Technology, demographics are changing the face of retail sales floors

Home Inside FCNews Technology, demographics are changing the face of retail sales floors

January 16/23, 2017: Volume 31, Number 16
By Sarah Bousquet

As consumer demographics and shopping habits change, specialty retailers are adapting accordingly. Specifically, they are working to ensure their sales associates evolve through training and by developing a better understanding of the way consumers shop for floor coverings today.

While customer service and product knowledge are still key qualities for sales, the expectations associated with each have changed immensely over the past 20-plus years. Where Mrs. Consumer used to physically visit a handful of brick-and-mortar locations, today she has most likely done all her research online prior to ever stepping foot in a store—and knows more or less what she wants.

To better understand what that evolution looks like from the perspective of the sales team and management, FCNews reached out to a few showroom executives who have lived through it. Here is what they identified as the major factors changing the face of the retail salesperson to provide consumers with the 21st century floor-buying experience they expect.

Understanding the new consumer. Today’s buyers are typically more tech-savvy, informed and design conscious. They also tend to be pretty busy. To that end, retail sales associates need to be ready. “Our consumers today come in very well educated from researching products online,” said Wendy Werner, president of Carpet Town in Milwaukee. “Therefore, our sales associates need to be more informed and educated on products than ever before, and they need to be technologically savvy as well.”

Other dealers tend to agree. Kevin Arscott, president of Floor Trends in Ontario, Canada, also pointed to technology and a shifting consumer demographic as the key drivers for helping RSAs develop their selling skills. Like Werner, he believes better-educated shoppers are looking for more professional and technological sales associates. To meet those expectations, Arscott and his team have focused on developing and improving education for showroom employees to keep sales associates up to date. “In recent years we’ve set up an internal training process that did not previously exist,” he explained. “Our salespeople have come a long way thanks to that training.”

While several industry associations offer members training opportunities in this area, independent retailers say the onus is on the business owners to educate their employees on how to engage with customers. “Sales associates today have to show the consumer their knowledge, understanding and yet have true confidence in what they are selling,” Werner said. “If they don’t, customers will go elsewhere. With online shopping available, sales associates need to be more astute and aware of the consumer’s needs and be able to build solid relationships with trust and personal service—things the customer cannot get from an online experience.”

Connecting on a personal level. The research phase of today’s consumer experience doesn’t stop at product specs. Rather, customers are interested in having in-depth conversations around installation methods, design and in some cases sustainability. From online design platforms and social media forums to the growing popularity of home improvement/remodeling shows on cable television, there are countless opportunities for consumers to obtain information on floor coverings and home furnishings. For these reasons, many showrooms are seeing a shift in the demographics and expectations of their sales teams as well.

“We’re almost 100% residential replacement, and our clients need design assistance and a lot of ‘hand holding,’” said Elisabeth Stubbs, owner of Marietta, Ga.-based Enhance Floors & More, which employs a high percentage of women on the showroom floor. “Females tend to be better at this.”

Other retailers are seeing demographic shifts as well, not only in terms of gender but also age. While the sales associates at Floor Trends have remained mostly male, Arscott noted the average age of his team has decreased significantly. “Fifteen years ago our salespeople would have been 75% males over the age of 40,” he explained. “Today our male associates still outweigh our females, but the age mix has changed to more than 50% of the entire team being in their 20s and 30s.”

With that shift, Arscott noted more new staff members are coming into the role from other industries, which he says has been a plus. Werner agreed, citing the advantages of bringing in people with sales experience outside the flooring industry. She noted it’s more important than ever for salespeople to have an overall design awareness. “Consumers come in with definite design ideas and visuals they’ve seen on TV, Houzz or Pinterest, for example,” she said. Environmental consciousness is also a factor in the way consumers shop and the products they select. As Werner notes, “Millennials have increased ecological and environmental [awareness]. Sales associates need to be aware of and comfortable with these same tools and concepts. For example, they need to know which products positively affect indoor air quality by reducing allergens and off gassing.”

Bottom line: The more educated, experienced and knowledgeable the sales rep, the better equipped she will be in addressing the consumer’s specific questions and needs. “At the end of the day it’s still all about customer service,” Stubbs explained. “The person who measures the job has to have extensive installation knowledge, and the sales rep on the showroom floor has to have great skills in assisting the client in selecting the right product out of thousands of choices. I find these skills are very, very different and continue to evolve.”

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