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Empire Today shutters all physical locations

October 9/16, 2017: Volume 32, Issue 9

By Ken Ryan

 

Screen Shot 2017-10-17 at 9.30.44 AMEmpire Today, the shop-at-home giant, has closed its three stand-alone locations in New York and Virginia, and shuttered its store-within-a-store concept in JCPenney locations in Florida and Tampa, FCNews has learned.

There was no official announcement from Empire Today, nor private equity firm H.I.G. Capital, which acquired Empire in November 2016. Brian Schwartz, executive managing director of H.I.G., did not return calls for comment. (In announcing the acquisition of Empire Today last November, Schwartz said, “We are very excited to partner with Empire Today. The company is a market leader with a compelling customer value proposition, a unique business model, an incredible brand and significant growth prospects. We see tremendous opportunities in the business and look forward to supporting Keith Weinberger and the entire Empire team.”)

Weinberger, CEO of Empire Today, told FCNews that he could not comment on the store closings; an internal email to Empire Today employees notified them that all physical locations, including JCPenney store-within-a-store formats, would cease operations at the close of business on Sept. 22. A sign posted outside the vacant Westbury, N.Y., location read: “As of 9/22/2017 Empire Today Retail Stores are permanently closed.” In the parking lot at the rear of the building, piles of inventory were sheltered under blue tarp with a message scribbled: “Scheduled for pick-up. Do not touch.”

The abrupt closing stood in stark contrast to the much ballyhooed grand opening Empire Today threw in February 2015, when it opened brick-and-mortar stores on Long Island—in Westbury and Commack—and in Fairfax, Va. To kick off the launch, Empire Today hired singers and other entertainment acts and talked about the physical locations as a natural extension of the shop-at-home business.

What went wrong?

Executives whose companies supplied Empire Today stores said the company failed on many fronts. One carpet mill executive who attended the grand opening in Westbury told FCNews, “It seemed like they were doomed before they ever got off the ground. They never manned their stores with people who knew the business well; they never promoted their stores; they didn’t do much with updating their showrooms, and they were closed-minded. When we made suggestions on certain products, they said, ‘We will do business our way.’ They never listened to us.”

Screen Shot 2017-10-17 at 9.31.03 AMBill Schollmeyer, CEO of Johnson Hardwood Floors, said he, too, was not surprised by the failure. “They didn’t sell [anything] for us. It’s kind of scary when a big company with cash behind it and a really attractive store doesn’t make it. But I’m not really surprised. We had basic hand-scraped ¾-inch solid samples in there and they didn’t sell anything to speak of. It should have been a no-brainer.”

Another industry source told FCNews the Empire Today locations closed because they did not meet expectations.

Specialty flooring retailers who learned about the closings said succeeding in the flooring retail channel takes a special commitment and that business size does not matter if the model itself is not trustworthy. “Businesses like Empire Today don’t sell tactile product the way we do—they specialize in selling dollars, not floor covering,” said Steve Weisberg, president of Crest Flooring in Allentown, Pa. “To be successful in our type of business you need to be sincere in everything you do and follow through with your promise to do good work. No matter how big you are, you cannot lose sight of that fact or else you lose.”

Screen Shot 2017-10-17 at 9.31.08 AMAdam Joss, co-owner of The Vertical Connection Carpet One, Columbia, Md., agreed, adding that scale alone does not guarantee success in the floor covering arena. “There’s always the David vs. Goliath cliché. Small businesses have the benefit of being more nimble and more passionate with a better sense of their local market. There’s also a lesson here for us—large companies will test new products, services and models all the time. Some work, some don’t. And that’s OK. We can’t be afraid to test and fail. The world is constantly changing and we need to change with it.”

In May 2016, Empire Today announced an agreement with JCPenney to open its own stores within certain JCPenney locations. At the time, Weinberger told FCNews the JCPenney test enabled Empire Today to expand its physical presence without the cost of building a new facility. “This is much more efficient,” he stated back then.

In mid-September, Johnson Hardwood was about to place a 24-SKU program in several JCPenney locations, but the supplier said those orders were abruptly halted. “I was told the entire program was dead,” Schollmeyer noted.

JCPenney, which has had its own struggles, announced earlier this year its own plans to close 138 stores by year’s end. It did not include any of the stores with Empire Today.

 

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Investment firm acquires Empire Today

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November 21/28, 2016: Volume 31, Number 12

Northlake, Ill.—Empire Today on Nov. 18 announced that an affiliate of H.I.G. Capital, a leading global investment firm, had acquired it in order to support and help drive the company’s growth initiatives. Earlier this year FCNews reported Mercury Capital LP, the investment firm that has owned Empire for 17 years, had been exploring a sale (FCNews, June 6/13).

Empire is the largest in-home sales flooring company and one of the largest specialty flooring providers in America. Empire currently sells to consumers looking for “Flooring Made Easy” in 68 markets, including the 30 largest markets in the U.S. Empire also sells fully installed flooring to businesses, property managers, restoration companies and other organizations. Empire recently expanded its products and services through a growing number of store-within-a-store JCPenney locations.

“H.I.G. has spent a great deal of time with our team and the business, is entirely supportive of our vision to become America’s first and best choice for installed flooring, and has made this investment to help us achieve that goal,” said Keith Weinberger, CEO of Empire Today. “This transaction, and the exciting future we see, is the result of the dedication and efforts of our employees and contractors who make getting beautiful new floors easy for our customers across the country. Empire is committed to continuing to improve our customers’ experiences, and expanding our products and services into new geographic markets.”

Brian Schwartz, executive managing director, H.I.G. Capital, said, “Empire is a market leader with a compelling customer value proposition, a unique business model, an incredible brand and significant growth prospects. We see tremendous opportunities in the business and look forward to supporting Keith and the entire Empire team.”

The acquisition also includes Luna Carpet, which was purchased by Empire for an undisclosed sum in January 2012. Both brands have continued as separate operations.

Miami-based H.I.G. has more than $20 billion in assets under management.

Neither Empire Today nor H.I.G. Capital would comment beyond what was in the press release.

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Investment firm said to be interested in selling Empire Today

June 6/13, 2016; Volume 30, Number 25

By Ken Ryan

Empire Today LLC, the privately held U.S. flooring and window treatment retailer, may be up for sale, according to published reports, which quoted sources.

Mercury Capital LP, the investment firm that has owned Empire for 17 years, has hired investment bank Moelis & Co. to run an auction for the company, seeking to capitalize on consumer demand for remodeling homes, according to sources.

Empire has roughly $50 million in 12-month earnings before interest, taxes and depreciation, the sources said. Based on this, the company could fetch several hundred million dollars in a sale, they added. The sources requested anonymity because the sale process is confidential. Empire, Moelis and Mercury Capital all declined to comment.

Empire, whose competitors include Lowe’s, Home Depot and Floor and Decor Outlets of America, offers shop-at-home services in more than 70 U.S. locations, including St. Louis, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.

The Northlake, Ill.-based company opened its first retail stores last year in Fairfax, Va., and Commack and Westbury on Long Island.

In May, Empire announced a partnership with JCPenney to establish separate flooring departments in seven of its stores—four in the Tampa market and three in the Washington, D.C., suburbs (FCNews, May 9/16).

These store-in-store formats will be Empire Today-branded and range in size from 750 to 1,200 square feet. The Tampa stores are expected to be up and running by the end of this month, while the D.C.-area branches will be operational by the end of July.

The proposed sale of one of the largest U.S. flooring retailers comes as home improvement spending has rebounded from a steep recessionary decline. Rising employment rates and house prices have risen, prompting Americans to make delayed investments in their homes.

Empire Today’s origins date back to a plastic cover business that Seymour Cohen founded in 1959. Cohen later expanded the product lines of Empire Plastic Covers to include carpets. Mercury Capital acquired the company in 1999 and changed the name to Empire Today.

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Empire Today to test flooring department inside JCPenney stores

By Ken Ryan

Empire Today_Tampa Renderings_1939Empire Today, ranked among the top 10 U.S. floor covering retailers, has announced a partnership with JCPenney to establish separate flooring departments in seven of its stores—four in the Tampa market and three in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

These store-in-store formats will be Empire Today-branded and will range in size from 750 to 1,200 square feet. Keith Weinberger, CEO of Empire Today, told FCNews that the stores would carry the full complement of flooring products that its three existing brick-and-mortar stores carry, albeit on a much smaller scale. The three physical stores—two on Long Island and one in Fairfax, Va.—are 5,000 square feet.

The Tampa stores are expected to be up and running by the end of June, while the D.C.-area branches will be operational by the end of July. The merchandising mix will be customized by market and to a lesser degree by store within the same market. For example, Empire Today stores in Tampa will have more hard surface offerings such as tile, which appeals more to Florida residents; the D.C.-area stores will have a little more carpet. The D.C. stores will be located in Fairfax and Springfield, Va., and Gaithersburg, Md. Weinberger said there is potential for a third market to be added at some point.

The JCPenney-Empire test will be a revenue-sharing model. Empire will hire its own staff—five to seven people per store—to run the business within the home department of JCPenney.

The Empire Today announcement is part of a much larger home retrofit for JCPenney, which will be returning to the major home appliance business with plans to add kitchen and laundry showrooms to 500 of its stores by this fall and online later this summer. JCPenney is also rethinking how it sells furniture with Ashley Furniture, the largest maker and retailer of home furnishings in the U.S. Twenty Penney stores will be part of a new furniture test, in which merchandise will be sold and then shipped directly to the customer from Ashley.

“We’re excited that JCPenney felt Empire Today was the brand they want to work with in the flooring category to go along with GE in appliances and Ashley Furniture,” Weinberger said. “We are thrilled to have the opportunity to reach out to more potential customers and give them the best experience possible. This is a good fit for Empire Today.

Empire Today, with its shop-at-home format, opened its three physical stores in February 2015. Weinberger said the stores have met company expectations and have shown improvement every month. While Weinberger said the company has considered expanding the number of brick-and-mortar locations, the flooring test with JCPenney is the focus for now.

Weinberger allowed that the JCPenney deal is a way for Empire Today to expand its physical presence to additional markets without the cost of building a new facility. “This is much more efficient,” he said.

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Empire Today opens brick-and-mortar stores

By Ken Ryan

ET1Westbury, N.Y.—Empire Today executives and key vendors took part in grand openings of its Commack, N.Y., and Westbury, N.Y., stores Feb. 5—one week after debuting its Fairfax, Va., store. The three openings marked the first time the 55-year-old at-home retailer opened physical stores.

Keith Weinberger, chief merchandising officer, said Empire Today has been working toward the goal of opening brick-and-mortar stores for two years. Along the way it shopped with customers, talked to them, listened to their needs and finally sought to create a store that was easy to navigate and generally consumer friendly in appearance and layout.

Vendors who attended the opening were impressed. “They did a great job merchandising this store,” said Bill Schollmeyer, CEO of Johnson Hardwood, who attended the Long Island openings. “It is well laid out. They’ve created a nice, warm shopping environment and they have a great brand name going for them. I’m excited for them.”

Larry Pellegrini, Eastern regional manager for Godfrey Hirst USA, was impressed with the organization of the departments. “It is well categorized with great separation between hard and soft surfaces. This is not your typical carpet store. Today’s consumer does not want to see clutter; this is an easy store to shop.”

All three stores are between 5,000 and 5,500 square feet. The flooring installed in the hard surface area of the Westbury store is luxury vinyl plank, while customers in the soft surface section will walk on carpet from Mohawk, Shaw, Beaulieu and Dream Weaver—Engineered Floors’ top brand.

Every aspect of the store was designed with one goal in mind: creating an easier shopping experience for the customer. Within each section, or product “neighborhood,” are information boards that provide specific information on the designated categories. One such board may include, for example, the differences of engineered vs. solid hardwood.

Each product on an Empire show floor contains an all-inclusive price tag; in other words, there are no hidden fees. “We feel it is important to make it simple for the consumer and be transparent,” Weinberger said. “Customers don’t buy flooring often and they get stressed about it. We are trying to take some of that stress away.”

Store fixtures include large swatches measuring 17½ x 23 inches. The idea is to provide a generous sample size, but not too big that a customer can’t take it home. Paul Carter, executive vice president of Empire Today, said the brick-and-mortar stores will offer a wider selection of products than what is available from Empire’s shop-at-home business because the physical locations have more room for samples than what sales representatives can carry in their vehicles.

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Empire Today strikes with brick-and-mortar stores

Three retail locations open in Virginia, on Long Island

By Ken Ryan

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 5.11.27 PMWestbury, N.Y.—After two years of “active planning,” shop-at-home giant Empire Today has opened the first brick-and-mortar stores in the company’s 55-year history. The move, executives said, comes partly in response to an improving economy, but because its research revealed that customers desired a real in-store experience.

“The No. 1 search on our website is ‘where are your stores,’” Keith Weinberger, chief marketing officer, told FCNews. “Our customers assumed we have stores.”

Paul Carter, executive vice president, added, “People know our brand, but we feel flooring is a high-touch market, and this gives us another chance to provide the Empire service experience in the store.”

Empire Today opened its first store in Fairfax, Va., on Jan. 29, followed by two Long Island stores—in Westbury and Commack—on Feb. 5. The company chose these locations because they represent the Washington, D.C., and New York markets, where Empire Today has traditionally done well. It also has regional distribution centers in these areas.

No additional locations are currently planned. “We want to focus on these three stores and make them as great as they can be,” Weinberger said.

Carter said the brick-and-mortar stores will have the same assortments available online but will offer a broader selection of products, perhaps 35 to 50 carpet styles and a commensurate number of hard surface offerings.

Each of the locations will be initially staffed with a store manager and four full-time sales associates, or “personal flooring specialists.” Each customer who enters the store will be greeted by a sales associate who will guide the prospect through the entire sales process. Weinberger said the staff is comprised of people with flooring backgrounds as well as those who excel in customer service. Associates will work on a draw-vs.-commission compensation model.

“We want to make this simple for the customer,” he noted.

“We offer shop-at-home convenience, but people who come to the store need convenience as well. In our store experience, you aren’t met by a random employee at a home improvement store; this is a flooring expert.”

Store hours are Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 5.10.27 PMWendy Fried, president/owner of G. Fried Carpet, which is located 1.2 miles from the Westbury-based Empire Today store, said she was surprised Empire would open a store after decades of success as a shop-at-home entity. “They have such a good thing going; why would they want to open stores and pay rent?”

As for Empire Today as a potential threat, Fried said, “At one point I would have said no, but I would say now their opening impacts everybody. They have been brilliant up until now, so who am I to doubt them?”

Fried said her store sells more high-end goods than Empire Today. In addition, she has a seasoned staff with expertise in the various categories. “It’s not easy finding good people in flooring.”

Carter said Empire Today’s vendors have played a key role in developing “the kind of training critically necessary to allow our salespeople to handle the situation. Having one person who handles the customer from beginning to end requires that he knows what he is doing.”

Empire Today provided the following specifics as to how it will differentiate its stores:

Design. Empire said it will create “neighborhoods” of products, so similar offerings across budget levels are grouped together in the store, intended to make it easier for customers to find what they want. Empire also worked with lighting scientists to help ensure the flooring colors customers see in-store look the same in their homes.

Personal attention. So-called “personal flooring specialists” will meet with customers in the store. These specialists will spend the necessary time to understand their needs, recommend products and provide the right samples. That same flooring specialist can also visit a customer’s home with additional samples to take measurements, schedule installation and take samples back; this way the customer doesn’t have to return to the store.

All-inclusive, transparent pricing. Weinberger said every product has an all-inclusive price affixed to the tag; this includes flooring, padding and materials, and installation, along with a rating to allow customers to easily compare products, even if they’re made by different manufacturers.

“Be Happy Promise.” If a customer is not satisfied with the flooring she bought within 30 days of the last installation date, Empire said it would cover the cost of the selected replacement flooring product (only of equal or lesser value).

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NALFA announces nominees for 2012 Lammy Awards

The North American Laminate Flooring Association (NALFA) congratulates the nominees for the 2012 Lammy Awards. NALFA presents the Lammy awards annually to companies and individuals who have demonstrated exceptional contributions to the laminate flooring industry.

NALFA’s board of directors anonymously nominates individuals and organizations for each category. NALFA members, as well as the editors of Floor Covering Installer, Floor Covering News, Floor Covering Weekly, Floor Focus and National Floor Trends, then vote for the winners. The first Lammy Awards were presented in 2007. Continue reading NALFA announces nominees for 2012 Lammy Awards