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From Home Furnishing Business

Wired for Relevance

By: Powell Slaughter

Consumer awareness of home furnishings’ online presence might be at its highest point ever, and retailers who haven’t done so already should take a hard look at the story they tell in the digital sphere.

Thank the huge amount of press generated by online home furnishings giant Wayfair’s initial public offering last month. Consumers already are using the Internet—via computer or smart phone—to do their homework before hitting your store; and the information you present, how well your digital presence matches your brick-and-mortar experience, and the ease of use can go a long way toward getting you on shoppers’ short list. They want to know as much as they can about your products and services before they even start a conversation.

“All of a sudden there’s a focus on furniture online” said MicroD CEO Manoj Nigam in the wake of the Wayfair IPO. “And the digital age is about being relevant to consumers. What television did in the 1950s (for retailers) the Internet is doing now.

“Your Web site has become your biggest advertising vehicle—it’s your front entrance now; and 25 percent of traffic is now mobile. People expect a consistent experience across multiple sites” no matter what device they use.

DIGITAL RELEVANCE

If you don’t provide the information they seek, an interactive approach to fielding questions, and an online presence friendly to multiple devices, consumers aren’t going to find your store relevant to the way they research and shop for product these days.

It’s more important than ever, for example, to make your online presence mobile-friendly.

“Mobile is overtaking desktops as the primary product-search method,” noted Jesse Akre, senior vice president for e-commerce at MicroD. (See sidebar, “Digital Responsiveness.”) “And the consumer is more and more wanting an experience online that they would get in the store. It’s not just about displaying products, digital is becoming the driver of the consumer experience.”

He suggests retailers looking to relate to consumers online adopt a “Web first” mentality. He identified four keys: pricing products online; merchandising your Web site; ease of communication with the customer; and understanding the impact of reviews.

Some retailers remain reluctant to put prices on their Web site, but Akre said that’s what consumers are demanding. You don’t need to be in e-commerce to show prices on line. The practice of “Web-rooming” practice has made it easier for shoppers to compare prices and do comprehensive research on an important purchase; and retailers must adapt to that highly informed consumer.

The majority of consumers shopping for home furnishings still go into a store to buy—but they want to be armed with as much information as possible before they cross the threshold, Akre said.

“You've been printing prices for years in your advertising,” he said. “Why won't you treat the online marketing opportunity the same?”

Those insistent on holding back on actual pricing might consider offering a range—i.e., “These sofas retail from $400-$500.”

The bottom line for a Web site is getting people into the store, said Dianne Ray, owner, Garden City Furniture in Garden City, S.C.

“We're going to have to stay current with upgrading our Web site, the look, the ease of use. If they have to flounder around on the site, they're out of there and gone,” she said. “We've discussed e-commerce, and if we're going to attract that Millennial customer we're going to have to move on that. Actually, the Web site is important for all generations.”

MERCHANDISING ONLINE

Shoppers will likely see a store’s Web site before they see the store, and retailers should pay close attention to merchandising issues online.

“Have you walked through your store the past week sprucing things up, maybe moving product or working on a display? Sure you did,” Akre said.

A furniture store’s Web site deserves the same attention. Ensure the site gives consumers the same first impression online as they get in your store.

Shoppers entering your store see a layout that you built with your own business considerations in mind. Steer your Web visitors the same way. Think about ranking products online by perhaps best sellers, leading brands or inventory turns.

Take a seasonal approach the way you would in the store: “Company coming for the holidays? Create a dining room to remember.”

Consider the designs and trends you’re focusing on at the store, as well as products with the highest gross margins. Those are the products that you should feature online to entice consumers into the store.

Retailers know how to do this in the store; it’s a matter of translating the same techniques to an online presentation.

Take a look at in-store signage, graphics and logos to ensure they sync with your online presence.

“If a digital impression is made, it has to carry through in the store,” Akre said, pointing to Dick’s Sporting Goods Web site as a good example. “You see the same banner on the Web site that you see in the store.”

Merchandising the site the way you do the store might seem like a big task, but Akre suggested retailers start small.

“Impact one category, say your top five sellers,” he said. “Next week, do your top 10. Just starting will get the wheels spinning as to how you want to do it. Start with the products you want to lead with online.”

EASY TO ASK

How easy is it for consumers to communicate with you online? Do you use live chat, provide a contact number or e-mail? Whichever method you use, fast response is vital.

“People are not going to wait three days for you to get back to them,” Akre said, adding that some shoppers in the store would rather use their phone to ask a question rather than a store employee. If you use QR codes, make sure it goes to a site that will build expectations for the product, not just provide dimensions and such.

“QR is about driving people to information you control,” Akre said.

David Gardner, co-owner at Warrenton Furniture Exchange in Warrenton, N.C., found a way to engage customers looking at information on their mobile by installing a large screen on the sales floor where the retailer can call up products for easier viewing.

“We can do bring all this information to a larger picture so they aren’t squinting at their smartphone,” he said. “Online is bigger than my warehouse, but we’ve found a way to humanize it.”

The best thing about a good online presence is it provides a 24/7 storefront, but that can create communication problems for something like a live chat function.

If a consumer is browsing at home at 10 p.m. and has a question, it’s better to take live chat off-line during non-business hours than to have “nobody at home” to respond to a question.

A strong FAQ section on a retailer’s site can take care of many customer questions with a simple click. Store policies for issues such as credit, delivery, returns, hours of operation and such should be easily available.

Social media, of course, is an area where furniture retailers can interact with customers. But if you are on Facebook, Twitter or other social vehicles, it’s better not to be there than to not stay engaged.

“One large retailer I know hadn’t engaged on Facebook in 30 days,” Akre noted. “But guess who had? A woman was moving to town and wanted a houseful of furniture.”

THE REVIEWS ARE IN

If you were shopping for products on your own part, which would you trust more? A testimonial from a previous customer, or an advertisement? Never underestimate the power of customer reviews. Check out sites such as powerreviews.com or shopperapproved.com to get an idea of what can happen.

“Good and bad reviews are expected,” Akre said. “And they like to see volume as well as a range of comment. It doesn’t happen overnight. That log of reviews has to build one at a time.”

Retailers can solicit reviews, he added. Incentivize along the lines of a percentage off on their next ticket for an honest review, good or bad. Ask customers in the store.

And don’t forget engagement when it comes to reviews. Respond to problem reviews with an apology and a solution.

“Shoppers eat that up,” Akre said.




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