17 June 2024, 05:28
By Furniture News Oct 18, 2016

On Location: Carpetright, Croydon

Furniture News negotiates Croyon’s roadways to arrive at Carpetright’s flagship on a particularly hot and humid late summer’s day. Set on prime out-of-town real estate alongside the likes of ScS, Bensons and Sofology, the Purley Way store is the latest to sport the retailer’s new look – a concept 18 months in the making, now ready for roll out across the remainder of the retailer’s 434-store UK estate as part of a complete rebrand …

Furniture News is welcomed by Carpetright’s head of communications, PR & CSR, Helen Marsh. A furnishings PR specialist with over 14 years’ experience working with brands such as dwell, Natuzzi, Barker & Stonehouse, John Lewis and The Sleep Room (which went on to become Loaf) – plus a recent stint in the grocery sector with Budgens Londis – Helen took up the newly-created Carpetright role in May.

“It’s a varied role, covering all communications for the UK side of the company,” she says, “some elements of which are in their infancy.” Aside from developing the retailer’s charity work, environmental commitments and internal communications, Helen has been helping communicate the biggest identity change in Carpetright’s 28-year history.

It’s a sizeable task. With a market share of around 26%, Carpetright is the UK’s leading floorcoverings retailer. Since its foundation it has grown to become an international, publicly-traded retailer, employing over 2000 staff in the UK alone.

In 2010, due to relentless customer demand, beds were added to Carpetright’s arsenal, and these are now available in 248 of its stores. The retailer has made the transition from flooring to beds ably, and is already setting standards for presentation and sales methodology, much of which has been driven by its category buying manager for beds, Andrew Woodbridge.

“With the trial stores now achieving consistent double-digit growth, we’re confident it’s the right time to roll out this concept to the wider estate”

Change has been driven from the top – since the retailer’s founder Lord Harris stepped down in 2014, new CEO Wilf Walsh implemented a significantly different operation, and his efforts appear to be paying off. The retailer turned around a loss of £7.2m in 2014 to a £6.6m profit in 2015, with revenue up 3.3% to £462.6m – reaching a £17.3m profit in 2015.

Central to Carpetright’s ambitions is a need to develop with the times. “Carpetright absolutely had to modernise,” says Helen. “Some of the stores haven’t changed since they opened in the 80s, and have seen next-to-no investment.

“Over the last 18 months Carpetright’s been working towards launching the new concept, and the team have been looking at every aspect of the business – what we sell, where we sell it, and how we sell it.

“Customers have changed – they’re much more savvy in general these days. We recognised that to attract new customers to the brand, retain our position as a market leader and ensure longevity, it was necessary to put the customer back at the heart of everything we do, and to create stores that matched that aim.”

Carpetright launched its first trial stores in Reigate, Clapham, Tunbridge Wells and West Thurrock, and over the last 18 months the concept has been deployed across various formats. Numerous ideas were tested and adjustments made before the findings were combined in this flagship store.

The refit here took four weeks to complete – during which time trading continued throughout – and cost approximately £20 per ft2. On the face of it, the uplift is paying off – the store is already seeing double-digit growth, and the sleep area featuring Carpetright’s bed offer has seen an uplift of over 30% since the relaunch.

The store’s shell is typical retail park material, but it’s clear that a good deal of thought has gone into the product layout and decoration. Gone are the brash red sale banners of yesteryear, in their place a variety of informative PoS displays and clean finishes.

Flooring products take up roughly 85% of the store, and these follow a gradient – the customer’s eye is guided from low sample stands at the front of the store towards tall racks of value rolls at the rear.

From carpet and rugs to laminates and vinyls, the flooring is arranged in colour-coded zones denoting varying degrees of softness and tactility. Clear signage spells out the benefits and applications of each product at every turn, alongside messages outlining credit terms and the fitting process.

PoS stands at the entrance clarify that Carpetright sells beds as well as flooring – and these go on to outline the recommended steps a customer should follow when making a purchase. Whilst detailed, the PoS has been designed to support rather than supplant the traditional role of the salesperson.

“There’s a fine line between getting in the customer’s face right away, and leaving them to their own devices,” says Helen. “I think you need a staff member to make contact early on to establish what they’re looking for – if they want to cover a high-traffic area, or have pets or children, they’ll need to explore different flooring types – before pointing them in the right direction, and leaving them alone to explore.”

Underfoot, the store’s floor is divided roughly between wooden laminate and grey carpet – both of which are, interestingly, the retailer’s bestsellers. “For the first time, grey carpet has become more popular than beige,” says Helen, “hence the colour chosen throughout, which also echoes the shades of our new logo.”

Attempts have been made to make the less attractive elements of floor buying more attractive – new underlay testing stations encourage customers to tread upon their chosen samples with and without underlay so that they can feel the difference.

Overhead, the roof is high – aside from the sleep area, which benefits from a suspended ceiling and warm spotlights, which aim to create a more intimate environment for customers wishing to sample the beds.

Certainly, there’s a bigger range of beds than there’s ever been, with a greater number of premium options and design-led frames, all laid out within their own zone. A new comfort station concept presents the three colour-coded mattress types – blue for pocket spring, purple for memory foam, and green for traditional spring – and invites customers to select which best suits them.

“I’ll admit that beds are secondary to our core offer,” says Helen, “which makes presenting them in the right way a real challenge. They are often tucked into a corner, or hidden on a mezzanine, which doesn’t always allow them to shine.”

Now they occupy an enclosed area in which the models face one another, yet are spaced enough apart that people can try them out.

Low panel walls behind the headboards help create more of that all-important intimacy. “The store gets quite busy, especially at the weekend,” Helen explains. “People can still feel awkward and self conscious trying out beds, but I think we’ve achieved the right balance here.”

The mood is further defined by the low-level MOR music emanating from the in-store speakers. More flexible playlists – a choice of jazz, lounge or pop – are coming to stores soon, which will allow managers to set the background sounds to suit the mood in store (and restore a degree of sanity to those staffers sick of hearing the same tunes day in, day out!).

In terms of personnel, three front-of-house sales staff are present, based on their own workstations, and there’s a small customer service team at the rear of the building. Carpet cutting and delivery staff are also on site.

To better handle the bed sales, Carpetright has pursued an initiative to ensure that every store eventually boasts a ‘sleep expert’. Having undergone Sleep Council training, these specialists are already helping to build sales and customer satisfaction, says Helen.

“Sleep is high on people’s agenda,” she explains. “Our salespeople are facing more in-depth questions from customers, many of whom come equipped with some knowledge having researched the subject online.

There’s a lot of noise around back support and cooling properties in particular – having a staff member in store who understands these issues and can direct the customer to the most suitable product helps build a good deal of confidence and trust.”

For the first time in the retailer’s history, a staff uniform is currently in development. The broad selection of on-brand smart-casual wear has been designed to make staff more easily identifiable on the shop floor, whilst encouraging a softer approach to selling.  “Thanks to the flexibility of the workwear, not everyone will look the same,” says Helen. “There’s a huge variety to choose from, but no tie – suits don’t feel right for our sales approach these days.”

Carpetright remains one of the sector’s most price-focused retailers. Its implication alongside a handful of leading furnishing multiples in the OFT’s 2013 investigation into misleading price promotions has encouraged the retailer to adopt a clearer, more honest approach – its focus  nowadays is very much on service and quality rather than flash sales.

“For a time, flooring was dominated by sales,” says Helen, “so many people – quite rightly, in some cases – mistrust the practice. Upon his appointment, Wilf [Walsh] was adamant that he wanted to shift the emphasis towards the customer journey, and the fact we offer unique product expertise, and benefits such as free fitting.”

Indeed, Helen is celebrating something of a coup today when it comes to credible service, as Carpetright’s fitting service has just been endorsed by Which? Trusted Traders.

Perhaps keen pricing is something that Carpetright can now afford to take for granted – indeed, the retailer seems perfectly content to operate on parks alongside competitors.

“We usually offer the best value,” says Helen. The retailer’s ‘never beaten on price’ promise sees it matching competitors’ quotes when challenged. It has even introduced a PoS price checker comparison feature wherever it can identify like-for-like product in other stores. In the case of the beds in particular, the difference in margin can be remarkable.

“Some customers don’t have cars, don’t shop frequently, or don’t like to use retail parks – high street stores are ideal for them”

Despite its reputation for value, Carpetright’s bed offer has pushed upmarket of late, with brands such as Silentnight, Sealy, Sleepeezee, Kaymed and Icon supplementing its own-brand Sleepright products. “People like brands, they often feel more comfortable with them,” says Helen.

Brands are playing an increasingly important role in Carpetright’s flooring offer, too, with the likes of Brintons and Westex rubbing shoulders with retailer exclusives, including its collaborative effort with House Beautiful magazine. “Our branded goods sales used to be small,” explains Helen, “but we’ve significantly increased the range, introducing more named brands which appeal to the higher-end consumer.”

Carpetright’s rebrand has been driven by a national TV advertising campaign plus show sponsorship bumpers, all fronted by its new brand ambassador Lucy Alexander, of the BBC’s Homes Under the Hammer fame.

“We’re making a big effort to ensure all areas of the business are seen,” says Helen, “and we chose Lucy to help build our credibility – she’s not simply a TV celebrity, but an expert in interiors and property.” In addition, the ambassador’s personal picks are highlighted in store, each tagged as part of the  ‘Lucy Loves’ collection.

The launch of a new website offering expert advice and free samples has driven traffic growth, but its transactional element only accounts for around one store’s worth of sales at present. “Carpet is very hard to buy online,” asserts Helen. “It needs to be seen, it needs interaction. Our website gives a good grounding to the buying process, but Carpetright’s is much more of an in-store proposition, and that isn’t likely to change any time soon.”

“With the trial stores now achieving consistent double-digit growth, we’re confident it’s the right time to roll out this concept to the wider estate,” says Helen. One hundred of the stores are to be refurbished by next summer, at a capital cost of £10m.

The first tranche of stores selected follow a rule of thirds – one third are those most in need of an overhaul, another are those with strong competitors in their immediate vicinity, and the final third are those with the greatest high street potential.

“Some people said that Carpetright couldn’t pull off a high street format, but there’s no doubt that they are working,” says Helen. “Whether we’re offering 200 varieties or 10, we’re still likely to be stocking a carpet that will satisfy most buyers, in the colour they’re after. Some customers don’t have cars, don’t shop frequently, or don’t like to use retail parks – high street stores are ideal for them.

“These smaller stores also allow us to better compete with the independents. As it stands, our [bed-free] high street stores are going incredibly well – most of them are seeing double-digit growth.”

It’s telling that the most challenging element of Carpetright’s rebrand was, in Helen’s opinion, getting the logo right. The old bold red writing and green tick strikethrough may have come to feel a little budget chain, but, crucially, customers did associate it with value.

“We didn’t want to lose that,” she says. “Our new, more contemporary grey logo is the culmination of lots of research. For a short while, we had a different one that looked like a SIM card, which was used in the first trial stores – but it turned out that the tick in the logo was actually a big sticking point with the customer focus groups, and we had to have it back!”

The story behind the logo’s development demonstrates how much consideration has gone into making Carpetright a retailer fit for the modern age whilst retaining its core values.

Rather than effect any seismic changes, the retailer has dusted itself off and brought casual customer engagement to the fore. Lessons have been learned when it comes to selling,  leaving a refreshingly crisp approach – Carpetright is here to guide the decision, offer the best price around, and ensure the purchase is delivered and fitted to satisfaction.

As befits its market-leading status, the retailer’s flooring offer is confident and comprehensive – its high street stores may be flourishing with smaller selections, but the variety of stock displayed at Purley Way feels just right. Indeed, Furniture News overhears a couple browsing branded carpet tell a salesperson: “We’re very impressed with the range on show here, it comes across very well.”

In terms of beds, there’s room for improvement – “the modernisation of the store estate will help us attract a wider audience, and our bed offer has an important role to play in this – as we reach an increasing number of customers, our bed offer will naturally come to the fore,” says Helen – but Carpetright’s flagship proudly proclaims that this is a national bed retailer to be taken seriously.

This article was published in the October 2016 issue of Furniture News magazine.

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