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From Home Furnishing Business

Maybe It’s Time to Take the Gloves Off?

Tom Zollar

Over the past year, this publication and several others have often addressed the fact that furniture stores are losing market share to some of the newer distribution channels. You are probably tired of hearing about it by now, but since losing share is like bleeding to death, it is something we must continue to address. Only if we determine the proper treatment, will the patient be saved. The first step might be a tourniquet, but that can only be a temporary fix, stopping the hemorrhaging, but hurting the rest of the limb in the process. Band-Aids and ointments only help address smaller cuts that will probably heal on their own anyway. Most of the time we will probably be looking at stitches or sutures to close the wound and surgery to repair any tissue damage, so that the healing process can begin. I know it sounds a bit farfetched, but for a retail store, loosing customers is truly like losing its life blood and so the comparison is valid.

Obviously, any of the newer channels that sell furniture can be considered our direct competitors who try to steal customers. Just like another store in town we need to analyze what they are doing and counteract it with our advertising, merchandising and selling efforts. Successful retailers have historically done this, but our experience has been mainly with local or national stores, just like us. Now we have a different enemy to contend with and perhaps the same approach will work if it is properly aimed at them.

I am talking about the fastest growing and toughest to fight of these channels — the online retailers. Most of these entities offer great selection at what appears to be competitive pricing, the two biggest concerns for most consumers. Some offer slick technology to help the shopper quickly find what they are looking for, another key point for today’s customers. As we have discussed in the last three columns, they do not feature traditional sales people to assist in the buying process, which again, may be attractive to a large group of people. Chances are that we are not going to beat them consistently on price and selection, two areas we may use to compete against other local retailers.

So how do we fight them and win back customers or keep from losing future ones? One of the best places to start is to look at what they are doing to hurt us. In fact, that is what got me thinking about this subject in the first place. A few months ago, my wife sent me a link to an ad that Overstock.com was running. Since I do not watch much TV, I had not seen it and when I did I was blown away. At first I was kind of ticked off because it was a “low blow” type of approach that played on the targeted consumer’s main fears about doing business with a local furniture store.

After further thought I had to hand it to them! They had definitely done their research and knew how to make their competition look bad in the eyes of their potential customers. True or not, the preconceived notions that they presented probably ring true with many in their target audience. Based on the numbers I have seen, it must have been a very successful spot for them.

Let’s take some time to analyze what they did and then see if there is any way we can counteract it with our marketing efforts. To begin the process, if you have not seen it, I highly recommend you follow the link provided below to view what is very appropriately entitled: “Furniture Store Battle”.

Basically, Overstock.com is attacking their competition by playing on the fears and negative stereotypes that many customers have about visiting a local furniture store. They present several horror stories in a relatively light-hearted attempt to make them look bad and I think they succeed rather nicely.

The theme, which is carried by the music track throughout, centers on the statement: “Anything you can do, I can do better, I can do anything better than you”. The obvious point is that the consumer’s experience doing business online with Overstock.com will be much more successful and pleasant because they are so much better at taking care of the customer’s needs and have eliminated all the negatives of doing business with a typical furniture store.

It starts with a female consumer sitting comfortably at home with a tablet scrolling through products she is interested in buying. Next to that we then see a couple approaching a store and entering to have the following negative experiences happen:

  • Sleepy, sleazy looking male salespeople (one dressed in 70’s leisure suit) lounging at the door, then accosting them as they walk into the store, shaking hands, giving out cards and hugging the wife.
  • The couple’s confusion with the many sales tags/signs and a sea of sofas before them is made obvious, as is the salesperson’s inability to make sense of it for them.
  • Once they finally find a sofa to buy, they are pictured pushing it through an endless checkout line.
  • Next, we see the hapless couple in a crowded parking lot trying to load the sofa into their small SUV and ending up tying it onto the roof.
  • When they finally arrive home the sofa falls off the car and the exhausted looking couple is shown crying and disgusted.
  • Each of these disaster scenarios is interspersed with scenes of the online buyer calmly accomplishing each task with a swipe of her finger on the tablet.
  • The song also changes periodically into a verbal exchange between the female Overstock and male furniture store voices arguing over whether or not Overstock can indeed do it better – “Yes I can, No you can’t”.

As stated, this is all done with humor, but as with much advertising today, it presents more misperceptions than it does reality. In truth, any store that treated its customers like the one the couple visited, deserves to lose them. On the other side, if every customer interaction at Overstock goes as smoothly as it did for the at home consumer presented in the ad, they deserve to take them away. The problem is neither picture is completely accurate, but the result is that the viewer comes away feeling that it would certainly be in their best interest to shop online than waste their time visiting a furniture store. Therefore, it is a very powerful piece of advertising because it does what it was intended to do.

Overstock certainly did their homework and targeted some of the core fears our mutual target customers have about their local competitors. They have played on those fears and made themselves look like the consumer’s savior. Providing a simple and easy solution to every problem anyone could possibly bring into a furniture store. No local store can touch them! Of course, I have yet to see a store as bad as the one they presented, and I really don’t think that Overstock is as perfect as they pretend to be either.

So, what can we learn from their advertising effort? First of all, if these consumer perceptions are what their research says is our Achilles heel, then that it is something we definitely need to fix. As stated, they have taken the gloves off and presented a relatively twisted vision of what it would be like shopping with us. To counteract their self-serving propaganda, we need to aggressively position our stores as what they are or at least can be — the solution to every customer’s home furnishings problems in their home.

We need to take each of the weaknesses they presented in their ad and continually work to turn them into strengths in our target customers minds. Our advertising and marketing efforts need to reinforce our abilities to make our customers shopping experiences simple, exciting, successful and fun! We must present the advantages of working with our professional sales/design staff and the fact that customers can actually see, feel, and touch what they might want to buy before committing. They need to understand that we can customize items to their needs and provide professional help making all the tough decisions needed for putting a room together. In addition, we must educate them and enhance their perception of our white glove delivery services, including the in-home set up process. We should consistently stress the fact that we have been around awhile and will be here to help our clients with any issues or needs they have in the future. We need to consistently remind our market that we participate in community activities and help fulfill its needs, by contributing to charities, creating jobs, paying taxes and adding to the stability of the area. All things distant companies normally don’t do.

The list of the positive things local furniture stores make happen for both their customers and their community goes on and on. We need to accentuate the positive outcomes we provide as part of the huge package of advantages we have over the far away online retailers.

Who are you? What is your story? Why are you different? Why should customers visit you instead of shopping online or at other channels? Take your gloves off and make sure your target customers have the answers to these questions and you stand a chance of winning more bouts than you are now, maybe even becoming a retail champion!







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