Jan 4/11; Volume 30/Number 14
By Reginald Tucker
In a market sector where overall wood category sales are up just 2.5% year over year, Somerset Hardwood Flooring achieved growth approaching double digits—and that’s primarily in its prefinished lineup. While this feat might be more newsworthy for an upstart, it’s especially remarkable in Somerset’s case, given the fact that the company has been cranking out hardwood flooring products for more than 20 years.
“We’ve got great employees and exceptional distributor partners,” said Paul Stringer, vice president of sales and marketing of the Kentucky-based manufacturer. “It’s not that we’re the biggest or the best—we just focus on doing the right things.”
Some of those “right things” include collaborating regularly with its distributors. “We do a lot of problem solving with our distributors, and I take a lot of pride in knowing that our growth comes through distribution to retail,” Stringer explained. “We don’t sell any of our wood flooring to the big boxes and we’re not a member of any buying group. We’ve stayed loyal to the distribution channel and I think that channel has stayed loyal to us.”
Indeed, it has. In fact, among Somerset’s distributor partners are names consistently found on the industry’s lists of Top 20 wholesalers—names like NRF Distributors, Elias Wilf, Galleher Wood Floors and Denver Hardwood, just to name a few. But these entities are not just masters at moving product around their respective markets. According to Stringer, they serve another vital role.
“I don’t just see us as having all these top distributors, per se; I see them as advisors,” he said. “I spend a lot of time on the phone with distributors; they tell me what’s going on, what they need or what’s happening in the industry. Manufacturers forget that distributors can be a really great resource—if you listen closely.”
On that last point, Stringer said floor covering wholesalers can be particularly useful when it comes to developing products, merchandising and go-to marketing strategies for various regions of the country. “You’ll find it’s not always the same issue for every distributor. They might have different approaches.”
Elias Wilf is a classic case in point when it comes to the importance of product differentiation. The main characteristic of Somerset’s business that caught the attention of Jeff Striegel, president of the Owings Mills, Md.-based distributor, was the focus on the details—and its willingness to tailor products to meet Wilf’s local needs.
“A lot of manufacturers take the cookie-cutter approach, meaning they do things the same way on the East Coast vs. the West Coast and in the North vs. the South,” Striegel explained. “When we meet with the folks at Somerset, we talk about what works well in ‘Wilf land.’ Out on the West Coast or Southwest it’s different materials and colorations. Some [manufacturers] want to do one program nationwide; I want what I need in my backyard.”
That personalized approach appeals to other distributors as well.
“The Somerset management team listens extremely well to a range of customers, including dealers, contractors and distributors, allowing them to offer a range of products targeted at the specific needs of the market today,” said Jeff Hamar, president of Santa Fe Springs, Calif.-based Galleher—the industry’s fifth-largest wholesaler.
Customization is key, but it’s not the only determining factor in how a particular product line or brand will perform. In the flooring business—especially in the hardwood sector where competition with imports is rampant—retailers need a quality, stand-out product that is still accessible to the end-user.
“We continue to make a quality product at a good value, but we’re not the cheapest in the marketplace,” Stringer said, noting that Somerset avoids the price battles on the solid-strip commodity end of the market. “We’ve also expanded our line to include features such as high gloss, four-sided bevels and wire-brushing to maximize our [profit] potential. We’re not going to be the most expensive, but at the same time we’re not going to get involved in the down-and-dirty end of the business.”
It’s an approach that Somerset’s distributor partners recognize and appreciate. At Elias Wilf, for instance, distributor representatives like the fact that Somerset puts so much of its R&D efforts into products that it can readily differentiate from imports. “When Somerset moved its engineered production from China to the U.S., it was a fundamental change based on the quality of what they were getting there vs. what they make stateside,” Striegel explained. “Their whole engineered plant is like new.”
The factory—one of several in Somerset’s arsenal—puts out a sawn-face, high-end, ½-inch engineered product dubbed SolidPlus that features a Russian birch core with a 3mm wear layer. “This is just one of the ways that we’ve utilized capital investments to differentiate ourselves in the market,” Stringer added.
Selling the story
High-quality product standards and innovative manufacturing techniques go a long way in brand positioning. But ultimately, success in the hardwood flooring business requires effective translation of those high-tech features and benefits to the consumer. And that’s where Somerset’s retail flooring gallery display comes in. Rather than inundate the consumer with the nuances of solid construction vs. engineered, the display allows retail salespeople to emphasize pattern and design, and then choose a construction that meets her needs. Couple that with the various formats Somerset offers across a broad spectrum of color and style options, and it becomes an easy choice for the consumer.
Whether it’s builder, retail or a high-end shopper looking for a wide-width product, Somerset has the diversity and approach that allows the retail salesperson to engage all applications and end uses. As Galleher’s Hamar noted, “The combination of outstanding quality, a rich color and design product portfolio, strong execution within the supply chain and compelling value for the consumer has allowed Galleher to significantly grow Somerset in our region.”
As Somerset looks to extend its winning streak, Stringer said the focus will remain on doing the things that contributed to its recent achievements. High on the list: ongoing capital expenditures, including plant expansions and innovations designed to help increase capacity.
“We’re always investing back into the operation as we look for ways to be more efficient and improve quality.”