Selling flooring may seem like it fits well with other building materials, but the truth is, it’s a different animal. Unlike lumber, there is an emotional component to buying flooring, and customers want options. In many markets, dealers are up against tough competition from big box stores, such as Lumber Liquidators, Home Depot, and Lowe's. ProSales asked six dealers that have been in the flooring business for at least five years what it takes to succeed.

Be Sure to Show Off
If you’re known in the community as a lumber dealer, it can be hard for potential customers to think of you as a place to shop for flooring. It’s your job to create a marketing campaign that gets the word out.

“Probably the number one challenge I face is getting consumers to think of Lezzer Lumber as more than a lumberyard. We have a beautiful and extensive showroom that we constantly advertise to get people to come and see,” says Valerie Emigh, head of flooring and bath sales at the Curwensville, Pa.-based company.

She explains that Lezzer has done does a lot of advertising to and has made a name for itself in the flooring market. “We get a lot of referrals from both contractors and homeowners.”

The showroom at Star Lumber & Supply
The showroom at Star Lumber & Supply

Selling flooring has a design component: Homeowners want to see different colors, textures, and finishes, and pro clients will appreciate having an equipped showroom where they can take their customers.

“The showroom is pretty important since so much is special order,” says Patrick Goebel, president of Star Lumber & Supply in Wichita, Kan. “Customers want lots of options. They want what they see on Pinterest or Houzz.”

Adds Loran Hall, president of St. Cloud, Minn.-based Mathew Hall Lumber: “You have to be committed to it. You’re either in the flooring business or you’re not. You need to commit to displays, proper manufacturers, etc. The showroom is in our store. We have window, door, carpet, flooring, and lighting displays. [It’s a] nice environment for builders to bring their customers to—all design is under one roof.”

Employ Experts
You may be at the top of your game when it comes to selling lumber and other materials, but chances are, you’re not a designer. Having a sales staff with interior design experience will allow you to meet customer needs and give you a competitive advantage over big box stores.

“Windows and siding are largely about performance. On the flooring side it’s about look,” says Goebel. “We have degreed designers, and we feel that helps make a difference.” Goebel adds that while Lowe’s is a competitor in his market, Star Lumber doesn’t really feel the competition. “They don’t have designers. We have more selection and a bit more high-end products.”

Mathew Hall Lumber has an entire department devoted to flooring and lighting. “You can’t take a lumber guy and move him to flooring. It's a whole different way of life,” says Hall. “We look for a design background and schooling in salespeople.”

Offer Installation
Providing installation is key—buyers want a one-stop shop. “We install carpet as well as other flooring products,” says Emigh. “That is very important when it comes to selling carpet especially. If you don’t install carpet, you won’t be selling much of it.”

Though offering installation services is important, you don’t have to have an in-house team; a good contract with a reliable installation company will do. Most of the dealers ProSales spoke to said they use subcontractors.

Jim Rosenthal of Mans Lumber & Millwork in Canton, Mich., says the majority of its flooring is sold installed, which is a key difference from the other products the company sells.

The same is true for Brookfield, Wis.-based Drexel Building Supply, says store leader Adam Schweder. “The biggest change in what we were doing as a wholesale supplier is that we had to start managing installation and services,” he says. “You’re as good as the guys that put the product in—that installer can make or break you.”

The showroom at Drexel Building Supply
The showroom at Drexel Building Supply

Build Relationships
One of the advantages lumber and building materials dealers have over Home Depot and Lowe’s is an existing customer base of builders and remodelers. If they’re already coming to you for products and are happy with your services, it’s likely they’ll come to you for their flooring needs as well.

According to Hall, dealers have the benefit of catching the builder at the beginning of their process. “If we do things right, we get them start to finish,” he says.

“We already have a customer base that is buying other building materials from us, so it’s an add-on sale,” says Rosenthal. “If things go right, it’s a growth opportunity for your business.”

Know Your Market
To be successful, you need to know what’s in demand and who the competition is in your area. Stephen P.H. Coppola, vice president of Len-Co Lumber Corp., says the company has been selling flooring for at least 50 years, but hasn’t stocked carpet for about 10. In his Buffalo, N.Y., market, big box carpet outlets take a lot of the business. Len-Co focuses its flooring efforts in segments where there is room for growth.

“Our outdoor flooring sales have increased and made up for the difference,” Coppola says. “We have been seeing growth in composite, PVC porch flooring, and deck tiles, with minimal competition from big box stores in this area. For us, it’s a huge advantage. We can make good margins while being competitive. It goes hand and hand with our decking business.”

Mathew Hall Lumber focuses heavily on builders, rather than trying to get business from homeowners. “None of those big box stores wanted the builders. It’s a beautiful thing, because we know exactly who our customer is,” says Hall. “An independent dealer doesn’t have the same credibility as Home Depot with consumers, but we have it with the builders and remodelers.”

Predictions for the Future
Freedonia puts U.S. demand for carpeting on pace to rise 4.5% per year and hard surface flooring demand to rise 6.1% annually through 2019. While the popularity of hard surface flooring has slowed carpet growth slightly, carpet isn’t going away; it’s still the lower-cost alternative for home building. The future looks bright for flooring sales, and for dealers who want a piece of the pie.

“Flooring is an opportunity that will almost be recession proof,” says Rosenthal. “It is different from other building materials, and dealers need to be prepared for that.”