Retailers’ guide to stone: The first step is finding the right supplier

Home Inside FCNews Retailers' guide to stone: The first step is finding the right supplier

Volume 27/Number 21; February 17/24, 2014

(Editor’s note: This is the second of a 10-part series on introducing flooring retailers to stone and the opportunities the category presents.)

Sponsored by Emser Tile

Steve Lewis, president of Lewis Floor & Home in Northbrook, Ill., believes for many retailers, offering natural stone to their customers is not an option; rather, it’s a prerequisite for operating as a complete floor covering store.

“If you are a middle- to upper-end retailer who sells hard surface, your offering is not complete unless you offer natural stone,” he said. “While porcelain tile has come a long way in mimicking stone, there are people who only want the real thing.”

Lewis likened natural stone to a wool carpet that offers certain visuals that can’t be attained in a synthetic fiber. “There are some looks that can only be achieved in natural stone because natural stone has its own characteristics. You can achieve beautiful patterns and texture with natural stone that you don’t see with other materials. It’s almost expected in a better-end home on the north shore of Chicago, whether it’s as simple as a marble or something more exotic. Some people like them for backsplashes. Either way, if you are not offering it, [consumers] will be visiting one of your competitors.”

So, once a retailer has made the decision to enter the category—which will only expand as the economy continues to improve—what is the first step? Successful stone-selling retailers agree partnering with the right supplier is paramount.

“Basically, you need to find a good supplier with a large diversity of product,” said Sam Roberts, president of the nine-store Roberts Carpet & Fine Floors in Houston. “As a retailer, you don’t want to [partner with a company] that sells directly to the public or to an installer. Any retailer who has to compete with the mechanic who has the same cost of product will never succeed because you can’t beat him on cost. That mechanic may only be looking to make money on the labor.”

Another quality a retailer should seek in a supplier is the ability to offer programs. For example, Roberts cited Emser as a company that offers a significant amount of backsplash selections that work with their material. “They put together a computer program that shows customers all of their backsplashes. That’s an example of the support they provide.”

Lewis agreed that the first step is finding a reliable supplier. “Just like there are different grades of other floor coverings—like in wood where you have select, better and common—you will have different grades in stone: A quality, B quality and commercial. Commercial will have more graining, and the range in color will be greater. There is lots of opportunity to overgrade material. So, you want someone who will give you what you are paying for. If you are paying for the best quality, you want the best quality.”

For example, Lewis noted it is extremely important that gauging be correct. “With natural stone, especially when you get into the larger pieces, like 16 x 16, it will be at least 3⁄8 inches thick. So it must be cut well and it must be straight. The thicknesses must be the same or you will have problems. You need a supplier who can give you consistent material over and over again.”

Don Williamson, CEO of Hadinger Flooring in Naples, Fla., looks for suppliers that stand behind their products. “The first thing is to find a distributor you know will back up their products and help you if there is a problem in quality or construction of the product you are supposed to receive. Get behind a good distributor that will get behind you.”

After you have chosen a reliable supplier, retailers agree the next step—and possibly the most critical in the entire process—is education, and that extends from the salesperson to the customer.

“Stone is probably the toughest category of flooring to deal with,” Williamson said. “It varies. It’s cut out of mountains. The samples you show the consumer and the product you receive are two separate things. It’s not like a porcelain tile that is manmade. That’s why we will order samples of a batch the distributor has in stock. If it is on the water, we will wait until it arrives so we can show the consumer exactly what she will be getting in terms of color, texture and veining. That’s good education for the customer and keeps us out of trouble.”

Lewis also believes it is imperative for the salesperson to completely understand the product he or she is selling. “You have to educate the consumer that no two pieces of stone are alike. You can’t look at buying a 12 x 12 square and expect all the pieces will look like it. There will be imperfections in the stone that you won’t find in porcelain, but that’s part of stone’s natural beauty.”

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