By Steven Feldman
Savannah, Ga.—After six long months, in-person events returned to the floor covering industry when the National Floorcovering Alliance (NFA) went forward with its fall meeting here. And it went off without a hitch, according to attendees.
Jason McSwain, president of McSwain’s Carpet & Flooring in Cincinnati and the current NFA president who was unanimously elected to a second term, told FCNews that members and vendors had the option of attending in person or virtually. When the dust cleared, 33 of the 43 members made the trip to Savannah and 19 core vendors showed up. The other 10 “attended” the members-only meeting and member/vendor round robin event virtually.
McSwain said at first there were some members who were wrestling with the idea of holding a live event. “We all know someone who contracted this virus—maybe even one of our associates,” he said. “So, there was a real respect for what we needed to be doing from a cautionary standpoint, but that was weighed against a need to be able to conduct the business for retail going forward.”
Safety precautions included temperature checks every morning; dinners being held outdoors; tables of six instead of eight to allow for proper spacing; and face shields or masks worn by all at the member/vendor meeting and larger meeting spaces.
Ian Newton, NFA vice president and general manager of Flooring 101 in Ventura County, Calif., summed it up best: “The gains outweighed the negatives and potential risks.”
Still, it was not possible for every member to attend in person. For example, Canadian members Sarmazian Flooring and FloorTrends, both based in Ontario, knew from the start there would probably not be a border opening for them, McSwain said.
Even so, Newton said the results speak for themselves. “I’ve never seen a more positive meeting,” he told FCNews. “Everybody is not only positive about seeing each other, because they haven’t gotten together for so long, but also positive about where their business is right now.”
Most are also optimistic about the outlook for the rest of the year, which is remarkable given the negative projections in the spring. Some are now looking at finishing the year in the black.
Eric Mondragon, NFA secretary and hard surface buyer at RC Willey, said he felt both members and vendors alike needed this meeting to happen to get back to some degree of normalcy. “We really have not been able to meet since Surfaces,” he said. “And then with so many of the vendors not allowing their TMs or RVPs to get out in the marketplace, we’ve been held up in our businesses without a lot of interaction with them.”
Newton agreed, adding that simply getting together and talking in the hallways and idea sharing is what the NFA is all about.
“The best practices presentation was phenomenal,” he said, referring to a presentation by RC Willey that discussed culture changes within the company that have been evolving for some time. The retailer refers to it as “hidden paychecks.” It involves promoting a healthier lifestyle and things that promote a positive work environment and minimize lost time at work.
A second term for the board
With the board officers getting another two years, McSwain said the goal continues to be bringing tools to membership that allow them to be strong competitors in their markets. “Things like expanding our private-label. Lifetime Luxury brand, which is supported by a number of manufacturers,” he explained.
Another area that will be addressed going forward is digital marketing, particularly on Google. “You look at all those algorithms and cost per click, capture ratios and all that,” Mondragon said. “There’s a lot of data there, but what do you do with that data? And how do you use that to the best of your ability? How do you stay top of mind, because we’re in a world where there is so much distraction? If somebody goes to Google and searches for carpet or flooring and you’re not on that first page, you’re not top of mind. And keeping that position is a real concern and real struggle for everybody.”
Business may be good, but that doesn’t mean NFA members are not without their share of challenges, particularly service issues from their suppliers as well as getting the products they sell installed in consumers’ homes. “Some manufacturers have been unable to provide the level of service we have grown accustomed to,” Mondragon said. “They know it’s a concern. They’re affected by this just like we are. A manufacturer has an outbreak at one of their facilities, they shut down their facility. They can’t provide that service and they’re doing everything they can to rectify it.”
Newton added that installation is a problem, and it’s not just flooring. “People are booked out 90 days just to have simple things done around their homes. I hear that it’s even worse on the appliance side.”
RC Willey can attest to that. “Appliances kept us going through the roughest time of this pandemic,” Mondragon said. “We had the inventory, then all of a sudden it started drying up. Now, we have these huge back-order issues from furniture or appliances coming out of China.”
One thing NFA members expect to see in the next 12 months is smaller retailers having a hard time making a go of it despite what they believe will be strong business conditions. “I don’t think they can afford it financially,” Newton said. “I think they’re going to start seeing the credit’s going to tighten up. I think the opportunity for them to be able to buy like some of the larger dealers will not be there. I think the bigger manufacturers are going to be more restrictive on their credit and more restrictive on how they price their products for a lot of smaller retailers.”
Mondragon said he sees it already happening on the furniture and appliances side where the vendors are not able to supply those dealers that can’t pay for it, so the products get sold to another retailer that can.
McSwain said he believes smaller retailers might not be able to keep pace with the number of customers who may walk through their doors. “I think the challenge is, if customers who were on the sidelines came back quickly, you have to respond fast. You have to go from zero to 60 in a short window where you may have gotten a little rusty. A week off is OK, but seven weeks off, you really start to lose your edge if you’re a salesperson or installer or you’re in the operational role.”
Then you have the issue of children and the fluctuating balance between in-school classes and remote learning. “In our office, we have a lot of parents with children in school and there are so many variables: How long can they stay in school or are they remote learning? Parents sometimes can’t go back to work; they have to stay home with the kids. In many school districts around the country, they say, ‘Let’s have you in school this week and you are remote next week.’ They may balance out these days and you have parents that ask, ‘How do I deal with work that week?’”
Despite the tragic loss of lives caused by COVID-19, most NFA members have seen business skyrocket since temporary closures were lifted. “For us, our average job size went up about 35%,” Mondragon said. “Consumers said, ‘We’re not going to the office’ or ‘We’re not going on vacation. We’re going to fix up our homes.’ Well, now they’re doing larger projects in their homes vs. just the living room or the bedrooms. Some of them are converting their spare bedroom to an office because they have to work from home. So, I’ve seen these jobs getting bigger.”
Another positive is close ratios have doubled. “Especially in the beginning, because con- sumers were not competitive shopping,” Mondragon said. “They did their online home- work and then picked where they wanted to go. And that’s where they ran and made the purchase.”
COVID-19 has also forced dealers to be more efficient in their operations. “From the feed- back I’ve gotten, even in our own company, we’re able to do more with fewer people,” Newton said. “We didn’t bring everybody back. We’re doing more business now but with fewer people, so that has been a big impact.”
In other NFA news…
- Whether the election brings winds of change to business conditions may depend on the media, according to Mondragon. However, the main impact from the election may surround tariffs, according to McSwain.
- The NFA welcomed new core vendors Republic Floor and Happy Feet. What do these two offer the NFA? “With these smaller vendors, there’s always opportunity for the group to buy a product that may not be sold everywhere,” Newton said.
- The group said it would have preferred to see Surfaces remain in January. “June really lessens the importance of Surfaces because a lot of work will be done here and in March at our spring meeting,” Mondragon said. McSwain added: “Those core pieces for our membership are in place and we go to Surfaces to do some fine tuning.”