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From Home Furnishing Business

Coach's Corner: A New Approach to How We Sell Today’s Concerned Consumer


The COVID-19 pandemic as put most of us into a situation that we have never faced before. The majority of our stores have been shut down to prevent the spread of this terrible virus and after two months of closure, we are finally getting back up and running. There will be a lot of issues we will need to face and changes we will need to make in order to deal with this situation. It will impact our entire operation, most directly our selling process.

It is absolutely critical we understand that in most cases, we will be faced with a customer that has a much different approach to shopping for her home. It will require us to rethink how we work with them and find creative ways to provide the buying experience they now desire. This is not a completely new problem for us, since our consumer’s needs have been changing dramatically over the past two decades, causing smart retailers to adjust how they sell and service their customers.

The crazy thing for me is that the article that follows was actually written for our March issue and submitted in mid-February. This was before the pandemic hit hard and was in response to the changes we saw happening with the consumer over the last year or so. The impact of the virus and the way it has affected how the consumers returning to the marketplace want to shop, actually makes it a much more relevant and realistic idea. Read what I wrote back in February and see if you agree.

Most consumer research over the last two decades has indicated that for various reasons, many people do not want to spend a great deal of time shopping, even for traditional big-ticket items. While much of the initial search and information gathering is taking place on the Internet, the amount of time they actually spend in stores has been curtailed dramatically. They now go to just over two, instead of the five that were visited in the past. This has reduced traffic in most stores. However, there has also been a growing number that simply choose not to visit any stores and either buy online or through someone else.

In our May 2017 issue, our cover story offered some insight in the feature entitled, “Is It Just In My Store That Traffic Is Down? – Maybe”. Here is an excerpt from the article: The fact is that the time-starved consumers do not have the inclination to extend the process and enjoy decorating their homes. If we look at the percentage of consumers that consult a professional designer as the first stop, it is small. In discussions with the ever-expanding cadre of “designers” in the industry, it becomes obvious that they are more “personal shoppers” than certified designers.

Indeed, one of the faster growing distribution channels for home furnishings in the last decade has been the independent interior designer. However, as mentioned in the article, the main service many seek from these professionals may be changing from providing design direction to actually doing the shopping, so the client does not have to invest the time in shopping for the right pieces. Certainly, this has always been an attractive aspect of using a designer to assist in the process, but today it seems to have become a more important element.

Last month I presented some ideas about selling and marketing the important problem-solving services we provide our customers. While I did not make the specific point that working with our sales staff also saved consumers time, that would be a benefit they would receive, because someone else would be helping them find what they desire. Unfortunately, I am not convinced that the majority of consumers actually look at it that way. Perhaps thinking that the time spent at the store or communicating back and forth with a salesperson would be time added instead of time spent making their search more efficient.

My point is that we already can provide time saving assistance for a customer. Add to that our ability to handle every other aspect of the process as a one-stop solution provider and the total package should be very attractive to these consumers, IF we could get them to look at it that way. So, one of the key things we can do is fi nd a way to package this and market it. I think that the concept of providing a “Personal Shopper” or “Furniture Concierge” service for our potential clients may be worth considering.

This idea came from a recent story in the Detroit Free Press newspaper about a car salesperson that did exactly that. The service he had provided clients literally became his product, which launched a successful new career for him, basically doing much of what he had done before only packaged in a much diff erent way. Obviously, the goal of presenting this information is for the reader to use it as a launching point for the consideration of new ways to package and promote the services your store already provides. It is NOT intended to encourage salespeople to leave and try to do this on their own, although that could happen!

The article, “Fired salesman disrupts car-buying industry with word-of-mouth ‘concierge’ business” appeared on January 23, 2020. You can find it at https://www. fi red-car-salesman-brian-carroll-dealership/4533934002/. Basically, it tells the story of Brian Carroll, a guy who had never been fi red or let go from a job, who after eight years of loyal service and steady sales at the same dealership, was let go as part of a cost saving move. Needless to say, he was devastated and drove home not knowing what he was going to do or how he would support his wife and three sons. He loved selling cars and had worked at several dealerships over the years but knew starting over at a new one, if he could even fi nd an opening, would be very tough.

Then something happened. A guy called wanting a car. Carroll explained to the buyer that he didn’t work at the dealership anymore, but the buyer said he didn’t care. It was at that point Carroll decided he would go solo, however, not as the usual car “broker,” who charges a direct fee to shoppers, but as a car “concierge” who would work on commission. After all, he fi gured, fewer people have time to go to dealerships and many people like the idea of enhanced personal service. So, he decided he would ride a trend of changing consumer expectations in the automotive industry, all by word of mouth.

The rest of the article includes extensive quotes from his clients about how they do not have the time to shop and compare cars. They know for the most part what they want from the start and Carroll is enough of an expert on all brands to give them good guidance if they have questions. The process begins with a call, text or email. After that Carroll conducts a needs analysis and once he is confi dent that he knows what the client is seeking, he begins his search. When he locates some options that fi t the profi le, he can contact the client and set up a time for him to bring the vehicle to them for review. When they buy, the paperwork is often done at the kitchen table instead of having to make a trip to the dealership. Again, saving the client time and eff ort. As one client, a member of a local fi re department said, “For somebody like me who works 24-hour shifts and has an active lifestyle outside the job, with young kids active in sports and school, I don’t always have a day to look at vehicles or another day to sign paperwork, I start at 8 a.m. and I get off work at 8 a.m. If we’re running fi re calls or medical calls all night, I’m not going to want to sit in dealerships. I want to go home and go to bed.”

Carroll is now selling 30 to 35 cars a month with a peak of 52. I am not sure, but I think that is prett y darn good, even for a salesman at a good dealership. He has changed the buying experience for all of his clients and according to published research from the industry itself, he is answering the exact needs and wants the consumer has voiced to them. According to Jessica Stafford, senior vice president and general manager of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book, “Consumers are looking for personalized experiences tailored to their specifi c needs and preferences. Their expectations and demands are gett ing higher.”

That certainly sounds a lot like what all of the research for our industry is telling us. In Carrolls case he had to leave the retail environment in order to provide this type of service for customers. Basically, his clients are all potential clients of the dealerships at which he fi nds them cars. Since he earns a commission from the dealership for each sale, it was not a big issue for anyone involved, as it is a win-win situation for the client, the dealer and him.

The big question is how can we as furniture retailers who already provide all of the services a shopper needs, create a process that develops, supports and markets Furniture Concierges or Personal Shoppers on our staff ? Perhaps for some it will be an enhancement to their existing design and in-home business. For others it may be a designated special team. In my view, this is a way to appeal to customers you are not gett ing and maximize those you are. I believe this is an idea that is certainly worth thinking about. I believe that this is certainly worth thinking about, given the fact that many potential customers do not even want to visit a store now because of the COVID–19 pandemic.

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