Turn For The Better In 2014
THE mood of UK distributors includes both cautious and enthusiastic optimism, depending on who you speak to, writes Iona Walton.
Perhaps it’s all down to the effects of the heady days of the London 2012 Olympic Games; maybe it’s a sign that the economy has turned a corner. Either way, companies are striving to move forward with more of a spring in their step than has been seen in recent years.
‘We have experienced more optimism in the last 12 months partly due to a successful summer seeing schools spending again,’ says Ron Birkett , director of Ashmount Flooring Supplies. ‘Our customers’ diaries seem to be healthier and we are seeing some of the work arising from the regeneration of the Olympic area.’
Many companies experienced a strong summer, including Paul Wiseman, md at Joseph, Hamilton & Seaton (JHS) Carpets.
‘The year started relatively slowly, although the summer was reasonably strong – in fact we sold more to the education sector in 2013 than we did in 2012,’ explains Paul Wiseman.
‘Overall, sales during 2013 have been a little patchy in comparison to 2012, which in the main was a strong year, although this was partly due to the Olympic effect where we saw shops, restaurants, hotels and businesses around London and the South East refurbishing, presumably in preparation for the events surrounding the Olympic Games.’
James Kellet, contract director for the Mercado Group agrees. ‘Trade continues to be challenging although encouraging signs through the summer continued into the autumn,’ he says.
Katie Cohen, director at Lewis Abbot (a London-based third generation independent flooring distributor), reports a definite upturn in trade.
‘The morale of both our customers and the media seems to be much more positive then it has in the last few years,’ she says. ‘Trading times are still difficult but there is definitely business out there. Our carpets are fairly niche and aimed at the middle to upper end of the market and this area does not seem to have been as affected by the economic situation.’
The view at J De Bruyn is one of cautious optimism. ‘Whilst the last few years have been very tough, the last couple of months have shown some improvement and I hope this indicates that we can look forward to an increasing trend,’ says J De Bruyn md, Tony Hammond.
‘But it still takes time to get your money in. You’ve already sharpened your pencil to get the order, if the customer then takes extra time to pay you are almost buying the business and acting as their bankers.’
Ron Birkett has a similar tale: ‘We still experience the continuing problem with bad payers, the same faces giving you the same unbelievable stories,’ he says. ‘A particular issue is that of end users buying off the internet at prices cheaper than those we buy at from manufacturers.’
The strategy at JHS Carpets is to help the end user find them and specify their products to others involved in the project.
‘Over the last four or five years we have worked towards generating external leads for our sales teams to use to create new business,’ adds Paul Wiseman.
‘A relaunch of the JHS Carpets website in August, using a new format more suitable to mobile devices, resulted in a 25% increase in enquiries and requests for samples from end users and specifiers.
‘We find cold calling architects generally fruitless. Our main focus has to be helping the end user find us and once they have selected a product the building company and contractor generally has to purchase it from us.’
l Products, trends and stock: ‘There are few genuinely new trends – most have been seen before at some time and go in and out of fashion over a period – although this could be the view of a cynical old man’ says Tony Hammond.
‘Since Checkmate ceased trading, we have taken in the coral range of entrance matting. All colourways are held as stock, which has involved an investment of £150,000. We’ve had it in since May and it’s going well.
‘Whilst price is still important, having fitters standing idol is still more costly, and with lead times for jobs getting shorter and some required at a moment’s notice, stock holding is paramount.
‘We have always run a policy that we carry every colour of every range we hold in stock. The only time we are out of stock of any item we carry is if we are awaiting a delivery or the manufacturer is out of stock.’
The policy regarding stock levels is similar at Lewis Abbott. ‘We have been established for three generations and what I have learnt is that as a wholesaler you have to listen to what your retailers want in order to succeed,’ says Katie Cohen. ‘As the market is at the moment, retailers are stocking less than they used to so having good stock levels is crucial.’
Carpet tiles are hot stuff at JHS Carpets. ‘We have seen a move towards carpet tiles over the 12 or 18 months and while greys and blues have always been popular, we have noted a trend towards grey and charcoal,’ says Paul Wiseman.
‘We are always launching new products but one interesting development has been the launch of three ranges of carpet tiles measuring 1m x 50cm, which has been well received partly because of the ease of fitting and secondly, because they can be laid to create interesting patterns that cannot be achieved using 50cm x 50cm tiles.’
James Kellet reports that decorative safety floors and luxury vinyl tiles are still leading the way in product innovation and décor at the Mercado Group.
‘We continue to support all of our manufacturing partners with new products wherever practical and possible,’ says Mr Kellet.
New products for Ashmount Flooring are ‘Altro Walkway Plus, Burmatex Armour, Desso Lupo Carpet Tiles, F Ball 1200 Screed, Karndean Looselay and Uzin Adhesive,’ says Ron Birkett.
Katie Cohen has found the London market moving from beige to contemporary greys and taupes over the last few years.
‘Our customers like clean colours, New Zealand wool and hank-dyed products,’ she says. ‘There has been a massive increase in the artificial silk market. Nylon has made a huge comeback and where our demographic of customers would have not have been interested in man-made products previously these are now incredibly popular.
‘Our niche range of carpets is called Country Classics. Our collection consists of a variety of textures in wool and wool mix across 12 ranges. We have re-introduced a 10/90 wool/flatweave called PotPourri. The new colours are great and this range has been very popular especially the greys.
‘We also added Warwick a 100% wool low level loop, to our collection. Great colours and reasonably priced, this has been a good seller for us. A new contract vinyl has been taken on and is proving popular, particularly with our trade counter customers.’
l Show time: ‘It can be hard to find the time to attend shows, fairs and seminars, but those that do say that the experience is extremely worthwhile.
‘Harrogate and Hannover are both fantastic platforms for manufacturers and distributors (in the case of Harrogate) to showcase new products,’ James Kellet reports.
Tony Hammond agrees: ‘We do try to attend trade shows, not only to see the exhibitors and any new products, but to meet with customers and other wholesales who you don’t always get the chance to catch up with at other times,’ he says.
Katie Cohen is a fan of Germany’s Domotex: ‘We attend every year and find it very useful,’ she says. ‘It is a global show so there are a huge amount of manufacturers and distributors there. It gives a good gauge as to what trends, textures and colours are being introduced into the market.
‘I also attended Decorex International, an interior design event, for the first time in 2013. Although there is not a huge carpet presence some of our customers were exhibiting, so it is good to give support. I found the event really interesting as it showcased all elements of interior design.’
JHS Carpets takes more of a niche approach to exhibitions. ‘We exhibit at specialist exhibitions relating to our end user market such as the nursing and care home industry where we can tempt end users to specify a product at source,’ adds Paul Wiseman.
l Training: ‘Those in positions of responsibility are ensuring that their staff are worthy of the task in hand,’ explains Ron Birkett who says his team are always up to scratch with details of new products, lines and trends thanks to training from manufacturers.
James Kellet reports that training and development of his team is a vital part of staying ahead of the competition.
‘We are investing in an on-going training programme for all of our internal and external sales and management teams with the aim of improving productivity, personal development and ultimately results,’ he says.
Specialist training is high on the agenda at JHS Carpets too. ‘The sales teams have had some external training during 2013 that will continue into 2014,’ says Paul Wiseman. ‘Our sales managers have received some specialist training around how to get the best from their own sales teams.’
l The year ahead: Market conditions are more positive and trading is beginning to improve. ‘It’s still difficult yet more optimistic… but we are not out of the mire yet,’ says Ron Birkett.
At JHS Carpets the vibe is that the market is improving slightly and that conditions will continue to improve next year.
‘We are ready to make the best of an improving market,’ Paul Wiseman enthuses. ‘To stay ahead of the competition and grow our market share we have to continue to innovate in terms of quality service, price, specification and strong marketing.
‘Some of our weaker competitors have disappeared from certain market sectors and in some instances we have picked up bits of business. Whilst being efficient and streamlined, we don’t skimp on product innovation, service or marketing.’
James Kellet suggests that all of the signs suggest an upturn in the housing market and a recovery (albeit fragile) in the economy in general which can only be positive for the coming year.
Katie Cohen has witnessed more construction going on, particularly on derelict land, and reports that customer feedback is positive indicating a more buoyant year ahead. Tony Hammond agrees:
‘I’d like to think that if the last few months are anything to go by, we may have seen the worst and that we can look forward to improving times,’ he says.
‘We are, however, mindful that we must still keep a tight rein on our credit control, credit limits and pricing in order that any growth is structured and not orders at any cost.
‘We can all be busy fools.’
This article has been reproduced from the Contract Flooring Journal website. You can find them at www.contractflooringjournal.co.uk.