By Elisabeth McGowan When it comes to competing with big chain stores, conventional wisdom suggests that carpet retailers should steer clear of the big, bad home centers. However, successful flooring stores try to turn that premise on its head by showing that specialty stores can, in fact, compete with home centers in their own backyards, even if it’s not the same terms or playing field. In other words, keep your friends close, but your enemies closer, or so the saying goes. Following are several accounts of retailers who have achieved success despite their proximity to the big boxes.
Rocky Mountain Floors
Twin Falls, Idaho
The Twin Falls store moved to the opposite side of a much larger store in late 2019 and just two blocks from a Home Depot. Yet it still blooms.
“I think [being near a big box] helped us,” said Brent Compton, owner of Rocky Mountain Flooring. “I think it’s the right choice for everyone. I have always been told for the past 15 years to build next to your biggest competitor.”
According to Compton, customers find their way to his store to compare installation prices after visiting the home center or seeing the ad. Compton said his store tends to offer about 15% less installation than its nearby competitor. “They spend a lot on advertising, so we’ve had customers asking about installation costs [to compare].”
Another reason customers keep coming back is the expertise of the staff. The Rocky Mountain Flooring team is well versed in its products, which goes a long way in building consumer confidence. This serves as a key differentiator of the large retail store, which tends to target the do-it-yourself consumer. “[Big boxes] have a lot of do-it-yourselfers, but we have the product knowledge,” adds Compton.
Flooring Atlanta in Kennesaw, Georgia, not only shares a property line with a larger flooring retailer, but is also located near a major residential center. Rob Brookshire, store manager, said the proximity to a large box works for his store, but not for all retailers.
“I think it depends on what they offer,” he said. “Customers shop at [big boxes] because inventory is readily available. Like a [specialty] store doesn’t have the capacity to stock, I’d say no, it’s not to their advantage. But if they do have stock, I’d say open the door.”
One of the most obvious differences customers make between the larger retailer and Brookshire’s store is the range of products. Seven times out of ten, Brookshire said that after shopping in the big box, his customers are impressed by his detailed, organized showroom. Another advantage is that he sells carpet; the closest competitor does not. This surprises new customers, as most assume that a physically larger retailer would sell more flooring products.
Boynton Beach, Florida.
Randy Downs, marketing manager for Quantum Floors, said three of his four stores are near a large box, including Lowe’s. Downs said he believes the prospect of working near a larger competitor has evolved. “I went to school for marketing and then, [being near a big box] was a bad idea,” he explained. “I think that’s an old way of thinking now.”
Downs highlighted two notable differences between major retail chains and his stores: customer referral and sample size offerings.
“We certainly provide a higher level of customer service,” said Downs. As a result, about 30%-35% of its customer traffic is based on word of mouth from satisfied customers. Downs also pointed out that modern means of communication allow for faster and easier referral methods, especially social media.
Sample sizes are another chance to gain the upper hand over the competition. It turns out that the larger retailers near Quantum Floors don’t offer comparable or larger samples. “We let customers take a two or three foot sample,” Downs said.
Quantum Floors also makes shopping/sampling more convenient for the customer by not requiring them to return the samples to the retailer. Downs said his staff collect the customer’s samples when they measure her home for installation.
Surrey, British Columbia
British Columbia-based Acorn Wood Floors is in close proximity to a much larger flooring retailer, with a much larger footprint and presence. For Ron Teljeur, owner, the key to success in this situation lies in leveraging your strengths.
“If you compete against each other, they can wear you out,” Teljeur said. “You need a noticeable difference in customer service, products and reliability.”
An important advantage is that Acorn Wood Floors does sanding and finishing work, while the larger retailer does not. In fact, Teljeur said the larger retailer and salespeople at a nearby Home Depot often send customers away to take on these sanding and refinishing projects.
One concern for specialty stores like Acorn Wood Floors, however, is the higher pricing structure compared to a home center’s typically less expensive DIY products. However, Teljeur said transparency is key. “We are honest and explain why we are more expensive than the other stores,” he explains. “Our starting prices for materials are in the mid-to-high end of theirs.”