Size doesn’t matter: with just 269sqft of showroom, Paul’s Floors punches above its space

In June 2013 Paul and Claire Southworth were made an offer they didn’t refuse: do you want a shop? For the past two years they had been running a flooring business from home, with Paul fitting and Claire looking after everything else.

‘We had no intention of opening a shop but it was offered to us: it was a florist’s before, it wasn’t even a floor shop. It was a good rent so we thought we’d give it a go,’ says Claire of the Flixton store, on the south-west edge of Greater Manchester.

That florist was a showroom of 269sqft and it still is.

‘When we first started we were driven by what people asked us for. We didn’t have any manufacturer accounts so we were wholesale-based, and as that grew and we went more into working with manufacturers we were lead by our customers. And we grew with it that way.

‘We found ourselves being asked for different things, and people do tend to come to us for different stuff: we get found for something a little bit different. We still do the oaks and all of that but we do get found. Word has spread. We’ve had customers who said we weren’t here and they went to other retailers but they were sent back here.’

The majority of Pauls’ products are middle-market. ‘That’s the difficult price range to fit

into, it’s when people start getting price sensitive. If you are at the cheaper end, people will always need cheap carpet, and if you are at the top there will always be people who have money like that to spend. But if you are in the middle, that’s when people have a choice to make – it’s either too much or not posh enough. It is a tricky place to sit sometimes.’

She attributes the reversal in fortunes of carpet and LVT in 2024 to this. ‘Having said that, yesterday we had by far the busiest day in the shop for a long time and took several orders for LVT.’

At an early visit to The Flooring Show the couple suffered a bit of stage fright and found themselves on the SMG stand. ‘We were walking around aimlessly worrying about talking to the reps on these stands: how do we talk to these people? SMG really helped us at the beginning, before we joined. They were very honest and gave us a list of people to go and talk to and said come back next year when you are a bit more established.

‘With that list we went off with a purpose and ended up with a Cormar account and a couple of other accounts. Some of those furnished us with second-hand stands so we could kit out the shop better. When we got more established we updated those stands but we remembered that. The Cormar rep who did all that for us, who is now an agent, we still deal with him and he’s how he was when we first started,’ says Paul.

Integrity is very important to the Southworths, regardless of your product.

‘Being a woman in the flooring industry, it’s nowhere near as tricky as it was – it’s come a long way in the past 10 years – but I buy from people who take me seriously and don’t look over my shoulder to see where Paul is. Those reps keep coming back in. We have a great relationship with most of our reps but there have been a few where I’ve thought I wouldn’t buy from you if you had the best product in the world. I buy from the person. That product doesn’t get showroom space, everything has to earn its place. We sell from all the stands and the shop is very much a moveable feast,’ says Claire.

‘We do move stuff on, although I have a habit of going out and giving the shop a good talking-to. I’ll have a look round and think, that’s not selling, what’s happening there? And invariably somebody comes in and buys some. Maybe every couple of months,’ says Paul.

Paul’s Floors is a Carpet Foundation member. ‘It gives people reassurance that they are covered in the event of anything going wrong. It gives that extra boost at times and can help with sales,’ says Claire.

The joy of being a retailer is ‘when you get a good feeling back, when you’ve helped them in the shop, done it at the right price, they are happy and tell everyone about it. That’s when you get a sense of pride,’ she says.

For Paul, it’s ‘having a bit of control over what get sold and specified and not just having to make other people’s choices work when really they shouldn’t be happening. We do offer a supply-only sale: those are the jobs we really like. We always say, if you have a fitter that

you use all the time – and some people do – the fitter has to do the measuring and we’ll gladly order a carpet or LVT. The initial bit of the transaction, where they come in and buy something, that’s the end of it not the start. We like that.’

‘We are honest with people if we don’t think a product will work. As well as not being in it for the money, we’re not in into for the mither when they come back!’ says Claire.

At the same time, letting customers down is not on the agenda either. ‘There was a click LVT range we got in that we sold a lot of but then we had a lot of comebacks on. We had a big stand and they made promises about how it could be fitted and areas that it could be fitted into. We had to fix a lot of floors. The rep came in and said they were rebranding the stand, but all they did was take off the sticker saying it didn’t expand,’ says Paul.

‘When things go wrong with LVT, 99% of the time it’s because the fitter used the product in slightly the wrong way. You get people who run training courses telling us that the products and adhesives are changing all the time and you need to keep on top of new methods. But nobody tells us it’s going to happen. It happens, we get problems, and then they tell us how to fix it.’

Claire is the main contact in the shop.

‘I’m better at dealing with customers in their own house,’ says Paul. ‘Once it gets to a short range of products and what will be suitable, I’m better at that. I tend to do measures and scan it into my phone and email it back, and a lot of the time the quotes are back to the customer within about an hour, depending on how busy Claire is.

‘We use MasterPiece software for planning, so I don’t do any planning on site, and then we move on to the next fitting. If it comes off, it comes off; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. We worry about the jobs we get, not the ones we don’t. We’ve never “lost” a job as it was never ours.

‘We don’t cover a huge area, but we will travel for the right job. I’ll normally do 100 miles a week, working six days a week. I don’t go far.’

A room visualiser was recently added to the business’s website, and is already paying dividends, the couple say. Paul visited to measure a kitchen and the customer used the visualiser before visiting the store for 10 minutes and placing a £3,000 order.

‘We view similar retailers as the main competition. There are four or five in south Manchester that operate with very similar products, have similar showrooms and similar customer bases. But there is room for everybody. If a customer doesn’t come to us I’d rather they went to an independent retailer than a nationwide chain,’ says Paul.

As to plans for the future, ‘the idea of more than one shop fills me with dread, so we’ll keep doing what we are doing,’ says Claire.

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