One-on-One…with Patti Fasan
 
July 2nd, 2008

“If you cut quality because you have to cut some corners, it may help you survive a recession, but you will die afterwards because your reputation suffers so greatly.”

July-August 2008

By Zoe Voigt

For the past eight years, ceramic tile expert and consultant to the tile industry, Patti Fasan has been drawing crowds at tradeshows like Coverings, Surfaces, KBIS and NeoCon, giving talks, seminars and training programs about tile. Her educational programs range from technical to trends, and her passion for ceramic tile is infectious.

Fasan began her career as a designer specializing in commercial and high-end residential work. After relocating, she became an architectural rep, and then worked for a high-end ceramic tile distributor. As sales director, she became frustrated with the lack of training in the industry. She left that position to start consulting.

TileDealer: What are your views on the current situation in the tile industry?

Fasan: Especially with the economics of today, where distributors and retailers can make money in this product category is in quality—in the higher end, in more distinctive and highly technological tile. Because it differentiates them from all of the product that is now absolutely flooding the marketplace in the lower end.

There is only one guy in town who’s got the lowest price. If you aren’t it, then you are not going to sell to that whole market share that has that sort of builder mentality of, “The lower price I pay, the more money I put in my pocket.”

There’s a growing population that understands the really wonderful benefits of ceramic tile and they are willing to pay for it.

I believe that’s where retailers and distributors need to focus: “Where do I find those markets? How do I reach those markets?” Those markets demand the service and the selection of quality products. So, they have to be a bit more risky. Which means that you have to work with manufacturers who will allow you to rep them without having to bring in a whole bunch of expensive inventory that then you have to carry.

North American distributors have come a long way since about five years ago when we were in that vanilla box. A few retailers and distributors brought in some wonderful products, but in general, what North America was stuck in was smaller format, vanilla. Which, thankfully, they’ve moved so far away from. I am proud of them!

In the past few years we’ve had changes: with technology, with the Internet, with more people traveling, and unfortunately with terrorism. As a people, we’re much more inwardly focused on our security, on our health, on our homes and how we live in them. They are our castles, where we feel comfortable. We are surrounding ourselves with spa-like bathrooms, spectacular backyards that are our own vacation spas. So on all of those things we are spending significantly more money.

Tie in the environment. It was fringe before. Quite frankly, tile has never been promoted as an environmental material because North America has certain measuring tools regarding recycled content, readily renewable resources and locally manufactured materials. So when you look at ceramic tiles, it doesn’t fit there. And yet, when I look at its durability, when I think of recycling, I think of things that are disposable, things that I’m throwing away every day, so I want them recycled, I don’t want them in the landfill.

If you look at ceramic tile, especially quality ceramic tile, which is this spectacularly gorgeous canvas, you’ll keep it for forty years.

TileDealer: The life cycle is much longer than for other products.

Fasan: Yes, people have to purchase quality. If you purchased a marble floor for your living room, would you change it in five years?

Think of the homes in America that put marble in their lobbies, kitchens and bathrooms. They will never replace it in the life of the home—it is a permanent surface. Equate that to buying a cheap ceramic tile, I will want to replace that because it will be out of style, out of color, I won’t like it. It will wear.

However, if they purchase a high quality ceramic tile that looks identical to the marble, it is the same investment value, it potentially will cost them a little less, (not much, but a little less) than the marble. The good news environmentally: it isn’t porous; it never has to be sealed; maintenance is so easy. When you think of our lifestyles today, what I am is time-starved. Ask me if I want to seal my marble floor!

Designers and architects are seeing better products, like quality multi-screened, rectified, beautiful tiles. They are quite shocked that it is almost as expensive as marble. But once they realize that performance-wise it is better, livability is better and even environmentally it is better, it starts to all make sense to them.

TileDealer: Exactly what is quality tile and how can you tell?

Fasan: You know quality when you see it. You know the quality manufacturers. They are the ones who have beautiful catalogs for you to look at so that you can really get a feel of what that product will do for your lifestyle, for your livability, your time.

They have the samples; they’ve trained their staff. They can tell you why their tile is more expensive because it is all rectified, that they have one dye lot. People recognize quality.

The basis tests for tile quality are simple to learn. Once they understand that, they can walk into any tile distributor and ask for the data. If you bring in tile that is not tested, that doesn’t meet our standard, then it is really buyer beware. You don’t know if the tile is fired, square or flat. You don’t know if the screen repeats itself constantly rather than being completely erratic and spontaneously like natural stone.

Quality installers have artistry. They don’t just put one tile beside the other but actually do a layout pattern that uses 45-degree angles or herringbone pattern. We have some young installers out there that want to do mosaic tesserated floors—they are learning the real skills of the craft. That elevates the whole industry.

We have to be braver. We have to bring in product that is top quality. Then architects, designers and consumers can see there’s a huge difference between this 99-cent tile and this $4.99 tile. That will lead to a better understanding.

Distributors have to continue to promote quality if we want to elevate the industry. There has to be a substantial difference between what you carry on your floor.

When I talk to distributors and retailers about their showrooms, I tell them: if it is a commodity item, I want rock bottom price. So make sure your selection is extremely narrow. We have to differentiate more. Sometimes we try to carry the same kind of theme in all prices, and then the client just walks in and says, “Well every tile program has the same things so why should I pay $4.50 when I can buy a similar thing for a $1.29?”

TileDealer: The consumer may not see the difference right away.

Fasan: Well, a customer won’t. To them, it is a 12-inch square, both are sort of beige and they can get the baseboard to go with it.

It is like looking at two pair of jeans, one is an Armani at $250. I can tell the difference because they have made sure that I can tell the difference. So, it is my choice whether I want that or I want a pair of Levi’s. We have to do the same thing.

TileDealer: How is the marketplace now?

Fasan: Unbelievably challenging. Every single day we wake up and it seems like more bad news. I guess the biggest thing that I always look at in times like this, (because I’ve now gone through three of them,) is to remember that you always go through them. That is an economic reality—it isn’t always going to stay a booming market. After a boom, we’re always going to have a slowdown, because things inflate so much that we need that.

What I find is that the media, and at times politicians, talk about slowdowns because it is good news for them and so there’s a lot of hype. The reality is that yes, of course, we’re in serious situation, but it is not all bad news, it is not the end of the world and we will come through it.

The people that come through it will be the ones that realize the opportunity in this—there’s always opportunity. The ones that do not react or overreact, but actually say, “You know what, when it is booming I don’t have a second to turn around. When it is booming I am not talking to my clients, my customers, my long-term relationships. Now is my chance to call them, to take them out to lunch to say to them, ‘What am I doing right, what am I doing wrong, could I improve my service to you? Are there other services that you go to someone else for that I could provide for you? Like grout cleaning, like steam cleaning the floors for you.’ (Not that our retailers and distributors want to do that, but in bad times…).

The biggest thing for me is to brainstorm and realize that you’ve finally got some time to really look at your business and design that website, which is becoming more and more important, and to train some of that staff that you haven’t had time to train because you couldn’t pull them off the job when you were too busy.

Of course it’s going to turn around. Lots of distributors and retailers in my opinion do a couple of not very smart things. First thing they do is lay off people. They need to meet their payroll and I understand that, it is difficult, but in a sales environment, usually those are all the lower paid back administrative, clerical personnel. I have seen it so many times—all that ends up happening is that your high-paid sales staff ends up doing very low-profit work instead of being out there selling. It is a lose-lose situation.

Maybe a better way would be to sit down all of your employees and say, look, you are all important to me. We’ve got to brainstorm; we’ve all got to come up with some cost savings. Maybe you could do your job a bit more efficiently. Find some areas to cut costs. I will do this and we will all get through it. There are so many more positive ways than overreacting and making sure that your sales staff are doing everything else than selling.

I was in that position a lot as sales director. It just never worked when you cut staff to such a point that your sales staff are literally filing. It doesn’t help sales or service to your customers. Usually your service areas go down because you don’t have the staff.

The other thing they do is they usually cut advertising. Almost everyone does. Especially—and not to be rude—but the not-too-smart people. My answer is now is, when nobody is advertising, now is when people will notice your advertising. They’ve got to know where you are if you expect to sell. Do some guerrilla advertising. Find out what is going on in your town and put your name on t-shirts, go out and be part of the parade or whatever. Network, join power groups that have nothing to do with tile, but you are meeting more people.

If you aren’t getting the number of sales you were a year ago, you need to call more. Sales is literally a numbers game. If I have to call 20 people to get an interview, in a down time, I have to call 30 people. And if you stay positive and just say, OK, I used to call 20, now every day I’m going to call five more. You have to push. If you used to close one out of 10 sales, now you have to push and get it to one out of nine.

Positive, successful people try not to be negative or be around negative people. They pump themselves up, and say, ‘I’m tougher and I’m one of the only ones that can do it.’ And that’s what they do—they don’t take no for an answer. They see opportunity. When other people don’t advertise, that is when they advertise.

More than ever they need to look at some non-traditional marketing methods. I don’t think that the traditional retail model really works in today’s high-speed, informed customer base. I think you have to research social networks like blogs, webpages, and opportunities like that. Even the catalogues look like lifestyle magazines. They don’t want you to order from the catalogue, they want you to get a better feel for what the stuff feels like or looks like in your home, and that draws people into the bricks and mortar.

Especially in this economy, know that quality absolutely has a reputation. If you cut quality because you have to cut some corners, it may help you survive a recession, but you will die afterwards because your reputation suffers so greatly. Especially today, when people pay good money, their expectations are much higher. It is hard to be a retailer. Customers have too many choices, too many places that they can buy, so they are very demanding. They want it all because they can. So don’t scrimp on quality.

I am very excited because I think this industry has huge potential and we can look forward to the future.

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