By Reginald Tucker and Elisabeth McGowan
Las Vegas—When roughly 80% of the members of a retail buying group generate double-digit increases in sales growth, it’s a feat worth noting. But the fact that this achievement occurred in a pandemic year—when so many aspects of the overall U.S. economy did not fare as well—makes it all the more remarkable.
That precisely described most members of Floors & More, a 78-member-strong retail group comprising Floor to Ceiling and Big Bob’s discount stores across the country. Convening here earlier this month for their first in-person conference after the fall virtual meeting, management and members shared their experience along the journey to recovery climbing out of the pandemic.
“This is our first conference since the 2020 winter event, which was all virtual,” said Vinnie Virga, president and CEO, Floors & More. Historically, pre-COVID-19, the percentage of storefronts/showrooms in attendance was in the 55% to 65% range, according to Virga. “About 20% of all our storefronts are here in person (approximately 70 people), with roughly 21 storefronts taking part via virtual sessions. But this will probably be our last hybrid event. We’ll be back to a regular full-on show for the fall, and we’re very happy about that.”
Floors & More management took a number of steps to help members weather the pandemic storm. For example, when the pandemic first hit, Floors & More management established an emergency advisory council to provide guidance during a time when there was so much uncertainty. “At first, we started doing weekly webinars—sometimes as many as three webinars a week—where we would get members on, share updates on COVID-19 and talk about what they needed to be doing and how they needed to be communicating online to their customers,” said Vinnie Virga Jr., vice president of Floors & More. “We updated all of the member websites to include a COVID-19 message along with helpful guidelines.”
The next step was to ensure members were aware of the federal benefits as well as state/local emergency funding that was available. In fact, Floors & More management was instrumental in helping members navigate what was then a cumbersome financial-aid application process. “The additional funding really helped,” Virga Sr. said. “Roughly 85% of our members got the first round of PPP funding. We worked very hard with them to do that, to help them get the loans they needed. In addition to PPP funds, about 50%-60% of members took advantage of the economic injury disaster loans (EIDLs) that were available at the time.”
Even before the pandemic, Floors & More management maintained regular contact with members to ensure they had the tools they needed to be successful. Management ratcheted up those efforts as the country progressed through the pandemic. “We did the webinars for about 12 weeks straight until we got on the other side of the quarantine,” Virga Jr. said. “Then we started calling our members every week, checking in with them on a one-on-one basis to see how they were doing. We have really deep personal relationships with our members. We see them not just as business partners, but as friends as well.”
Another critical message Floors & More management conveyed to members during the height of the pandemic was to remain aggressive in their approach to generating business by continuing to market and advertise their services. “It was important for us to help members keep things in perspective—to help them understand that, yes, these are challenging times now, but when we get past this there’s opportunity on the other side,” Virga Jr. said. “A lot of people might see this as a time to scale back, but if we invest and we’re smart and we start implementing strategies now, we’re going to be way ahead of others when it comes to the tail end of this. We really tried to help members understand, from a marketing and merchandising perspective, what they needed to be doing so they could take advantage of the business that was there and be much stronger when the business started to come back.”
And for those members who had to make really tough decisions about their business—especially surrounding personnel, salaries, etc.—management provided guidance in that area as well. “We did a lot of emergency planning sessions with our members where we said, ‘Look, you need to change your staff levels immediately,’” Virga Sr. said. “We explained to them how to do an emergency budget. We asked them to identify the things that are ‘nice to have’ vs. what was necessary to have in an emergency. Then, we talked about ways members could start bringing people back once we started to see the turnaround.”
To accomplish this, management closely reviewed the financials of each member, developing a comprehensive spreadsheet for them to use as a roadmap to dig their way out of the pandemic and more fully understand the steps they needed to take to navigate those early difficult days. “For example, we created ‘worst-case vs. best-case’ scenarios,” Virga Sr. explained. “Thankfully, we didn’t have a single member close due to the pandemic. In fact, in all of 2020, we had just one member close but it really wasn’t related to COVID-19. Rather, it was a health issue, and the owner didn’t have someone coming up behind him as far as a succession plan.”
All things considered, Floors & More members did considerably well in 2020. “The exciting part is, many of them had their best year ever last year and they’re on pace to have even better years this year,” Virga Sr. said. “From a growth standpoint, that’s really encouraging.”
Membership has its privileges
Longtime Floors & More members like Ogden’s Flooring Design, Springville, Utah, attest to the value of the support that leadership provides. “The No. 1 advantage I see with Floors & More is the consultative approach they take with me and the other members,” said Blair Schmoekel, owner and 20-year member of the group. “They’re always eager to help me brainstorm, provide solutions and give me advice. They showed me how to use differential margins on the floor to maximize profits and helped me better understand HR issues—for instance, where to put the right people to get the right job done and how to structure the business so we are really getting maximum performance out of our employees. That has been very helpful.”
Even fairly new members such as Ann Pollack, owner of Nationwide Floor & Window Coverings—a mobile showroom business based in West Orange, N.J.—see the benefits. “Vinnie has been great in helping me identify new ways to grow the business,” she said. “He has a lot of experience with dealers of all different types, which is very helpful for retailers like me. On top of that, the other dealers in the group are willing to share their success stories and lessons learned to help you grow.”
Many dealer members, of course, cite the usual benefits that belonging to a respected buying group provides—i.e., private-label programs, merchandising support, favorable vendor pricing. Floors & More executives, members say, really go above and beyond the basics. “There’s so much business consulting involved,” Ogden’s Schmoekel added. “Any flooring buying group can negotiate with suppliers on your behalf and provide rebates—that’s all standard fair. But I think Floors & More has really differentiated themselves in their sort of approach on how to run a good, profitable business. And that makes all the difference.”
Best practices for hiring, retention
LAS VEGAS—Floors & More members gain valuable insights from management in many ways—the most critical of which relates to the timely topic of hiring and retention. To that end, the group conducted a key breakout session that provided tips and guidance on building an effective workforce.
Leading the discussion were Jim Cain, president of JHS Consulting, based in Nashville, Tenn., and Vinnie Virga, Jr., vice president of Floors & More.
Following are excerpts of that presentation:
Finding and maintaining a workforce has become strenuous for every industry—flooring is no exception. Many Americans are not actively working in-person jobs due to the physical and psychological effects of the pandemic. For those re-entering the workforce, employers need to institute effective screening techniques. Virga recommended employing the Myers-Briggs personality test during the interview process. This test, he said, helps a manager learn about a candidate’s personality traits before bringing them onboard. “You learn about their strengths, their weaknesses and how they prefer to work,” Virga explained.
Aptitude tests are also a vital hiring technique. For instance, Virga pointed out that if a business owner discovers a new hire can’t do basic math for measurements or mark-ups, then the person is not a good fit for the team—or for that particular position. Hence the need to screen candidates accordingly.
Another important part of the interview process, the speakers said, is to set clear expectations upfront. “Businesses will try to hide the sins and not talk about them in the interview process,” Cain said. “For example, do you think you’ll tell people that you’re open on Saturdays when you’re hiring them?”
Overall, Cain and Virga suggested that retail store owners move to hire slow but terminate fast if it’s clear a new hire isn’t working out. And when it comes to onboarding a new hire, they don’t necessarily agree that the newbie should be trained by the top gun. “Your top salesperson is probably your most messy person,” Virga said. “They bring in the most money, but the most issues. So, you don’t want the new person learning all those bad habits.”
Lastly, the presenters advised audience members that they don’t necessarily have to hire someone with previous flooring experience. “You’ve got be creative when it comes to hiring people,” Virga said. “You need to look at people who you might not traditionally think of for a sales role—those who have the core tenants that we associate with highly successful salespeople—good instincts, good work ethic, good personality.”