow, the fiber companies came up with warranties that basically excluded anything a consumer could drop on the carpet—coffee, mustard, ketchup and, my favorite, red wine. The warranties were written to protect the producer, not the customer.

Because of this and other factors—not the least of which was a statement by Citizens and Southern Bank—the industry had lost 20% of the consumer’s disposable dollar since 1985, the year prior to Stainmaster being introduced.

In 1992, I wrote the fiber companies would be non-entities in about 10 years. In those days DuPont controlled our marketing. For this prognostication, I actually received hate mail, especially from Delaware. I, of course, was dead right.

The mills glommed onto this idea of protecting themselves with warranties and, thus, applied guarantees to everything without any regard to quality. Then they targeted the big boxes as their dealers of opportunity which, as we know, didn’t work, because carpet sales continued to slide. Consumers were, in their minds, overwhelmed with the false promise of savings when entering these retail temples. The problem was and is, the boxes are marketing organizations and don’t rely on salespeople, so consumers were faced with clerks who knew nothing but would say anything to make the sale.

What about the smaller, legitimate retailers who were so loyal to these mills? “The heck with ’em.” The mills made similar goods that weren’t up to spec just for boxes, gave them free sampling, no restrictions on advertising and dozens of other “goodies” that weren’t available to specialty retailers. Then came the great recession where consumers were afraid to spend and carpet buying became a race to the bottom. The difference is that clerks at the boxes had no trouble telling consumers the 57 cents per square foot carpet would wear forever—“just look at the guarantee”—or that the 37-cent a square foot laminate at Liquidators was bulletproof (except for one enlightened clerk who told a customer: If it were him, he “wouldn’t buy here.”). Consumers were desperate to believe the low price, wear-forever story they went off to purchase the fantasy and left the poor small retailers who were trying to explain why these entry level goods were such a bad buy. Who cares if the carpet uglied out or the laminate split and curled? Not the mills or the big stores.

The only thing that will save us, but unfortunately will never happen, is for manufacturers to stop selling to non-flooring stores and acquire some standards. First, there should be no warranties and if there were, none would be affixed to residential carpet that was below 35 ounces of yarn, 1⁄8 gauge and used heavier denier yarn.

Try giving the legitimate retailers a break and stack the deck for them, for once.