How Armstrong’s ‘Quest’ for floor space paved the way for laminates

August 22, 2016

July 18/25, 2016; Volume 31, Number 3

By Reginald Tucker

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 4.31.07 PM“It was really about presenting fashion to the floor covering retailer at a time when many companies were not really doing it. That was the mindset driving that whole system.”

That’s according to Sherry Qualls, a former advertising and marketing executive with Armstrong World Industries, reflecting on the concept behind the development of the infamous Quest resilient floor covering merchandising system that Armstrong officially launched in 1995. Primarily devised as a means to squeeze competing hard surface products off the showroom floor, observers say it actually resulted in more space being devoted to laminate flooring, then an up and coming category.

Massive and bold in its presentation, the Quest display claimed to be the first such system to utilize large-scale, freestanding samples and the first of its kind to incorporate actual room-scene photography on the reverse side of those samples. The system was also built on a good/better/best platform that appealed to retail sales associates and consumers alike.

“The idea was to give the specialty retailer permission to feel more comfortable about being in the interior fashion business,” said Qualls, who for 17 years managed the residential and commercial flooring brand strategies at Armstrong. As she explained: “Everyone at Armstrong felt it was really important that we didn’t differentiate between resilient and laminate flooring as much as we wanted to reinforce the fact that we were giving customers a variety of choices in a display system that was beautiful as well as functional. The goal was to take an elevated approach to the traditional retail presentation.”

But that was only part of the reason behind the development of the Quest merchandising program. With Armstrong-branded resilient flooring products and signature collections gaining more prominence within home centers, the company needed a way to address the rising channel conflict caused by the unrest that was brewing among independent specialty retailers who struggled to compete head-to-head with the big boxes on the same branded products.

“Yes, that was a very important strategy, obviously,” Qualls recalled. “There were a number of products, especially laminates, that were finding their way into the big box retail locations. In those days it was very important to Armstrong to make sure there was a very clear differentiation, and one of the things that the Quest display did was to demonstrate a very real difference between what was being sold at Home Depot and Lowe’s vs. the full-service, more curated approach we wanted to take at the specialty retail location. We really believed specialty retailers were in a better position to deliver that curated experience so it was very important to create displays and products that put some distance between the specialty retailer and the big box. Granted, we knew there were going to be some cross-over products at the lower end of the spectrum. But we were trying to encourage the specialty retailer to not worry about spending so much time or space staying focused on those lower-end products being marketed at the home centers.”

Quest was also designed to make life easier for the salesperson, so they did not have to know every nuance about every individual product. As Qualls recalled: “We designed the display so that there was very clear differentiation between the good/better/best products. RSAs didn’t have to know, on their own, all the things that made those products different from each other.”

Right about the same time that the Quest program was rolling out, Armstrong had decided to revamp its branded offering by separating the Solarian brand from the rest of the Armstrong family and add a third brand, Vios, specifically for independent floor covering retailers. The Armstrong brand became the value offering, selling for less than $17 per square yard while Solarian targeted the mid- to high-end consumer willing to spend as much as $38. Meanwhile, Vios was a completely new, high-end product that featured a glass-fiber reinforced construction.

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 4.31.16 PMThe main idea behind the strategy was for home centers to carry the two well-known brands—Armstrong and Solarian—while specialty retailers who participated in the Quest merchandising program would have exclusive rights to Vios. Despite the best intentions, though, there were difficulties surrounding the launch (including a “yellowing” problem that surfaced out in the field) that would soon cause the entire game plan to unravel. On top of that, many specialty retailers were not so supportive of adopting a relatively unknown brand in Vios while home centers got to keep proven performers like Armstrong and Solarian. And any modest success the Quest program managed to generate backfired when it fell apart. Many observers believed this allowed laminates to grab even more retail floor space.

By 1997 Qualls was no longer working for Armstrong. (She left the company about a year and a half after the Quest rollout to establish White Good, a full-service marketing and communications agency specializing in the furnishings, decorative finishes and building products industries.) And although the Quest program no longer exists, she believes the concept laid the groundwork for many practices and formats that are commonplace in home furnishings retailing today.

“What Quest did was to encourage specialty retailers to create more beautiful, welcoming environments that were more easy to shop,” Qualls said, citing the nascent Perch home furnishings retail chain as an example. “The whole Perch concept we see today came about in a small way because of some of the things that Armstrong and other companies did over the past 40-50 years with respect to display evolution. While I wouldn’t say that we went the full length to where we are today in terms of experiential retail—where there’s a lot more hands-on activity taking place—the Quest display certainly paved the way for it.”

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