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From Home Furnishing Business

The Consumer Evolution


By Tom Zollar


At the beginning of virtually every sales training session, I ask the participants the same question: Have the consumers coming into your stores today changed from the ones that came in 20, 10 or even five years ago? Those that have been selling that long always answer that they have most certainly changed a great deal.

We all approach the shopping and buying process very differently than we did 10 or even five years ago. If that is the case, doesn’t it make sense that we may need to change the way we sell in order to be more successful at helping consumers?

Obviously the answer is yes, but how do we change and what do we do differently to adjust? In order to answer those questions it might help if we understand how they have changed and why.

Before the late 1990s, shoppers learned about products, trends and decorating ideas through very limited means when compared to today’s standards. There were less than 250 high quality magazines available and less than a dozen of them provided ideas for the home. Most of these like Better Home and Gardens, Metropolitan Home and House Beautiful, targeted higher income consumers and the masses only saw them in waiting rooms at doctors’ or dentists’ offices.

In addition, since production of color advertising was cost prohibitive, retailers relied on black and white print media, which didn’t make much of an impression on consumers seeking style guidance. Few if any television shows at that time offered quality information about the topic either. For the most part, consumers were on their own when it came to getting ideas for homes and personal lifestyles. Local stores were the best places to go for style ideas and furnishings ideas. For many, the stores were the only options.

In the late 1990s, technology reduced the cost of creating and producing high quality color print advertisements. In the early 2000s there were about 2,400 print magazines being published and about half of them included ideas and recommendations about life and style for readers. Many of these were focused on the home and the myriad of options available to consumers. During this timeframe, retailers began using weekly color ads. Consumers were more stimulated and excited about style options in all aspects of their lives, particularly their homes. It made it much easier to dream about home environment they wanted to create. However, it was only the beginning of the journey considering print media is somewhat limited in what it can provide.

Around this time, the Home Furnishings Council, led by industry manufacturing and retail giants, partnered with House & Garden magazine to create an effort to reach out to consumers and educate them about available home furnishings products. The result was a new channel on the fledgling cable TV network called HGTV. Over the next decade, HGTV along with network shows like “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”, helped stimulate consumers’ desire for style in their home than all the shelter magazines combined. In addition, it did one other important thing—the movement started educating consumers about what was available as well as showing them how put it together to create their dream home.

The Internet was the real game changer that began to evolve at this time. While there was a huge increase in the importance of style in many consumers’ decision making for their homes from the stimulation and education the magazines, color advertising and cable TV provided, the Web provided the opportunity for consumers to research style trends, products, services and pricing. The Internet created a library where consumers could uncover anything they wanted to know about home furnishings. We know at least 80 percent of consumers take advantage of the Internet for information before visiting a retail store. Occasionally, they decide not to go to the store.

Our parents and grandparents never had this type of stimulation and education available. When they were shopping for home furnishings, they visited five to seven stores to uncover ideas for their homes, find the product they wanted and pay the price they could afford. Today, consumers make many decisions before they shop, including what store to visit first. Many now forego the store completely and buy online. Those that do shop in a brick and mortar store typically end up visiting slightly more than two locations before making a purchase.

As a result of the availability of ideas, the home furnishings consumer has changed in two major ways. First, they have a better picture of what they want and find the answers to most of their questions before entering a store. Our research from the last 20 years indicates that style has become more important to today’s consumer when they shop for their home. In many markets as many as two-thirds of those surveyed say it is a primary consideration, versus roughly 20 percent before the change began. In addition, because of the ability to educate themselves, consumers much more confident shoppers than consumers in the 1990s. About three to four times as many consumers today say they feel somewhat to very confident about their ability to make decisions for their home.

The biggest issue for home furnishings retailers is that the more confident consumers feel about selecting products for their home, the less they think they need the help of a sales person.

Many of those that are certain in their choices opt to do business where there is no sales person. Between 20 percent and 30 percent are now buying home furnishings from channels with no sales people in the process. Even more important to note is that when today’s customers visit home furnishings stores, they are more inclined to say “I’m just looking”. Experienced sales people say it is about three times more likely to happen than it was a couple decades ago.

The important difference to understand is that many of those who say they are just looking are looking for something. They are armed with research and have a clear picture in their mind about what they want. As a result, they push salespeople away so they can browse. The disconnect is that they think home furnishings retailers are like Walmart or a grocery store where if they can walk through and see all there is to offer. In most home furnishings stores, that’s not the case.

Even if it was, research shows that people only “see” about 15 percent to 20 percent of what is in a store when they visit. It is quite possible that a large share of potential sales that walk out of stores are the result of not making the extra effort to connect to resistant customers who really want to buy but don’t give retailers the chance to help them find what they are seeking.

Perhaps the most important element in the selling process is the opening or greeting. It is absolutely imperative for your staff to make every effort to connect to all customers that come into the store, including those who push them away. Make sure sales people use a greeting that breaks through to the customer and encourages them to engage. Body language and enthusiasm are critical; almost more so than the words used. In addition, many sales people tell the consumer to go ahead and browse, ensuring them they will check in with them later address any questions. The successful ones are not eager to leave a potential client and have creative ways of getting consumers to engage.

Be sure the selling process and sales training includes manners to break through to these potential buyers so they don’t walk through your store and leave. They are the low hanging fruit and a retailer’s greatest potential for growth—they are already in your store and want to buy from you.


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