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.”
Each new year, we at Home Furnishings Business like to tip our hat to the National Retail Federation, which compiles a list of “Ideas Worth Stealing” for the organization’s Stores magazine.
Following is a condensed version that we hope will inspire some creative thinking in your business.
OFFER MORE OPTIONS
New York-based intimate apparel specialist Freshpair is offering customers an “entirely new way to shop.”
Its Freshpair At Home Bra Fitting Program gives each customer what it calls “access to the largest selection of brands and sizes found anywhere and the opportunity to try them on at home, totally free.”
Freshpair carries more than 50 brands of bras in a variety of price ranges and styles. Those include maternity, strapless, sports and traditional bras.
Consumers speak via phone with a bra-fit specialist to determine preferences, fit issues and size. The specialist chooses a selection of bras that might work, sending as many as 15 to the customer, allowing her to try them out for a week.
The customer then returns what she doesn’t want and pays for what she does. Shipping is free both ways, and there’s no upfront charge.
PHYSICAL MEETS VIRTUAL
Netherlands-based security, management and information systems solutions specialist Nedap Retail has developed a tool to help retailers meld the physical and online shopping worlds.
Shoppers visiting a store to try on apparel can use Nedap’s “Tweet Mirror” to take snapshots of the outfits and send the images via Twitter, Facebook or e-mail to friends, family and acquaintances to get their feedback on their choices.
The Tweet Mirror is a natural for the merging of social networks’ influence into the retail experience.
“Every time a customer posts a photo, your company logo and items from your collection are beamed across the world,” says the Neda retail Web site.
Clothing stores in Europe with Tweet Mirrors include WE fashion stores in Belgium; and the Netherlands and Cache-Cache boutiques in Italy.
“Fast food” and “healthy meals” aren’t always paired in the same sentence, but the My Wendy’s App is making it easier for the burger chain’s customers to count their calories.
The free mobile nutrition app, developed with Resource Interactive, allows Wendy’s customers to personalize meals based on the amount of calories they want to consume.
Customers can either select from a list of options based on their calorie range, or choose items to reach a specified calorie goal. The app allows personalization, such as adding pickles or opting for a lower-calorie salad dressing, and gives customers the option to store their creations in a “Favorites” section.
The app had more than 26,000 downloads within a month of its launch.
THE RIGHT FOOTPRINT
Coffee giant Starbucks wants its customers to associate its name with sustainability.
In addition to recycling and reducing water and lighting, Starbuck’s is generating buzz with a new drive-thru and walk-up-only store format.
These new 600-square-foot, or less, mini-stores, eschew Wi-Fi and sofas—they’re for moving product in an efficient, cost-effective way.
Starbucks has a modular, LEED-certified drive-thru in Colorado made from recycled snow. Other LEED-certified concept shops are springing up in Japan and the Netherlands.
SPICING UP REWARDS
The Dynamics ePlate, which bills itself as the first fully card-programable magnetic stripe, is looking to enhance a shoppers’ point-of-sale experience.
ePlate, a battery-powered rewards credit card device, features two buttons. At the POS, shoppers can press one of the buttons to select a reward, which can range from digital songs and charitable donations to points for vacations, plane tickets or electronics, for purchases.
ePlate is designed to be read at any existing POS magnetic stripe reader. ePlate provider partners include Upper Deck and its digital trading card system; Dark Horse, which allows users to earn points toward exclusive digital comic books; and Evil Genius Designs, an iPhone/Android game developer.
SOCIAL CROWD SOURCING
Outdoor outfitter Gander Mountain held a crowd-sourcing promotion called Camo Thursday for five consecutive Thursdays during the holiday season.
Beginning at 12:01 a.m. Nov. 29, five Gander Mountain items—including apparel, footwear and accessories—were posted on the Camo Thursday microsite. Shoppers could share items via Facebook and/or Twitter in hope of reducing the price. The higher the number of shares, the more the price dropped.
Shoppers could purchase at specific percentage-off intervals during the price drop, or wait until the number of shares drove prices to the lowest point— the amount of inventory was unknown, adding a gaming element.
During the first week every item was shared often enough to cut the price in half; and Gander Mountain reported 20 percent bump in unique Web site visitors.
WINKING AT INNOVATION
AG Interactive, the maker of American Greetings cards, is using justWink to combine traditional paper greeting cards with the flexibility and innovation of digital processes.
justWink is an on-demand greeting card platform that lets users send custom greeting cards when they don’t have time to buy a paper card
Users can customize digital cards with personal messages, a photo and digital signature. The free app also takes users through the process of finding appropriate cards for certain moods and occasions. Seasonal holiday themes are also available.
After creating a card, users can forward it to the recipient electronically; or send it to a vendor who will put the card together and mail it to the recipient for $2.99 including postage.
SeamBI, short for “seamless brand integration,” is an advertising technology innovator that turns “digital brand integration into a scalable business that benefits both local and national advertisers.”
The SeamBI Web site gallery offers examples: a billboard that’s now behind a car stopped on the road, an open pizza box placed next to a main character, a screenshot added to a phone, or a new car model replacing another on the street.
Starting in January, SeamBI also offers its trademarked Underlay, which involves inserting standard/rich media ads behind the main action of a video—but still in front of the background, making the message central to the viewer’s attention field.
SeamBI works directly with broadcasters on the placement of both national and localized ads; and as those ads are part of the show, they’re not as likely to be skipped.
FOCUS ON SENIORS
Japanese mall and supermarket chain AEON Co. has created a hypermarket shopping center dedicated to older lifestyles.
With people aged 65 or older representing almost one-third of the Japanese population within 20 years, AEON’s new facility in a Tokyo suburb has products and services geared toward seniors.
Retail offerings include an optical store that can produce bifocals on the day of the order; and slower escalators are more senior-friendly.
AEON has more than 12,000 stores in Japan and 2,315 other locations in South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, China, Malaysia and Hong Kong.
QUALITY FACEBOOK TIME
Fashion bag and luggage designer Vera Bradley and social networking platform Brickfish teamed in August to allay dorm-room grunginess.
Their 30-day “Dress Your Dorm” Facebook campaign generated more than 222,000 engagements, more than 200,000 views, 3,807 entries and 12,075 votes.
The campaign took a simple idea to a targeted audience—college students—and asked them to perform an inviting task. Participants went online and signed up to dress their dorm with Vera Bradley products, and then posted the information to the company’s Facebook page in hopes of winning the grand prize of a dorm room makeover. Users submitted their creations for viewing by others to signal their popularity.
Brickfish, which developed and led the campaign, created a viral map that let participants see how many people viewed their submissions.
Adapting store designs to their space, neighborhood and unique customer base is key for brick-and-mortar’s future.
British retailer John Lewis’ flexible-format, 65,000-square-foot department store in the U.K.’s Exeter City Centre is a move in the right direction.
While it has a traditional full-line store’s range of departments—apparel, home and electronics—it pulls back on the assortment’s breadth.
The design team used digital technology to highlight multi-channel retailing. Interactive information screens provide product information and quick access to online ordering.
In some instances the technology engages shoppers differently; some screens are equipped with a series of questions intended to help shoppers find the best product to match their needs. Some departments feature wall displays near the screen where samples of items like towels and bedding can be seen and touched before ordering.
Mercy Health System now has an ambulatory medical facility at Plymouth Meeting Mall in suburban Philadelphia. The two-story, 23,500-square-foot satellite location has offices for primary care physicians and specialists; suites for physical therapy and non-invasive procedures; imaging facilities; and a walk-in clinic.
The facility is said to be the Northeast’s first full-scale medical health and wellness center in an enclosed mall. Mercy Health System also promoted the idea with fresh marketing; its Web site teases a “healthier shopping experience” with phrases such as “Jewelry, Shoes, MRIs,” and “Good Health is Always in Fashion.”
PINS TO PURCHASES
Shoe and apparel retailer Zappos wants to convert Pinterest enthusiasts into e-commerce shoppers.
To wit, Zappos Labs created PinPointing, a service that recommends Zappos products based on Pinterest pins and boards. The Web page suggests compatible items such as shoes, dresses and accessories that are available from Zappos.
So far, exact matches of the items “pinned” are rare; and it’s sometimes difficult to connect the dots between an image pinned and the suggestions offered.
While Zappo’s online store got approval from Pinterest for the PinPointing site, there’s no formal partnership.
BRING A CATALOG TO LIFE
Swedish home furnishings giant Ikea is looking to digital technology to bring its 2013 catalog—which goes to 211 million consumers each year—to life.
To leverage the power of digital and social platforms, Ikea added augmented reality to its 2013 catalog.
The videogame industry has used augmented reality, which overlays computer graphics and displays on real-world media.
Ikea’s catalog readers now can download an Ikea app to their mobile device and scan catalog pages with digital content so they can access additional embedded information on products—turning printed catalog pages into 3D views, videos and how-to information.
Special symbols that resemble smartphones printed throughout the catalog invite readers to use their devices to receive the augmented images.
MAKING SMART CHOICES PAY
Health foods company Zipongo Life’s Healthy Deals program is offering consumers discounts for health-friendly purchases.
Zipongo Life users receive deals tailored to their diet, sleep habits and exercise routines. Subscribers pre-purchase featured brands online and redeem deals at area grocery stores, with discounts ranging from 50 to 90 percent.
The platform assesses potential food deals using generally accepted nutrition principles from the Institute of Medicine and Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Participating brands include Newman’s Own, Evol Burritos, Stonyfield Farms, Zico Coconut Water and Clover Organic Farms.
Schoola helps cash-starved schools create fresh fundraisers, and it’s worth a closer look from retailers.
The online fundraising platform from Savvy Source connects schools to businesses of all sizes, but unlike other daily deal sites, Schoola does not require 50 percent discounts on products or services. Businesses have greater control over the deals they offer and can work directly with school parents to negotiate prices.
In November, Schoola deals included brands such as Omaha Steaks, clothing retailer zulily and 1-800-Flowers.
Last September, Forbes reported that businesses lined up with Schoola could see $25 million in sales before the fall’s end.
eBay’s “Help Me Shop” bookmarklet is a social-media friendly tool that allows consumers to get help from their friends when deciding what to buy.
Once the Help Me Shop bookmarklet is installed, consumers can shop from any Web site, saving favorite items and sharing them with Facebook friends.
From the bookmarklet they can select up to six items to poll their friends about. The program tallies up poll responses, giving the consumer impetus to make a purchase that has received the endorsement of friends.
eBay calls this approach “social shopping,” counting on the fact that selections can be made beyond products and services sold on eBay gives the approach added appeal.
A key to Help Me Shop: eBay’s use of a bookmarklet, which places a small dialog box on the side of users’ browser windows.
Moda Operandi a way to bring the fashion runway to the consumer, offering shoppers access to designer fashions immediately after they appear on the runway versus waiting six months or more.
Exclusive online trunk shows of just-debuted items are available for three to seven days, then designers produce the pieces based on pre-orders, and Moda Operandi delivers them to shoppers.
Founded by Àslaug Magnúsdóttir and former Vogue editor Lauren Santo Domingo, Moda Operandi features designers such as Carolina Herrera, Marc Jacobs and Narciso Rodriguez. Membership perks include recommendations from top stylists, access to a personal shopping assistant, and online tools that allow shoppers to view items from every angle.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
With existing and new home sales expected to rise this year, realtors are showing more listings to more potential residential and commercial consumers. Agents, buyers and sellers are finding that apps provide more power to see photos and videos and access demographic and mapping information.
Leasing agents from Simon Property Group use an iPad app that provides access to the company’s entire portfolio, including a sales presentation, photos, video and 3D walk-throughs of properties. Simon credits the app with helping its agents close deals.
The National Association of Realtors also is into smart applications. Its mobile app offers agents “anytime, anywhere access” to listings information.
Consumers can use apps to see recently sold properties near homes for sale, search out foreclosure properties, receive updates on listings, find reduced property prices, access general news and information and calculate payment.
The furniture industry has recognized for years that women make the majority of decisions when it comes to purchasing furnishings for their home.
And this year, for the first time in history, women, both veterans of running small, independent stores, hold the top spots in the sector’s major retail alliances, the National Home Furnishings and Western Home Furnishings association.
VALERIE WATTERS , president of Valerie’s Furniture & Accents in Cave Creek, Ariz., is 2013 WHFA president; while Cherie Rose , president of Cherie Rose Collection in Los Gatos, Calif., is this year’s NHFA president.
To kick off the New Year, Home Furnishings Business ran a few questions by the two leaders to get their take on what lies ahead. Read on for their responses.
HFB: For the first time ever, women hold the top leadership positions in both the NHFA and the WHFA. What’s the potential impact for the home furnishings retail sector in general; and what does that say to you as a furniture retailer?
CHERIE ROSE: The fact that two women, each with a single store in a small town, have become president says everything about our industry and the people that are involved.
From the time I first joined in my 20’s in the mid 90’s, I was always treated as an equal. It didn’t matter if they were a big box store, a multi-store chain or a so-called “good old boy,” I always felt my ideas and enthusiasm for our industry was appreciated and welcomed.
In fact, their mentoring had a huge influence in my growth not only a businesswoman but also as a leader in our industry.
VALERIE WATTERS: To me, the impact is that we can help get more women involved in what goes on in the industry. I’d like to see more women running the larger stores—more women are getting involved, but you really don’t see them in many power positions in the top 100 retailers.
Cherie and I both run our own stores, I’ve been doing this for 24 years, so hopefully it will inspire more women to say, “Hey, I can do that.”
It also may spark a fashion-forward movement, because that’s where women are. The industry as a whole needs to find that passion and excitement, and translate that to consumers so we can get more of their disposable dollars.
I’m encouraged—there are 114 young women now on the Next Generation Now list, and that’s phenomenal. We need to get more young people committed to the business.
HFB: How do you feel about the prospects for furniture retailing in 2013 and why?
CR: I am optimistic and look forward to an incredible 2013. I am fortunate to be located in the heart of Silicon Valley. Our local economy is very robust and we continue to have increased foot traffic and in home appointments.
We are a design-oriented store, and so 85 percent of our sales are special-order and result from our in-home consultations.
VW: I was feeling pretty good about it, but in the fourth quarter—reading about spending being down in the holidays, the current administration, the taxes we may see next year—it’s a little scary.
One of the positives that I feel is a movement toward bringing the industry home to the USA. So many of the (vendors) aren’t all China now; and I like the fact that … Las Vegas and High Point markets have a made-in-America movement going on.
This is resonating with consumers—I’ve concentrated on made-in-America for 24 years at my store, and four or five years ago, people didn’t care. They wanted the cheapest price for the look.
Now they’re saying, “Made in the USA? Good for you!” I read where people will pay up to 20 percent more now for a U.S.-made product, and I love the sound of that.
HFB: What are the greatest challenges facing your respective organizations in the coming year, and how will you use your association leadership to address those?
CR: As an association we are faced with the same economic challenges as the bulk of our industry.
Stores are still continuing to go out of business, and so our membership numbers are down. But I have discovered that those of us who have survived the hardest challenges of our lifetime are coming out stronger than ever, and as a result our industry will follow.
VW: For me, my enthusiasm for WHFA is its relevance as an association. One of the biggest challenges is getting smaller stores to join and get involved.
So many stores have scaled back so much that they can’t or won’t afford to join an association.
If stores see the advantage of being involved, that if you learn more and that’s how you grow your business, it will help.
HFB: What are the opportunities facing your respective organizations in the coming year, and how will you use your association leadership to address those?
CR: The majority of our members are small businesses such as my and Valerie’s, and I feel we can inspire them to be actively involved in our association while maintaining their own businesses.
Another thing I wanted to mention is that Valerie and I are creating a blog post that will be related to our magazine’s (Retailer Now) main theme of the month. It will be a “conversation” format. The idea is to get more interaction and participation in industry issues thereby keeping our membership more involved.
VW: Stores are starting to open up now, and that’s an opportunity for growth. The big opportunity is that Cherie and I get along, and we like to share. We need to reach out to other industry organizations to work for the greater good of everyone. If the organizations pull together, that will lead to more education, more services and programs.
Women are good at pulling people and things together. Cherie and I nurture relationships—we like the collaboration, we like working together, and we play off each other.
HFB: What do you like to do in your free time?
CR: My free time is spent traveling (especially love Hawaii and go several times a year) and enjoying my four children and two grandchildren.
Working in this industry is my passion, and a day never goes by that I don’t look forward to going to my store and visiting with all of our wonderful clients and sharing in my employees’ successes.
VW: The store’s been my life, but I rescue animals—I have a little ranch, and I take in animals, especially older ones, and nurse them to health.
I love hiking and horseback riding, and I do a lot of volunteer work in the community. I stay pretty busy.