From Home Furnishing Business
It’s been almost two years since Home Furnishings Business took a look at hiring, and a lot has changed in that time.
Last time we addressed this issue, the economy was digging out of recession. Now, business is on the upswing for most furniture stores compared with first-quarter 2010, and the general economy is in far better shape.
The gist is that while hiring for jobs in furniture stores isn’t the seller’s market it was a couple of years ago, retailers looking to expand their business had best maintain good hiring practices to ensure the associates encountering customers and the back-of-house personnel processing and delivering orders are up to the challenge of servicing an uptick in business—now’s no time to skimp quality hires.
It boils down to making hiring and talent scouting a process, versus a reaction to meet an immediate need.
HIRING, PROSPECTING 24-7
“Recruiting is a job that should be carried out 365 days a year regardless of whether you have a position to fill,” said Taylor Ganz, vice president of finance, planning and administration at retail consultant Profitability Consulting Group. “There are two reasons: First, every organization has its dead weight whether it’s a mom-and-pop with nine employees, or a Top 100 (retailer) with 700. You should always look to upgrade the weakest talent on your team.
“The second reason is at some point, you will lose an indispensable, can’t-live-without member of your organization. It’s not a matter of if, but when.”
Your employee might get another job opportunity, a spouse might get relocated, they might be in a snowmobile accident—you name it.
“If that’s when you start scrambling for a replacement it’s too late,” Ganz said. “The most important part of leadership is developing a deep bench.”
Constant awareness of people who could make your business better is key to that constant search. Joe Milevsky, CEO of consultant JRM Sales & Management, suggests that retailers always stay on the hunt.
“I had a client who was at a convenience store, and the employee went so over the limit of what they had to do that (the client) offered a job,” he said, adding that the new hire ended up a top salesperson.
Go hunting in malls, women’s stores, shoe and clothing stores.
“I’m not going to overtly steal that person,” Milevsky said. “I might say ‘I’m looking for someone with interpersonal skills like yours. Do you know people with skills similar to yours?’ … You have to physically get out and do it.”
Look at your personal network: “People have all these great associations—church, civic groups, maybe even the golf club—but they never think to ask,” Milevsky said. “I’m always looking, always interviewing. Someone comes into the store asking about a job, whatever I’m doing I take time—if they took the time to come in, I’ll see them for at five minutes at least, maybe set up a more formal interview for later.”
All that helps retailers build a tickler file of prospects so that when they need to hire, they have a plan in place versus reacting to an immediate need.
“If they like the store’s environment, they might feel they want to work there, but don’t have the experience,” Milevsky said. “If the retailer has the ability to train that person, customers are one of your best potential sources.”
And when you must make a change among current personnel, building a pool of potential talent eases the burden, noted Ganz’s colleague at PCG, Rene Johnston-Gingrich, vice president of training and development.
“It makes these difficult changes that much easier knowing you have a pool of people to draw from,” she said.
BRING IN THE TEAM
“In terms of sales help, one of the last things I’d do is placing an ad,” Milevsky said. “Word-of-mouth is very important—you can incentivize employees for successful hires.”
Ganz suggests including words to the effect of “if you’re interested in a great opportunity, call …” on the back of all your associates’ business card so they can pass those out when they spot potential talent when they’re out and about.
“If you see people you think could help your operation, give them a card whether you have an opening or not,” he said.
Thomasville Home Furnishings stores utilize an employee referral program, said Beth Sweetman, senior senior vice president of human resources at Thomasville’s parent company, Furniture Brands International, St. Louis. Current associates get compensation for referring new employees that stay.
“A referral from an employee who knows the person and what they can do usually ends up being the best fit,” she said, adding that the chain is working to improve its managers’ ability to reach out to potential talent. “We’ve learned that our store managers need training on basic networking to keep a constant flow of possible employees ‘in the hopper.’ We’re developing networking training, because getting out in the local community is the best way to build a pool of talent. We aren’t there yet, but we’re working on it.”
Job boards, and particularly the business-oriented social network LinkedIn, are other channels that furniture retailers are utilizing to build their talent pool.
“Over the years we have tried all the traditional methods but recently we have been successfully using Indeed.com,” said Susan Brashears, an owner at Brashears Furniture, Berryville, Ark. “It is very effective in our region. You can manage your account daily. That means being able to modify the ad if you’re not seeing the response you want, and also being able to respond to candidates the same day they apply. In addition, it is very affordable.”
LinkedIn has turned out well for Thomasville’s store recruiting.
“That seems to work more effectively for us than the national job boards, though we’re on all of those, too,” Sweetman noted.
And while Fairborn, Ohio-based Morris Furniture’s most effective leads are associate referrals, Dan W. Little, human resources manager, said the next most effective is ads posted on Internet boards.
Morris also is exploring social media and have done some sourcing via its Facebook page.
What does not work at Morris?
“We have had no success recruiting for sales at local job fairs,” Little said. “The challenge is overcoming objections to commissioned based sales. This is an ongoing effort for us.”
Wherever you’re looking, always keep in mind that you cannot always hire accomplished “winners” out of the gate, said David Markowicz, vice president of human resources, Jerome’s, San Diego.
“That can be expensive, but you can train and develop the new hires into winners if they have the right attitude and a high level of enthusiasm,” he said. “So focus on hiring strong entry level people and then have a plan/program that will develop/mold them into what you want them to be.”
THE RIGHT FIT
Different departments demand different skills, but retailers contributing here differ on their hiring approach for specific functions.
Thomasville, for instance, views hiring pretty much the same way for any position, said FBI’s Sweetman.
“The way I look at it hiring is hiring,” she said. “Prospects all go to the same places, national job boards, LinkedIn groupings, so you can get an idea of what positions they’re looking for.
“As we’re hiring the younger generation, that’s where they’re going to look. Our hiring process is the same across job functions.”
Morris Furniture looks for sales position candidates through referrals and the Internet.
“For sales positions, we do not limit our search to just applicants with past sales experience,” Little said. “Many candidates without sales experience can be molded into top sellers. We have found that some past candidates with sales experience had selling strategies or customer service attitudes that were not conducive to our team oriented showrooms. When screening an applicant we look for skills we can’t teach—integrity, work ethic, teamwork.
“We generally do not run print ads for sales positions with the exception of a store opening. Sourcing via the Internet creates a steady flow of applicants who are Internet savvy.”
When Morris is opening a new store—the retailer has a new Ashley Homestore location on the way—the retailer adds “Now hiring” information tags to print sales advertising, and uses signage at existing stores. A similar message appears on press releases when applicable.
“We have had a high success rate with internships for local college students,” Little said. “Almost a third of our interns eventually came on full time after graduation.”
He added that for entry level and delivery positions, those are areas where print seems to do as well as the Internet in generating candidates.
When examining candidates for particular positions, fit the skill set and the personality set to the ideal you have in mind for that position, suggested Rene Johnston-Gingrich at PCG.
“It’s a little like Internet dating,” she said. “What’s your ideal, what are your must-haves, and what are the deal-breakers?
“During the selection process, do the work—that lessens the chance of hiring the wrong person.”
Is there an applicant with strong organization skills and willingness to take direction but whose interpersonal style might be lacking? Think back-office or warehouse versus the sales floor.
“Most people can be trained, but don’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole,” said PCG’s Ganz. “Look at their skill sets in previous jobs where they were successful, and whether they can transfer that to your operation.”
THE SIT DOWN
OK, you have a pool of potential talent for your store, and you’re “open to buy.” Following are things to watch for during the interview process.
“There are two things I can’t teach. The first is interpersonal skills,” Milevsky said. “If I think I can change someone that momma and poppa couldn’t change, I’m probably making a mistake. Do they like people, do they have the ability to listen, do they have ethics and morals, how do they see themselves?
“Second is their internal motivation. … I can demotivate someone, but the motivation itself to succeed has to come from within. I can provide a great environment that encourages them to succeed, but I can’t make them succeed.”
Watch for red flags during the interview, said Ganz and Johnston-Gingrich at PCG.
“I was interviewing someone once, and she cursed,” recalled Johnston-Gingrich. “Nothing huge but she did it so casually, and I recognized a lack of professionalism. … She was also talking about a conflict situation at her previous position, too, which was a bad sign. She charmed me the rest of the interview, though. I hired her but ended up having to fire her.”
Ganz has two very important words: resume gaps.
“Anyone can give you a resume and fill out an application, and if they list someone as a reference, they can generally count on (a good word),” he said. “What you have to do is look for employment gaps. Say they had a position from 2002 to 2004; and another from 2006 to 2008. You want to know what happened between 2004 and 2006.
“In today’s economy, people aren’t afraid to say they’ve been out of work, but if there’s a gap, you still want to know what they were really doing. If they were unemployed, you can ask what kind of job did you look for; what did you do to occupy your time; what were your job-hunting strategies?”
That can give you an idea whether they were showing initiative, or just sitting around collecting unemployment.
And above all, check those references, and beyond that, perform adequate vetting of the people you’re considering for interaction with your customers.
“Looking at our clients … they often miss one gigantic step, and that scares me—they don’t vet properly,” Milevsky said. “When they don’t do that I see a lot of mistakes that lead to (termination).
“Background checks, I had one client with an applicant that gave a false Social Security number. Today it’s so easy to check all that information—a day or two versus a week or two.”
The Legal Side of Hiring
Jill Benson, an attorney specializing in employment issues in the Greensboro, N.C., office of Womble Carlyle, has advice for furniture retailers who want to make sure their hiring practices meet legal requirements.
She noted that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has new rules for background and credit checks of job applicants, and documentation is essential.
“Most employers and retailers conduct criminal background checks for their employees,” she said. “The EEOC issued an enforcement guidance in April 2012 (governing hiring practices).”
Is your employment application up to date with current applicable language?
“Update your employment applications to say, ‘have you been convicted’ versus ‘have you been arrested,’” she suggested as an example. “Make sure there’s a disclaimer to the effect that if you answer ‘yes’ to a conviction or arrest, it does not automatically disqualify the applicant from employment.”
Look at your policy on background checks.
“For example, employers cannot have a blanket policy that they don’t hire convicted felons,” Benson said. “It’s perfectly legal to conduct a background check on a new hire. However, make sure you are considering the nature and gravity of the criminal offense, when the conviction occurred, and how it relates to the job in question before making any adverse employment decision. You can consider convictions, but not necessarily an arrest. And how does the conviction relate, if at all, to the job in question?”
The Legal Side of Hiring
She suggests that employers weigh the factors, and make sure there’s no blanket policy or prohibition against convicted felons.
“You don’t see many problems at the hiring stage unless you unlawfully discriminate—and it doesn’t have to be intentional,” she added. “Every company should have an Equal Employment Opportunity policy.”
The relationship usually begins with fair pay and adequate benefits that are the cornerstone of a successful company in recruiting and retaining committed workers. If you provide a living wage for your staff, you then have the luxury to implement additional motivation tools. Without the competitive compensation, you risk losing your top talent.
Once you have pay and benefits in place, then it all falls under the manager. People normally don’t quit the company … they quit the boss. In the past, managers predicted the most vital motivational aspect of work for people was money, although personal time and attention from the supervisor has been cited recently as most rewarding and motivational for them at work.
Feeling valued by a supervisor at work is essential to employee motivation and positive morale. Your words, body language, expression on your face telegraph your opinion of your staff’s value.
Your arrival at work sets the mood daily. Smile. Walk tall and confidently. Walk around your workplace and greet people with sincere good mornings. Mornings can be the hardest part of the employee’s day. They are fighting off fatigue, have trouble focusing and getting excited. Offer fresh brewed coffee to help start the day. Not only will they be grateful for the caffeine, they’ll be more productive throughout the day.
Ordering pizza or taking the staff out to lunch occasionally keeps spirits high. Socializing without worrying about the bill puts them in a good mood and helps them enjoy their work environment and colleagues. Get to know them. Ask about families, hobbies and interests. They will appreciate it. People are often motivated by camaraderie. People don’t want to come to work to fight. It is important to understand employees’ basic desire to work collaboratively … a fundamental goodwill.
Treat them with respect. Use simple, genuine, powerful, motivational words such as please, thank you (and hand-written thank you notes), you’re doing a good job … ask about their day off … recognize birthdays, anniversaries and personal accomplishments to demonstrate caring and value.
Always remember a satisfied employee knows clearly what is expected from them daily. No surprises. Hold individual weekly meetings with staff to discuss progress and upcoming expectations. Consistent communication is the key. Establish employee recognition programs to acknowledge notable contributions and to incentivize others to improve.
Challenge them. Whenever you task an employee with a project, you want them to succeed. Be aware that if you only give assignments/goals where success is assured, you’re hurting yourself in the long run. If your associate is not going to learn something, the assignment/expectation you gave likely wasn’t robust enough. Pushing people out of their comfort zones allows them to develop new skills. Control, creativity and challenges in their work inspires motivation.
Continue training them to stay up-to-date with trends in their field. Enroll them in seminars, have them read relevant books/articles and discuss the content. Keep them fresh and inspired.
The ability of the employee to speak their mind is another key retention factor. Do you solicit ideas and provide a comfortable environment for honest feedback? Ensure that your open-door policy is meaningful. Conduct periodic employee satisfaction surveys. Be sure to address any issues you uncover promptly and thoroughly to avoid losing staff for good. The perception of fairness and equitable treatment is imperative for morale.
In short, when word of your company culture gets around, it will significantly improve retention and make it much easier to recruit the most talented workers in the job pool.
If it’s the latter, read on: We’re taking a look this month at ways to retain the talent—and personalities—that benefit your operation; and how to keep them fired up about selling home furnishings. Some of it might seem plain common sense, but some messages bear repeating.
Got a problem with your best people leaving for another opportunity? The first place to look for a solution is in the mirror, according to Joe Milevsky, CEO of JRM Sales & Management, Acworth, Ga.
“It starts with the owner and goes down to managers,” he said. “If the sky is always falling, if anything employees do that’s good is ‘just part of doing their job,’ it won’t be a place where people want to work.
“I preach positive feedback—a 10 to 1 ratio of praise to criticism. It depends on the individual so that might be 5 to 1, but the point is I’m always looking for good things. I want to create an environment where it’s going to be enjoyable to work.”
MORE THAN MONEY
Keeping good people on board is more than money and benefits, agreed Taylor Ganz, vice president of finance, planning & administration for Atlanta-based furniture retail consultancy Profitability Consulting Group.
“You want to know the number one reason people leave a business or a company? They hate their supervisor,” Ganz said. “It’s not the money, it’s not opportunity elsewhere, not retirement. They feel unappreciated, and they hate not the company, but the guy the work for.”
During his days at furniture retailer McMahon’s, Ganz remembered a number of people who said they liked working for the store but absolutely couldn’t work under their supervisor.
“It was my fault for not dealing with the supervisor, and I let both sides down,” he said.
Another non-monetary link between employees and their jobs is knowing their contributions are valued, added Ganz’s colleague, Rene Johnston-Gingrich, vice president of training and development at PCG.
“You show that appreciation in action and in words,” she said. “Customize how you show that appreciation to the individual.”
For example, one employee might enjoy recognition before the entire staff with a lot of hoopla—another might prefer a quiet pat on the back away from the spotlight.
Morris Furniture, Fairborn, Ohio, is big on setting a positive tone from the top, said Dan W. Little, human resources manager. That helped maintain retention and morale during the recession.
“Lead by example—if managers and leaders are upbeat and positive it is contagious,” he said. “Be positive. During a management meeting in 2008 our CEO, Larry Klaben, stated we have some of the best associates in the industry, and we will come out stronger when the economy improves. He repeated this message consistently during full staff meetings. It was a very effective message. And he was right.”
Setting the right tone and atmosphere in the workplace is key, but after all, people do work for money and the security of employee benefits. The strongest compensation and benefits packages incorporate performance motivators.
“I like bonuses,” PCG’s Ganz said. “Bonuses have to be benchmarked and tied to ambitious, but achievable, goals. You have to reach those goals, and that takes favoritism out of the picture. Bonuses aren’t occurring if achievement’s not occurring.
“People think they’re entitled to raises—it’s like an annuity.”
Don’t allow any discussion of salary among employees, and make sure that’s in writing.
“I’ve fired people for discussing salary,” Ganz noted.
“What we find is there are many ways to compensate salespeople,” said Milevsky at JRM. “If I had my choice, I’d go 100 percent commission versus 100 percent salary.
“That said, if I get into a company with a great environment and accountability, in theory commissions aren’t needed, but in practice that rarely happens.”
He added that, during the hiring process, the prospect’s pay preference can speak volumes.
“In the interview, if they say they want a salary versus commission, what does that tell me?” Milevsky said. “It tells me they aren’t confident in their abilities, or they just want a pay check.”
On the other hand, if a prospective salesperson wants commission only, make sure they understand “customer opportunity” rules and don’t run roughshod over other employees.
Brashears Furniture typically offers salespeople a base around 70 percent of their potential earnings plus commission, said Susan Brashears, an owner at the Berryville, Ark., store.
“This protects a salesperson during a slow month so they don’t get panicky and pushy; and still provides for a commission incentive,” she explained.
In addition to a strong benefits package from a retail standpoint—health coverage, 401k, etc.—Thomasville stores are big on performance incentives and recognition.
“We recognize top writers each month,” Beth Sweetman, senior senior vice president of human resources at Thomasville’s parent company, Furniture Brands International, St. Louis. “We’re also in the process of developing a President’s Club where we’ll celebrate the top writers and top stores for the year.”
Don’t forget the holistic side of the benefits you offer. Wellness programs are good your employees and can be good for your business. Morris Furniture, for example, has motivational incentives such as “Raving Fan” recognition programs for superior customer service, but also gives employees a chance to stay in shape.
“We have a state of the art fitness center available to all associates at no charge,” Little noted.
Jill Benson is an attorney specializing in employment issues in the Greensboro, N.C., office of Womble Carlyle. Her clients have seen measurable benefits especially in the last two years from wellness programs including cholesterol screens, exercise in the work place, and weight loss programs.
“The research shows that employees are missing work less and that it makes them feel more valued,” she said. “I know it’s helped several of my clients retain employees.”
THE RIGHT ATMOSPHERE
An attractive showroom that creates a great environment for shopping keeps customers coming back. And a working atmosphere of open communication, clearly outlined responsibilities and team spirit keeps the employees serving your customers on board. And again, it starts with you.
“Creating a fun, positive environment, that has to be a top-down value,” said PCG’s Johnston-Gingrich. “It’s not about warm and fuzzy, it’s good business. … There’s an old cliché that happy employees equal happy customers, and happy customers equal good business.
“Customers pick up on it immediately—they’re hugely sensitive to a store’s energy.”
Thomasville relies on store and district management to set the tone.
“My view is everyone wants the same things from work: Feedback, whether good or bad, on performance; understanding the strategy of the company; and people want to know when they’re doing a good job,” Sweetman said. “That comes from the store manager and the district manager.”
“We can tell which stores have the best managers. They’re the ones with the most satisfied, productive employees,” added Christine Bonnell, human resources lead at Furniture Brands. “I think it’s up to the store managers and district managers to continually teach people to do their jobs better.”
For example, Thomasville stores hold morning gatherings that cover some component of customer service to give associates new tools to improve their performance.
At San Diego-based Jerome’s, quarterly, one-hour roundtables take place in various departments and stores.
“Small groups of six to eight—a mix of associates with senior management—meet to discuss openly their thoughts on the company and solicit their ideas and suggestions for improvement,” said Vice President of Human Resources David Markowicz.
Make sure you’re meeting one-on-one as well, suggested Milevsky at JRM.
“Have one-on-one meetings and not just to talk but also to listen to what they have to say,” he said. “I had a meeting with a larger company—10 to 12 managers with the owner—and we were talking about this subject. A manager asked how they could possibly find the time for all these meetings. The owner responded, ‘How can we not find the time?’
“We think we’re in the furniture business, but in fact we’re in the people business.”
Encouraging a sense of friendly competition helps build teamwork—and keep everybody on their toes.
“We have some kind of competition or game almost every month for our salespeople,” Brashears said. “We frequently put them on teams—sometimes with salespeople in other stores. They have fun with the friendly competitions. It may sound silly, but it is good for morale and keeps them focused on sales as a group. They watch everyone’s sales closely and encourage each other throughout the month.”
It’s all about building a company that’s customer-centric, Milevsky said.
“Mom and Pop build a great company, where they’re doing everything. They grow and need help so they hire people to do some of those things—but those people don’t own the company,” he said. “Those people need job descriptions, they need performance measurements, and they need to be trained properly to that job description. They need regular periodic evaluation.
“Create a policy to make that happen. That way it’s not just about the money, the incentives, it’s that people understand what’s expected of them. The only thing worse than having no rules is having them but not holding people accountable to them.”
That means a clear, professionally done policy manual; and a process for resolving conflicts in the store.
“Develop your skill sets to confront and resolve conflict,” Milevesky said, adding that conflict can’t be avoided. “If you sweep the snake under the rug, it will bite you at the worst possible time.
“Celebrate successes, celebrate victories,” he added. “We’re trying to create an environment where we breed success.”
Consumers have more choice than ever before, and everyone is trying to get their money.
Most retailers are quick to say the ecommerce business models are difficult to compete against. They have lower overheads and in most case, fewer employees, both which allow them to offer the same products at lower prices. So what is a brick–and-mortar retailer to do?
When I did my holiday shopping last month, I bought no gifts online, not even one. Yes, it would have been easier to sit on my sofa, watch TV in my warm house and shop online. No crowds to deal with, no worries about parking, no strollers getting in my way, just me and an iPad knocking out my list of gifts.
Instead, I ventured out to the mall and small retail locations to shop. Why you ask? Because I wanted to see what was new, and what retailers were doing to promote these items.
I needed to learn the latest kid friendly items, so I could get those gifts for my nieces and nephews. Not having (or wanting) kids of my own, I needed to find out what was available. I needed help because the kid’s department is not a familiar stop.
While shopping, knowing this retail merchandising was coming up this month, I looked at things a bit differently. How were these stores merchandising? I began my “surveying” as I approached every store. What did the outside of the building look like? Were the windows clean so I could see in them? Were the aisles clean and passable? Was the presentation of products appealing to me? Could I find an associate to help me with questions? (Remember I’m in the children’s section.)
These are the differences between a retail location and shopping online. This is where you have the advantage. You have the opportunity to have grand displays, whether it is seasonal or not. You have the chance to create an ambience that can’t be duplicated on a Web site.
You invested in the premium location, now you need to offer a premium shopping experience, that’s how you separate yourself from other retailers and Web sites. Merchandising is more than placing your products on a shelf, it’s about the image you want your business to have. The businesses I like to shop are clean, neat, well-maintained and always ask me to please come back again. These are the things that will get shoppers in your door and back again.
This month’s issue covers the merchandising angle and is a great read to gain a better handle on store merchandising. Learn from your peers about what they are doing to create an environment that attracts customers and helps get products moving out your doors. I’m sure many of you believe you are hitting all the right buttons to make this happen. If you feel this way, walk out your door and do your own “survey” with your location and then go to your largest competitor’s store. If you are so busy you can’t find the time, just ask a customer on the showroom floor for an honest opinion, that could be interesting.
Hope to see you around market!
If you’re tired of hearing about how the online world impacts your business, turn to the next article, because like it or not the focus of this month’s issue—merchandising—leads us once again to cyberspace.
We hope the following will encourage you to take a hard look at your store’s Web presence and how well it integrates into the merchandising philosophy customers see when they walk in your door.
You have a store, you have a sign out front, and you advertise, but when your customer decides to shop for furniture, guess where they’re going and what they see first in most cases?
If your answers aren’t “the Internet” and “my Web site,” think again. You might spend a lot of time making displays with strong visual appeal. You might have a special area of focus—be it brands, “green” furnishings or Made-in-America—but if your Web site doesn’t tell that tale, you’ll likely tell your story on your actual showroom floor to fewer than might be possible.
Read on for thoughts from retail observers and service providers, and examples of your colleagues who are working to better match online and in-store customer experiences.
In a consumer’s mind, there’s no difference between your store’s Web site and the brick-and-mortar—it’s all what Paco Underhill calls retail “convergence.
“The better integration of the online world and brick-and-mortar—particularly in home furnishings, when someone might come to a store once a quarter, maybe once a year—is very important, their use of (online) to pre-shop,” said Underhill, CEO and president of New York City-based global research and consulting firm Envirosell.
“And when someone is in the store, encourage them to visit the Web site.
“It’s all ‘convergence’—the meeting of brick-and-mortar, smartphones and the Internet. Retailers are scared of it because of showrooming—afraid they’ll come to the store, look around, go online and buy it somewhere else—and some of that’s because many haven’t effectively utilized the available tools to this point.”
In his consulting with retailers, Underhill likes to show a series of pictures of a store’s online presence, and then compare those to pictures from inside the store. The process can frequently reveal disconnects.
“There (are) often inconsistencies in the language used online versus in the store—the product terms themselves are often different,” Underhill said. “Retailers have to remember that to customers, the Internet site and the store aren’t silos, but one integrated brand.”
With consumers hitting the Web first in many cases when shopping for furniture, how do retailers build merchandising excitement online for what shoppers can anticipate seeing in the store? And how do they create a more seamless experience between their online and physical presence in terms of presentation and attitude?
Merchandising issues were front-and-center this past year for FurnitureDealer.net; the Minneapolis furniture Internet consultant created four new client merchandising positions—one each for mattresses and appliances, and two for furniture.
“We’ve been super-focused on customizing our basic template for merchandising,” said FurnitureDealer.net Founder Andy Bernstein. “A year or two ago, it was basically a giant product catalog, but now we’re building tools to make it super-easy for consumers to find a needle in a haystack.”
That led to FurnitureDealer.net’s development of “sites within a site” that communicate what Bernstein called “the businesses within the businesses” of its retail clients.
“We’re trying to go deep and understand our clients and their merchandising and business strategies,” he said. “We’re creating microsites that create a shopping environment for what the consumer is seeking. Unless a person’s building a new home, they’re shopping more specifically, say, for their daughter’s bedroom.”
And since that shopper will more likely search for “girl’s bedroom furniture” than a specific retailer, a store’s youth bedroom microsite popping up on the search benefits the retailer from a search-engine-optimization (SEO) standpoint.
“It’s a section of the Web site that talks about those merchandising terms,” Bernstein said.
In addition to SEO optimization, microsites tied to specific brands can better ride the promotional wave generated by vendors around their products.
“There are advertising resources being spent to communicate these brands, and this allows our retailers to reinforce that,” Bernstein noted. “People go out and Google these in brand terms.”
Retailers are reacting, too. FurnitureDealer.net provided examples.
“I just did a program with Pilgrim Furniture City (in Connecticut) on Ashley’s iKidz, Bardini and Livin Den,” said Kayla Robb, one of FurnitureDealer.net’s furniture merchandising consultant. “Pilgrim wanted to call attention on their home page to each.
“For the new HGTV Collection, we’ve created a microsite page for multiple retailers.”
From the home page, a link takes browsers to a brand-specific microsite with art and/or video that creates an online atmosphere more like that in the store.
“We can also feature (microsites) by category—contemporary, mountain living, casual living, French laundry,” Robb said. “The pages link from their home page; and we use smart links to take the shopper directly to product. But before that, we can show customization available like wood finish and hardware.”
MERCHANDISING CATEGORIES ONLINE
Carolyn Mann, FurnitureDealer.net’s other furniture merchandising consultant, also has received requests for work on brands, but more as part of umbrella microsites than brand-specific pages.
“Specific brands are something I’ve been addressing lately,” she said. “I’ve been asked about Amish lines or Made in America, for example, so there are certain vendors clients want to feature.”
(See accompanying “Online Merchandising: Microsites” in these pages to find examples such as Upstate New York retailer Old Brick’s Amish Furniture microsite, or Florida retailer Hudson’s Furniture’s Made-In-America page.)
“Our goal is to reflect on line as best we can how they sell in the store,” Robb said.
“And it’s not just brands. Knight Furniture wanted to emphasize their baby business, so they made a microsite for it.”
ONLINE ‘CURB APPEAL’
The microsite approach, Bernstein believes, is a better way to set online shoppers up for finding what they want than presenting page after page of beds, sofas, etc. Of course, all that product information still resides on the Web site, and is accessible from the microsites via links once the consumer has a better idea of exactly what she’s looking for.
Microsites can be tailored to specific goals: Pilgrim’s Bardini site, for instance, is more about the collection and contemporary lifestyle; while Old Brick’s Amish furniture page highlights manufacturer attributes such as the hand-craftsmanship consumers would expect from the category.
“Instead of having a whole similar template they’re looking at, consumers now can explore a site within a site,” Bernstein said. “This is a translation on the Web of what they’ll see in the store.”
Vendors are excited about the idea. Take HGTV.
“In this case, it was relationship-driven with the manufacturer,” Bernstein said. “Our clients are committing serious floor space to that line.”
Mann said the HGTV microsite stands out as a visually appealing brand page.
“All our clients who see this who are carrying HGTV want this right away,” she noted. “You get a real vibe from the page.”
Mann added that Belfort Furniture’s Sealy Optimum microsite incorporates a lot of video: “That’s something we’ve been adding to a lot of pages.”
Video is especially useful in bedding, said Bernstein.
“Typically, a mattress offerings page on a Web site looks like all the same product,” he pointed out. “This allows you to really tell that Sealy Optimum story. It helps our clients create visibility around their brand message. … We’re working with manufacturers more on video to tell the story online.”
Other online merchandising developments Bernstein highlighted include tabbed browsing that emphasizes in-stock versus special order.
“Some retailers want to highlight their inventory position,” he said. “And we now have the ability to let the retailer control the sort order on product pages. They might have ordered a container, so they want to have that up front.”