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Sunday, November 25, 2007

A Consumer's Tale

This article appeared in the 09/24/2007 issue of Floor Covering Weekly. Can you guess who the consumer is?

Here follows the legitimate tale of a not-so-average consumer from the flooring industry. Read on and experience for yourself her retail highs and lows.

Our consumer
After 20 years of living the suburban dream in a 2800 square foot house in Dalton, our married-with-no-kids-boomer and boomer husband have decided to move to an apartment in a beautifully renovated and elegant 1890s department store building in downtown Chattanooga, Tenn. She has been ready to transition to an urban setting for several years; her husband has only recently reconciled himself to being 30 minutes away from work instead of five!

Why Chattanooga?
This dual-income couple loves culture [the arts, the symphony] and fine dining, and has taken in doses of Chattanooga culture since moving to Dalton. Given how often they drive there, it only seems natural to consider it for their new, simpler urban condo lifestyle.

No surprise, they fall in love with a condominium that makes both boomers feel that they are ‘trading-up’. Our couple may be downsizing to 2600 square feet, but the new space better suits their current needs. Not only is the master bedroom large enough for a king size bed, but the master suite closet is big enough to get lost in! The kitchen and living room are open, and 10 to 11 foot ceilings create elegant airiness in the historic space. Don’t forget the magical wrap-around balcony with views of downtown that an artist would die for.

The flooring experience
As we’ve mentioned, we are not observing a normal flooring consumer. This woman knows the ins and outs of the flooring business. She has installers she works with regularly and routinely schedules them before purchasing materials! Furthermore, her husband [a former installer] knows how to measure and judge quality in an installation.

Our consumer simply identifies the flooring products that best capture the look, feel, style, price and availability she envisions. She selects an upscale, non-patterned, almost contra-dential [contract/residential] construction carpet in a neutral color. Rather sophisticated and certainly not an opening price point item!

Ugly situation
When she selects carpet for her large master bedroom closet, the salesperson looks at her and says “why would you pick an expensive carpet like that? It’s going into a closet. Why don’t you pick something a little less expensive?” This salesperson actually wants to trade our consumer “down”! This happens all the time. Does it happen in your store?

Flooring projects
For a ‘normal’ consumer without industry connections, the flooring experience is often so lousy that she will prefer not to think about another flooring project ever again [or at least for another five to seven years]. But consider this: most consumers have ongoing projects and are rarely ever done with their home. We routinely, then, miss out on major opportunities! Our consumer, for example, intends to rip out the master bathroom tile and replace it with travertine, and replace the low grade wood flooring throughout the condominium with a higher quality choice. She is not thinking about doing this in five or ten years, but rather in the next 1 to 2 years. Imagine if we enabled all consumers to feel this way! If the consumer could experience at least a painless - if not positive - experience, she would readily replace and even upgrade her flooring products on a more frequent basis rather than avoid it completely.

How salespeople approached her
Salespeople routinely greet our consumer with “Can I help you?” She wonders about that question. Salespeople seem more than happy to ‘write up’ an order, but when it comes to actually helping, they become scarce. Her questions relate to the purchase process: How long will it take to order this item? When will it be delivered? Can it be ordered with different fabric/arms/skirt?. They represent clues to an observant salesperson that she is a serious buyer. Although obvious, many just don’t get it. You might consider how to develop a less salesperson-intensive-environment for certain questions.

Another turnoff
Our consumer goes to another store where prices are marked up ridiculously high and has harsh words: “Do retailers take consumers for idiots? We are savvy and can compare prices and relative value. Why bother with such a scam? It only turns the consumer off, and encourages her to tell everyone she knows to stay away!”

Our consumer generally prefers the low pressure sales approach. Stores like Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters have perfected a retail environment where the consumer sells herself. In fact, those stores disavow direct selling! They fully engage the consumer on all levels, offer no hassles and the consumer inevitably walks out with a purchase!

Despite her confidence and flooring industry knowledge, our consumer is concerned about making a mistake. Finding what she wants is hard, visualizing it in her space is hard, taking ownership of it is hard –if and when it ever arrives- and so few tools exist to let her regain control. It’s no wonder that purchases often get postponed or made in stores like IKEA where the consumer is in charge and can take product home immediately!

Working with designers
This consumer tries to work with a designer, but the designer won’t listen, promoting her own preferences instead. She won’t internalize the message that our consumer shares with her and misses out on business! The designer offers a shopping service [valuable for a time stressed consumer], but after experiencing the designer’s poor listening skills, our consumer feels it would be a waste of money. “It’s hard to give up important decisions about one’s home to someone who doesn’t seem to be listening to me.” Remember that this consumer works full-time. “If I didn’t have a full time job, this might be fun. But imagine what typical consumers have to go through. Talk about stressful.”

She does, though, make an appointment with a furniture store designer. This time, the designer truly makes a difference and facilitates the process. She listens, she asks questions and tests concepts. She acts as a true consumer resource sifting through concepts, ideas, and products to come up with the perfect answer. She acts as a sounding board and helps validate decisions.

Retailers - whether your store is furniture or carpet focused - consider having trained designers on staff ready, willing and able to provide your consumers with support. You will see the difference in your bottom line.

Color influences
Color choices are neither right nor wrong. Rather, in the words of the famous French artist, Edouard Manet, “Color is a matter of taste and sensitivity”. Everyone is drawn to different color choices, and may have existing colors schemes to work with. Selecting the correct choice is a matter of putting together a palette or combination of four to six colors, two or three main colors with an equal number of accents.

Our consumer is no different. She is drawn toward her signature color scheme of black and tan, with the addition of chocolate brown. This palette combined with an unusual departure for our consumers – red – creates the backdrop for the formal spaces. The red comes from striking red silk drapes with gold bamboo accents, a legacy from the previous owner. The end result includes chocolate brown leather, strong black and tan patterns, and – for the accent pillows – a red, gold, chocolate and tan paisley pattern, and a red, black, gold, tan and brown area rug.

Our consumer inherited a garish color scheme in her master bedroom and opts to shift from intense oriental reds to a soothing marine blue accented with golden beige. The end effect calms and relaxes – creating a gender-neutral sanctuary for both male and female sensibilities. Our consumer states: “I like the coolness of the blue color and the contrast to the khaki that's also in the room. I have this great painting that looks killer against the dark blue background and I plan to bring up a rug I used in Dalton in the music room. It has that deep blue plus the red that will tie into the other rooms.”

And, finally, the spare bedroom features gold walls and carpet. It has been harmonized with the living room theme via a red and black paisley bed set.

Final words of wisdom
Retailers, as you’ve read this story, have you considered that this could be your consumer? Given the levels of frustration she routinely encounters as she progresses through these home related projects, imagine how you might forever redefine her flooring experience for the better.

How might you showcase the latest flooring fashion in your store? Can you integrate these latest styles into a vignette with all of the other elements your consumer will be considering in her home?

What tools can you create to help your consumer make sense of your store offerings? New signage? A printed guide? Photography?

Do your sales associates respect your customers? Have you trained your sales associates to act more like consultants than hard sellers? Do they know how to listen?

Above all, be sure to completely and fully listen to your consumer. Let her talk about her dreams and expectations; let her guide you. She knows what she wants, and looks to you to facilitate the process. She wants something perfect for her home. And, if you satisfy her, you can be sure she will tell everyone she knows about the positive experience, which guarantees you success!

These are the fabrics our consumer used in her living room:

+ The lighter one is for the sofa,
+ the brown/black/tan geometric covers one chair;
+ the brown leather is on another chair and the paisley is for accent pillows.

Thanks to Ann Hurley and Kim Gavin for making this article possible. I can't wait to get back to Chattanooga and see the final results.

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