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From Home Furnishing Business

Coach's Corner: What Opportunities for Innovation Might We Be Missing?

By Tom Zollar,

Innovation can result from many different processes and activities. It can come from trying new things or finding different ways to use things that we already have. It can be a new way of thinking about something or a totally revolutionary idea or product. We can innovate in all facets of our lives and our businesses, which to a great extent, is how we evolve and move forward in whatever we are doing and how we are living. Trying new things and finding new ways to use old things, is what it is all about.

Here is how Wikipedia sums up Innovation: “Innovation can be defined simply as a ‘new idea, device or method’. However, innovation is often also viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market needs.” Therefore, it is the process of adapting and growing to meet the challenges we meet as we go through life.

At the core of Innovation is change, because it involves changing the things we use, how we use them and how we think. The old adage “change or die” comes to mind. Without change we don’t grow and without growth in our business, we could die. So “Innovate or die” would also be an accurate statement. That makes this month’s theme of “Retail Innovation” an important one.

Often when we think about retail innovation, we have a tendency to look only at the big and exciting ones. New technological advances, state-of-the-art devices and revolutionary thought processes seem to be the focus. Sometimes that causes us to miss many of the “little things” that can have a big impact on our businesses and lives. It is after all, the process of doing the little things better that causes us to experience the biggest results.

So, for this column, I thought I would provide you with a simple list of some of the “little things” I have seen people do in our industry that have helped their businesses, but are not necessarily wide spread in their usage. Most will be familiar to many of you and some may be more innovative than others. None will be earth shaking, but as defined above, all of them are just good ideas, processes or systems you might want to consider trying in your company.

There is not room in this short article for in-depth explanations or instructions for each one, so if you see something that sounds interesting, I recommend you do some research to find someone with experience and learn from them. Performance groups, buying groups, business organizations, consultants and even Google are all great resources for obtaining information to help you get started with an innovative project in your business.

I have organized them loosely under the headings of devices, systems and internet.


  • Smart Phones – These are possibly the most underutilized devices available to every retailer. They have the potential to be a powerful tool, that can connect your staff to their current clients and potential customers. While some stores encourage staff to carry phones, many stores do not let them have them on the floor. The fear being that they will use it for personal communication and social reasons, wasting company time. That is certainly a possibility, but consider all the possibilities for improved customer connection properly used smart phones could provide:
    • Enhanced, Real Time Customer communication – Today’s customer want answers and information NOW, and those salespersons that can react quickly will have an advantage over those that make customers wait until the they get back to their desk to respond. Of course, you don’t want sales people being interrupted during presentations, but there are ways to keep it discreet and professional. Auto dealers and other big-ticket businesses have policies and procedures that work. So can you!
    • Internet Inquiry Follow Up/Response – Staff should respond to all web generated inquiries. We recommend that sales people go out on the floor with their smart phones in-hand to send back actual pictures of the furniture on the floor in your store. What better way is there to interact with customers interested in your product? “Here it is, come and get it!” is a great way to get them into the store virtually.
    • Gathering Contact Info for Those We Don’t Sell – All stores struggle to get contact info from customers they do not sell. We have found that if a sales person provides a potential customer with a good reason to give them contact info, they have a much better chance of getting it than if they just ask for it. As an example, if the customer is ready to leave the store after they’ve stated what they are looking for, the sales person should say something like “it’s been great working with you and I’m pretty sure I know what you are looking for. I have some more research I want to do for you, so how should I get back to you, text or email?” Many customers will appreciate the offer and give their contact information and you might be surprised at how many want the response by text.
    • In-store Staff Communication - Customers and sales people hate paging systems! Having each person carry a smart phone is a great way to contact staff that is out on the floor. Have the phones on vibrate and use text messages so they only have to glance at the phone to see what is up. Apple watches are great for this too!
    • Anniversary/Birthday Calls/Texts/E-mails from the Owner – My wife just got a voice message on her cell phone from the owner of the dealership where we purchased her last car. No sales pitch, just a nice happy call to congratulate her on the first anniversary of her new car purchase. She loved it and guess where we will go first when this lease is up?
    • Education/Training Is Key – Of course there is always the possibility that a salesperson might abuse the right to have their cell phone with them. The answer to that is proper rules, training and enforcement. If done correctly, the advantages far outweigh the risks in my book.


  • Traffic Counting Systems -  Many stores are now using camera-based systems to help count and track the opportunities coming through their doors. These range from those that simply record the activities so someone can regularly review the files and count bodies, to extremely high-tech systems that feature facial recognition and actually notify you when an existing client re-enters the store. The bottom line is that the more accurate your count is, the more you can use this critical number to make decisions about your advertising and sale efforts. If you have not upgraded your traffic counting with one of the newer systems, I strongly recommend you do. There have been many innovations in this area that can help you better manage the floor and your business.


  • Website Upgrades – Your website is the first showroom you have that the vast majority of your potential customers visit. With most of them using this experience to narrow their list of stores to visit down to less than two, how important does that make it? The words “the most critical thing we do” come to mind. This is probably the fastest changing element and thus the most innovative opportunity you deal with in your business. Have you kept up? Here is a very short list of a few functions and features you should consider for your site:
    • Chat Function – There have recently been several innovative products made available that allow you to put this highly desired, consumer focused function on your site. The biggest issue you will face is providing the staff support to respond to Chat requests. It is basically a full-time effort, so plan it accordingly.
    • Cart Functionality/eCommerce – Many of your potential customers want to buy when they visit your site. Can they? Enough said.
    • Video (other than ads) – Educational and fun videos keep people on your site and enhance the experience. This is much more effective than just putting your TV ads on your site.
    • Website Accessibility in Store - This is a must in your store. Both for your staff and your customers. Big monitors and fast computers are a must if you want to get the most from your website.
    • Compare Function - Every major eCommerce sight I have seen has a compare function built into it and research says that visitors love it. Yet I have not seen it on many of our sites. Be the first, now that is innovation!
    • Product Reviews – Another thing we see used by shoppers extensively on Amazon and others is the product review function. I know we struggle to get positive store reviews on our sites, but shouldn’t we be trying to find ways to entice existing customers to give us reviews of the products they buy from us too?
  • Guest WiFi in Store – Many stores do have guest WiFi available on the selling floor, but some have resisted this move for various reasons. However, I think the pluses outweigh the minuses. Here are just a few of them:
    • It keeps them there longer – Many customers will leave your store to get emails or check websites and never come back. At least if you keep them in the store you still have a chance to sell them.
    • Something for kids to do – Today’s kids keep busy on their parents (or their own) smart phones/tablets. If you can keep them happy you will have more time with their parents.
    • Allows them to share ideas with family/friends while shopping – Most of today’s customers want to share ideas with family and friends before making a decision. Many will tell you they have to “go home and think about it” so they can do this. Why not give them the opportunity in the store?
    • Visit websites and see other products without leaving a vignette -  What is better than sitting in a vignette and reviewing additional products with your sales person on the store or manufacturer’s site?

This is just a short list of some suggestions you can consider. If it is a new idea that changes the way you do something, then for you it is innovation. My hope is that a couple of these ideas might jump out at you, to help make your life and your customers’ lives just a little better.

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