Brick-and-mortar and online retail have both been impacted by Covid-19 but in very different ways. Store sales have plummeted with forced closures brought about by government lockdown orders while e-commerce has soared. Élie Ouzilleau has experienced both the economic lows and highs of the pandemic as owner of VN Planchers Experts and co-founder of FloorBox — the only Canadian company to sell flooring exclusively online and deliver it countrywide. Amid Quebec’s first mandated shutdown and state of emergency in 2020, Ouzilleau almost simultaneously shuttered the doors of his specialty flooring store in Sherbrooke to in-person costumers and rolled out the second version of FloorBox with business partner Sébastien Ball. The timing of the launch, other than it being April Fool’s Day, couldn’t have been better.
“The orders came in quickly,” says Ouzilleau, noting FloorBox has grown ten-fold since spring of last year.
While the company’s rapid success has undoubtedly been influenced by the pandemic — it has accelerated the shift to online shopping and triggered changes in consumer behaviours that are likely to have lasting effects — Ouzilleau says it would never have been achieved if it wasn’t for his and Ball’s careful planning. The long-time friends first discussed the idea of creating an online business specializing in floor coverings in February 2018, during a ski weekend at Massif du Sud outside Quebec City. They spent the ensuing six months researching the market and found people’s flooring needs weren’t well-served by what was currently on the web. Limited product offerings, the absence of material samples and excessively high transport costs due to the complexity of moving several flooring cartons or a skid cross-country made buying online unattractive to end-users.
So, the duo set to work on developing a business model and prototype sales platform, leveraging their respective strengths — Ouzilleau’s involvement in the flooring industry and background working as a financial consultant, and Ball’s experience in logistics and e-commerce order preparation as co-owner of Wiptec, an authority on ‘pick, pack and ship.’
“Going online isn’t a simple journey,” says Ouzilleau. “We had to meet with different suppliers and explain our e-commerce model as one didn’t yet exist for flooring. We also had to figure out how to satisfy consumers’ desire to see the merchandise before buying it, and create a logistics and delivery network.”
In late fall 2019, Ouzilleau and Ball rolled out the first iteration of FloorBox — a rudimentary platform that offered 350 products delivered by two carriers. It was immediately apparent there was demand for their service, so they quickly got started on the next version of their e-commerce store. Thanks to having already established preliminary contacts with several major Canadian flooring distributors and manufacturers, it took just five months to get the current rendition online. The site offers more than 30,000 flooring products, as well as tools and accessories, from nearly 90 brands, including Beaulieu, Centura and Fuzion, all of which are directly delivered to homes and job sites via a network of approximately 20 carriers. Before making a purchase, customers can order up to seven free samples, shipped at no cost and received within 24 to 48 hours.
“Our goal is to make shopping for floor coverings simple and accessible,” says Ouzilleau.
With that in mind, Ouzilleau and Ball are readying to launch the third version of FloorBox this summer. They say it will offer improved navigation and greater consumer selection with the addition of approximately 10,000 products, bringing the total to more than 40,000. It will also include specific tools for contractors, designers and installers, given FloorBox has seen increased usage by these groups. Industry professionals will be able to set up an account that provides ready access to their price lists, quotes, work by project and more. For distributors and manufacturers, they’ll have access to a web portal where they can see orders in real-time, generate tracking numbers and manage back orders among a whole host of other functionalities. Along with these enhancements, the newest version will automate back end processes, such as order dispatch and transport booking, that are currently done manually and are labour intensive. This will alleviate pressure on existing personnel, says Ouzilleau. Even though FloorBox now employs 20 — it originally started as a company of three — he says the greatest challenge has been upsizing its workforce to keep pace with the rapidly expanding website and consumer demand, especially during the pandemic.
“If you want to win in e-commerce, you have to continuously reinvent yourself and improve,” says Ouzilleau, adding they’re planning to soon introduce FloorBox to the U.S. market. “Once we launch the next version of the site, we’ll probably start working on the fourth.”
Flooring industry expert John Simonson agrees that regular upgrades are necessary to sustain a profitable e-commerce business. This goes beyond just enhancing the site’s aesthetic to implementing improvements to increase its conversion rate, which refers to the percentage of visitors who complete a desired action on a website like making a purchase. All too often, companies create a digital retail platform with a ‘one and done’ mindset, says Simonson. This ultimately results in failure, though it is just one of many mistakes businesses make when trying to sell online.
“Most flooring retailers have no clue what’s involved,” says the owner of Webstream Dynamics, a full-service digital marketing company that has been developing websites specifically for the flooring industry for more than 23 years.
Other common pitfalls are underestimating the manpower needed to catalogue all products prior to launch, including descriptions, images and prices, and then running the online store. Simonson explains there’s a misconception that the web developer can obtain this information when in fact only those who sell the products have authorization, so the onus is on the flooring dealer to retrieve all relevant details from the manufacturers. In his experience, this generally takes up to six months — more than double or triple the time required to actually build an e-commerce site. Once live, a sufficient number of employees is essential to properly answer consumer questions via e-mail or telephone and follow-up on inquiries.
“It’s a lot of work,” says Simonson. “I’ve had clients that have closed down their e-commerce sites within six to 12 months because they didn’t have the full-time personnel commitment.”
Then there are the shopping cart and logistics challenges, he continues, both of which add to the initial overhead cost of website development. (Simonson says businesses should expect to pay in the range of $30,000, before marketing.) For instance, unlike buying apparel, flooring requires consumers to use an interactive calculator to convert square feet into cartons for pricing. This must be integrated into the e-commerce platform along with a payment processing system that accepts credit cards and other contactless payment methods, and a mechanism to calculate freight rates if the product is being shipped by a LTL (less-than-truckload) carrier.
Once the site is complete, marketing and promotion is a necessary part of doing business online but it, too, is often neglected, says Simonson.
“How else are you going to get found?” he asks in jest.
This involves some serious ad spend if wanting to compete against the deep-pocketed big-box home improvement retailers. To get on page one in Google’s search results, which generally captures 75 per cent or more of search traffic clicks, Simonson says businesses need to have their site optimized to achieve a higher ranking in organic listings and invest in pay-per-click advertising. This requires knowledge of how Google Ads works as well as a budget of up to $1,500 per month. Even so, ranking on the search engine’s first page isn’t guaranteed.
“Most companies are scared off when I tell them how much it costs to build and host an e-commerce site,” says Simonson, who estimates 98 per cent of potential clients decide to forego their e-commerce plans and, upon his advice, sell their in-stock inventory online to local customers instead.
“It’s a great opportunity for dealers, especially when they can offer customers the opportunity to pick up the product at the store,” he says, noting less than one per cent of independent floor covering retailers currently sell product on the Internet.
The key to success is non-stop promotion and to constantly look for ways to increase online visibility, says Simonson. For instance, always be offering a special deal to give consumers an occasion to buy. Also, set up a Google My Business account, if it hasn’t been done already. This free, easy-to-use tool allows businesses to manage their online presence across Google, and attract and engage customers.
“There are a lot of opportunities out there for retailers but you have to put in the effort, otherwise you’re sunk before you begin,” he says.