published Sunday, August 11th, 2013

Ready to roll: Carpets of Dalton marks slow retail comeback

Rolls of carpet made by Shaw Industries line the warehouse of Carpets of Dalton in this file photo.
Rolls of carpet made by Shaw Industries line the warehouse of Carpets of Dalton in this file photo.
Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The big carpetmakers weren’t the only ones who suffered during a recession that saw shuttered plants and thousands of layoffs. Flooring retailers felt the pain, too, closing by the hundreds.

But today, with housing prices on the upswing and upticks in consumer confidence, retailers are cautiously whispering about a carpet comeback.

Carpets of Dalton, perhaps the most prominent example of carpet’s decline, was built alongside I-75 for visibility. In its heyday, the retailer blanketed the region with advertisements. The ads served the dual purpose of growing owner Jerry Hennon’s business, and of cementing Dalton in the consumer psyche as the carpet capital of the world.

Then, a bankruptcy during the Great Recession forced Hennon to downsize his multi-building complex to just one building, close down his expensive show home and leave the massive former showrooms standing empty. A giant “for sale” sign signaled an end to the carpet boom of the early 2000s.

“I think we definitely bottomed out in 2011, 2012,” Hennon said.

Though he’s down, Hennon is far from out. The market is thawing, and as a result he plans to reopen his shuttered show home.

“It seems to be slowly perking up a little bit,” Hennon said. “I would say sales are up a little bit.”

Many of the unique pieces of furniture that filled his other showrooms were liquidated during the bankruptcy, leaving him with a more typical inventory. Customers lost their taste for pricey, showy items during the recession, he said, looking instead for more value-oriented products that deliver bank for the buck.

But those frugal tendencies are starting to change.

“We are seeing a trend back toward the nicer stuff,” he said.

In the first days of the carpet crash, mom-and-pop retailers like Carpets of Dalton felt the pinch when builders stopped building new homes, businesses stopped updating their lobbies and the do-it-yourselfers sold their tools on eBay.

Dozens of Dalton carpet retailers disappeared from the phone book as carpet sales fell by 40 percent, and the few that remained struggled to stay open amid flatlined demand, officials say.

“We’ve had six years of essentially no growth,” said Werner Braun, president of the Carpet and Rug Institute.

That all changed in the second quarter of 2013.

“It was, in about rough numbers, an 8 percent growth in the second quarter,” Braun said. “It’s the first time we’ve seen positive growth for the industry since 2007.”

One of the largest carpet retail chains in the nation, Carpet One, has grown sales almost 10 percent so far this year, said Kemp Harr, publisher of Floor Focus magazine.

“There are 900 Carpet One retail stores, and their business is up 9 percent,” Harr said.

Sales at Myers Carpet are up $1.3 million from the same time last year, said Rick Myers, president of Myers Carpet in Dalton.

“2006 was probably the best year we’ve ever had, ever, and we’re coming close to it now,” Myers said.

His success story is tinged by the bittersweet realization that his comeback couldn’t happen without so many of his competitors going out of business. Though there are not as many carpet shoppers compared to pre-recession numbers, those shoppers are divided among far fewer stores than before, which helps the survivors stay open.

“I know of at least 20 carpet businesses that are gone, just not there anymore, small and large,” Myers said. “In the 90s, I’d pull out the phone book and count hundreds of carpet retailers. Now it’s just a fraction of that.”

But the recession itself wasn’t the only challenge. Many shoppers may never return to a traditional brick-and-mortar retailer, thanks to the ease of ordering carpet online and having it delivered. Increasingly high-resolution screens and sophisticated ordering and delivery techniques allow customers to skip the trip to Dalton’s outlet retailers entirely. Those waiting for a return to the good old days may find themselves waiting a long time.

“When I first started working here, people from neighboring states would come with a pickup truck,” Myers said. “We still have plenty of walk-ins, but we just don’t load trucks full of carpet and padding as we used to. The majority of what we sell in Dalton, Ga. goes on a delivery truck.”

Retailers are still working out a way to compete with Home Depot and Lowe’s, which are increasingly attractive to younger consumers, Hennon said. Carpets of Dalton has cut back on its advertising, but there have been discussions of a cooperative agreement to remind potential customers in Atlanta, Nashville and Chattanooga that they can get a great deal on carpet in Dalton, where the stuff is actually made, he said.

“It’s been discussed, but no one’s been able to pull it off yet,” Hennon said. “We’re trying to get back to advertising the way we used to, but that’s going to take a while.”

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfreepress.com

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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