Experience that’s set in stone: Chris Homeister

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Chris Homeister: President and CEO, The Tile Shop

Nearly 54 percent of Americans are looking to buy a home in 2017, according to a report from BMO Harris Bank, up 12 percent from last year. With 126 stores in 31 states and the District of Columbia, The Tile Shop is gearing up to lend a hand, specializing in natural stone, ceramic, glass and porcelain tile, as well as setting and maintenance materials.

The company debuted a new store prototype last year, and has opened three new stores in 2017 with a smaller footprint aimed at making the tile-buying experience a little less intimidating and a lot more inspirational and efficient for homeowners, interior designers, tile installers, general contractors and custom home builders.

Clearly, something’s working: The Tile Shop saw year-over-year same-store sales growth of 5 percent during the first quarter; overall sales grew 9 percent to $92.1 million, while gross profits in the quarter were 70 percent.

Chris Homeister is president and CEO of The Tile Shop. Since joining the company in 2013, he has also held the role of COO, overseeing merchandising, retail operations, e-commerce, finance, supply chain, purchasing and information technology functions.

Can you tell us about The Tile Shop’s customers?

Homeowners represent approximately two-thirds of our business. But we know tile is an infrequent purchase for many homeowners — since the last time they purchased tile, what was available then is very different from what’s available today. The technology evolution that’s impacting most other industries is certainly impacting tile as well. The type of tile available, especially on the man-made side, with ceramic and porcelain tile that replicates wood or marble, is very different.

How have you made the selection process less daunting?

Several years ago, our average store would be somewhere north of 22,000 square feet. Now it’s 14,000 square feet. It still has the full product assortment and it still has 40 to 50 vignettes. We slightly changed the size of the vignettes to have more product displayed because, obviously when a customer comes in and says, “I like this tile. Can I see what it looks like installed?” we have it installed somewhere in the store.

One of the things that we’ve done from a technology standpoint is that we try to have 600 or so [products] displayed somewhere in the store. For every other [product] we carry, these will have a QR code, and the QR code will bring up the tile … on their phone of that product installed at one of our other stores. We might even have pictures of the tile installed provided to us by customers.

“We try to have 600 or so [products]displayed somewhere in the store. For every other [product]we carry, these will have a QR code, and the QR code will bring up the tile … on their phone of that product installed at one of our other stores.”

So that’s both a testimonial and source of inspiration.

I haven’t met a homeowner yet who’s not proud to show off what they’ve done to improve their home. … It’s a very shareable category from a project basis standpoint. We use all the social media platforms. We have broad partnerships with Pinterest and Houzz and certainly through our own channels on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Customers come in all the time with photos from the luxury bathroom at the hotel or spa they stayed at or a restaurant they visited. When they show us the pictures and say, “I’d like to do it like that,” we help them lay it out. We select the tile with them. We want them to know that good style can be theirs too, and that we have great products for their home. We want to provide our customer with the inspiration to see what might be possible. We want them to know that we’re here to help and to provide excellent advice.

We want the style and the personality of the homeowner to come alive. I think that is one of the big differentiators for the company is allowing the personality and the experiences and the skills of our employees to show through in a very authentic way.

How do you train your in-store sales force?

It actually begins with hiring. We want to hire people with strong convictions of service to customers. Once you have that person … then we can teach them about tile. We can teach them about installation or how to lay out a design. And before any salesperson goes onto the floor, they learn to mix up thin-set and how to grout tile. They need to understand how to lay out a herringbone pattern.

When you have that hands-on experience, it’s just like anything in life — when you have greater conviction you have greater confidence. You’re able to talk about your own personal experiences, which I think gives that authentic feel for anything, including selling tile.

What can you tell us about your trade customer?

Over the past several years, The Tile Shop has placed importance on working with trade professionals. We have created a number of programs designed to become true operational business partners and today our trade pros represent one-third of our business. We have three core constituents on the trade professional side. One is the custom home builder. One is the tile contractor or general contractor, and the other is the interior designer.

Are the stores zoned for their business needs?

The home builder and contractors are likely coming in the back of the store, which is a warehouse where they’re picking up [materials] in addition to picking up their customer’s order. We have an area where they can take care of all those things in the back of the store. We have mobile point of sale and inventory lookup.

Everything is digital within the store, so there’s not someone having to run to a computer and go through a traditional checkout area. We’ve made that quite appealing for many of our pros.

What kind of programs do you have for trade professionals?

We offer net 30 account financing, co-marketing programs, customer referrals, networking events, installation training and new digital capabilities including collaborative design tools and a customer portal.

One of the great things we offer our professional customer … [is] confidence that, when they send their customer in, we will get them to ‘Yes.’ They have confidence that we’ll guide their customer through that process. We’ll guide them through the selection and picking out the accessory pieces, and making sure the colors match, and making sure it meets their timeframe for installation.

Janet Groeber has covered all aspects of the retail industry for more than 20 years. Her reporting has appeared in AdWeek and DDI Magazine, among others.

 

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