There’s a long-running flooring industry folk tale (it’s actually a true story) about a high-end retailer in New York City—ABC Carpet & Home—that was suspicious of a disheveled man roaming around the company’s flagship store on the famed Broadway strip. The manager on duty at the time was considering calling the police to escort the man out of the store. Well, as it turns out, the strange-looking man was Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. Richards ended up buying tens of thousands of dollars worth of hand-woven area rugs for his Weston, Conn., home once he was done “browsing.”
This colorful little anecdote illustrates a valuable lesson in modern retailing: Every person who enters the retail showroom is a potential client. But it can be easy to write someone off based on an initial judgement and not give the full effort on a sales pitch. The fact is, we all make judgements based on appearances whether we try to or not. The key is to not let it negatively impact your business.
“I think it happens all the time,” said Erin Martin, owner of West River Carpets, Comstock Park, Mich. “You look at a person and you make a judgment but then you catch yourself. Next thing you know they’ll write a check and pay for the whole thing upfront.”
A sales rep may be tempted to undersell a client who looks a bit scruffy or try to oversell to a person who pulled up to the parking lot in a Mercedes. Experts warn against this approach. “We don’t look at the clothing or car they drive,” said Pam Adams, co-owner of Iowa-based Snook’s of Okoboji. “All potential clients are created equal.”
For Adams, prequalifying customers is less about appearance and more about asking the right questions to determine the appropriate flooring choice for the shopper. For example: “Do you live there all year round or do you shut it down in the winter,” she said. If the house sits empty and unheated all winter, hardwood is probably not the best option, she noted.
Other dealers, including Sean Ryan, owner of Elegant Floors in Shelbourne, Vt., take a different tack when it comes to prequalifying customers. “I tend to go by red flags rather than appearances,” he explained. In other words, he operates on the theory that 10% of people are very difficult to deal with. “If somebody comes into the store and mentions three other stores and how they haven’t been satisfied for all these reasons—that’s a red flag. It means there will be trouble.”
Effective prequalifying, experts say, entails understanding the local demographics and the income levels of the surrounding communities and then catering to those communities accordingly. Elegant Floors’ Ryan, for example, sees demand for higher-end wool in his market. Generally speaking, he prefers the jobs that trend toward the upper echelon, which reflects the Shelbourne clientele. “If someone comes in looking for the cheapest stuff, I usually point them to Lowe’s,” he quipped. “I just don’t want to deal with it. We market to the better products, and that’s what people come in for.”
Bear in mind, though, that every market is different. For instance, in the agricultural region surrounding Chico, Calif., which is about 100 miles north of Sacramento, muddy boots and overalls are the norm. But make no mistake: the preferred attire is no indication of class level. Quite the contrary—flannel-shirt donning drivers of classic pickups are looking for floors that last. “When they come in the store, they know what they want,” said Craig Main, owner of Wood Brother’s Carpet & Flooring, which is located near some of the biggest almond and rice farms in the country.
In recent years, though, the demographic has shifted slightly in his market. Though the 2020-21 COVID-19-inspired flooring boom is dying down, things are changing. Specifically, Main has noticed a demographic shifts around Chico. “Since the pandemic started, we’ve seen a huge influx of people moving in from the Bay Area and Southern California,” he explained. “People who can now work from home, so they are moving away from big cities.”
Ask the right questions
Rather than rely solely on a customer’s vehicle, style of dress or manner of speech to determine their income level or spending power, experts say it’s much more beneficial to find out how much a potential client is willing to spend on a project by asking concomitant questions. For example: “Is the new floor for a primary home or secondary property?” Or, “How long do you intend to stay in the home?”
At West River Carpets, the best jobs are those where the client is designing their second home. “They sold their first home and have money to work with,” Martin said. “It’s pretty fun because they are not as concerned about price and have the experience as a homeowner, so they can make it exactly the way they want it.”