By Powell Slaughter
The growth of online home furnishings sales has more vendors looking to partner with e-retailers to service that business through drop shipping to consumers’ homes.
While many of those emphasize that they’re only helping to fulfill orders—it’s in their interest to support a channel that will only grow in the future.
Not surprisingly, we found that some vendors currently serving a drop-ship model for online retailers didn’t want to talk about the subject. If you are a sharp retailer and they’re part of your supply chain, you know who they are. If you don’t, good luck.
OBJECT LESSON It ain’t breaking news, but e-commerce is a channel more vendors are finding they can’t ignore. Take Cymax. In 2004, Cymax started as a small audio video furniture e-tailer. Today, the Burnaby, British Columbia-based company is among the fastest growing online furniture retailers with 2014 sales projected at above $140 million, more than 35 percent compared with last year. With more than 50,000 furniture SKUs, Cymax sells products to consumers across North America.
Cymax recently launched a more responsive, fully optimized Web site and expanded into new categories. That takes advantage of the multiple ways customers access information and buy online.
“Mobile and tablet traffic has grown to nearly 50 percent of all Web site visitors, putting the ever-growing Cymax catalog of over 50,000 product SKUs in the hands of every consumer in the U.S.,” said Scott Fullerton, director of marketing at Cymax on the company’s growth. “Further sales have been driven by Cymax’s advances in consumer payment options, including the addition of Amazon Payments and Visa Checkout.”
Pure-play Internet retailers like Cymax, Wayfair and Hayneedle, are making it easier for shoppers to buy, whichever screen they’re using. They’re also investing in telling vendors’ stories online with detailed product information that is breaking down consumers’ perceived reluctance for big-ticket purchases via the Internet. And vendors are supporting those efforts.
Brick-and-mortar retailers like Nebraska Furniture Mart also are doing growing business online beyond their traditional markets.
PARTICULAR CHALLENGES Vendors serving retail customers via drop ship often find themselves using a third-party carrier of the retailer’s choosing, and that can create challenges.
Cresent Fine Furniture started sending goods to delivery companies for drop shipment to customers’ homes about five years ago, at first with brick-and-mortar retailers who also sold merchandise online.
“We were very selective with those dealers because we wanted to make sure they’d provide the customer service necessary to support Internet sales,” said Taylor Condra, vice president of operations. “We’re very protective of our brand—whoever sells the product, it’s our name on the box.
“In our case, we are adamant that white glove service is the standard of delivery service. Case goods do not lend themselves to traditional drop shipping.”
The action picked up two years ago when Cresent began selling larger Internet retailers.
The devil is in the details of setting up the SKUs and product descriptions in the retailers’ system.
“That helps us protect our pricing,” Condra said. “Retailers don’t like showrooming, and vendors don’t either. You can’t underestimate the importance of enforcing your minimum pricing, we work to keep the playing field level.”
Pricing is also important to Magnussen’s e-commerce.
“We have a strict IMAP policy and work hard to ensure this is being met and we only partner with those that hold to the IMAP pricing,” said Christa Albrecht, senior vice president of sales at Magnussen. “Magnussen Home selects their e-commerce partners that have infrastructure to truly service the end consumer and are not just operating a business out of their home.”
Magnussen Home also leaves ultimate responsibility for fulfillment in the hands of its retail customers when it comes to home delivery.
“We do not get involved with white glove delivery or drop ship to consumers,” said Albrecht. “We service our retail partners and work closely with them to maintain high levels of on-time, on-quality delivery so that they can meet the consumers needs.”
DEDICATED DIVISION Home Meridian is into drop shipping in a more direct way than many vendors. After leaving the crib business a couple of years ago, the company turned to freed-up resources to launch Right2Home.com, the full-line vendor’s e-commerce drop-ship division. Right2Home started in October 2012 with 1,500 items available for white glove delivery, including goods from Home Meridian divisions Samuel Lawrence Furniture, Prime Resources International and Pulaski Furniture—all with a strict IMAP policy.
Retail customers using Right2Home’s services include Macy’s, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Nebraska Furniture Mart, Wayfair, Cymax, Hayneedle, Costco and Sam’s.
Drop-shipped goods should represent around 10 percent of Home Meridian’s business this year, according to Kevin Walker, president the Right2Home division.
“In 2014 it grew 124 percent, and we expect it will grow another 100 percent next year,” Walker said.
Sixty percent of Right2Home’s goods travelson specialized furniture carriers with the balance on Fedex or UPS.
“Right2Home wants customers to use a specialized furniture carrier on larger items,” Walker said. “Fedex and UPS shipments are constrained by those services’ requirements on sizes, dimensions and weights.
“We have a few customers still trying to chase a (low) freight rate, but we are showing them that it’s worth it” to have the product handled correctly, Walker said.
FURNITURE ISN’T EASY Whether or not they’re responsible for lining up the “last mile” of delivering furniture to consumers, vendors still have to do everything they can to make sure their brand doesn’t get associated with problems.
Large furniture pieces like case goods are inherently subject to snags when it comes to drop shipments: they are not palletized, they’re heavy and they can be difficult to handle.
Cresent started putting V-boards for extra cushioning on every furniture edge for drop shipment about a year ago.
“It also helps that big retailers doing business on the Web are using more specialized furniture carriers than in the past,” Condra said. “Drop shipping (for large pieces) only works when the retailer uses a specialized furniture carrier. We’ve seen good results with that.”
Quality issues with delivered merchandised are handled on Cresent’s end.
“That’s because my people looked at it before it went out,” Condra said. “If it’s damaged (in shipping), it’s more the retailer’s problem, since they’re telling us which carrier to use.
“We also add extra padding on all our merchandise that’s scheduled for drop shipping.”
Magnussen’s drop-ship support for e-commerce accounts is limited to items that meet the weight and size restrictions of FedEx direct shipments to consumers.
“These items are have an external second pack that is completed by item at our North American distribution center,” Albrecht said. “Items that exceed the FedEx standards ship to specialty delivery services that special in white glove delivery as specified by our e-commerce partner.”
The keys for fulfillment at Right2Home are International Safe Transit Association 3a-certified packaging, shipping within 24 hours from receipt of order, and a strong IT department.
“For larger items that must ship via LTL it is imperative to work closely with the e-tailer and a well-run white glove furniture freight carrier,” Walker said. “The product must arrive to the consumer’s home in excellent condition.”
He added that retailers looking to drop ship goods at consumers’ door should not chase the lowest freight rates because they will pay far more in high damages and free replacements.
Walker believes inventory and data management are the biggest challenges to supporting drop shipments.
“This business is a heavy inventory driven business,” he noted. “HMI/Right2Home has made and will continue to make substantial investments into inventory and new product development. You cannot be successful in the e-commerce space if you are not in stock all the time with the correct products that turn fast.”
Technology systems are challenging. Right2 Home invested in systems that communicate with retailers in real time for functions such as receiving purchase orders, providing inventory feeds to the retailer and invoicing, with the ability to automate the process to receive, ship and invoice within 24 hours.
“Every retailer is different in what they require for onboarding and launching our brands, so we have to be flexible, fast and accurate,” Walker said. “Data is challenging. Housing, organizing and updating all the data necessary to offer you product line online can feel overwhelming. HMI runs on SAP and within this powerhouse of an operating system we have developed a customized setup process that easily and quickly delivers all the necessary data to the retailer with every image, specification, dimension, romance copy, weights, cubes, preferred shipping method, etc.”
THE PLUSES FOR VENDORS The positive aspect for vendors of working with Internet retailers is that they don’t have to fight for floor space with an online retailer.
“It costs nothing to list four bedrooms on their site instead of one,” said Condra at Cresent. “We can also serve areas of the country not serviced by our dealer base. We’ve determined that we want a very small group of very capable Internet retailers. They must have the infrastructure in place to deal with failed deliveries, and in our experience most of those are shipping damage. It’s the age-old question—is it damage, or is it a defect?”
That is an area where vendors are able to leverage domestic warehousing.
“In our Tennessee warehouse, we run a full quality control center,” Condra said. “We’re opening and inspecting furniture every day prior to shipment. This helps us prevent defective product getting to all of our customers, not just Internet retailers.”
It also helps that specialized furniture carriers have adapted quickly and are now offering white glove delivery options.
“Drop shipping works best when the retailer uses a specialized furniture carrier for both the line haul and the final mile delivery,” Condra said. “We are glad to see the carriers get that infrastructure in place.”
Along with increased use of specialized carriers, Condra credits several Internet retailers with effective use of analytics to improve drop shipping outcomes.
“They have so many analytics that they track, and they use and share their data with us to analyze the business and make improvements,” he said.
A GROWING BUSINESS Drop shipping furniture items will only continue to grow.
Vendors such as Cresent are tied into their Internet retailers’ systems, so they know when a product is ordered as soon as the retailer. Preparation for shipment begins immediately.
“We’ve determined that we just want a very small group of very capable Internet retailers,” Condra said. Drop shipping “is only growing. We all have to make sure the procedures are in place to provide the consumer with the product they want quickly. We’re usually ready to ship the same day.”
He expects more specialists in third-party drop-shipping fulfillment. Overstock.com, for example, developed an entire third-party logistics division.
“If I want to service my Internet business, they’ll rent me space for same-day fulfillment,” Condra said.
Walker expects HMI’s drop ship portion of business to grow significantly as e-commerce retailers hone their merchandising chops.
“Time was, e-retailing was about making masses of product available,” he said. “Now they’ve become curators and merchandisers of product.”
The number of ways and places for shoppers to find goods online will continue to bolster the drop shipping business.
“The consumer today is shopping for goods that meet their personal style using Internet searches, Pinterest, Houzz, etc., that they cannot buy at their local brick and mortar store,” Albrecht noted.
E-commerce’s impact on the furniture sector shows no signs of slowing—and that affects all retailers, whether or not they sell furniture online. Based upon FurnitureCore's national consumer surveys conducted last year, of the consumers who purchased furniture, 17 percent purchased in on the Internet.
Of all consumers purchasing, 40 percent did not consider the Internet for the transaction, but that left 60 percent who did. Of the 60 percent who considered, 12 percent did not shop; 31 percent shopped, but did not buy. Still, that left a significant 17 percent who did purchase online.
To compare how the above consumers fared with independent furniture retailers, check out the accompanying “National Market Performance” graph from FurnitureCore.
Of all consumers purchasing, 48 percent did not consider an independent furniture retailer (excluding regional chains); 21 percent considered, but did not shop; 22 percent shopped, but did not buy; and only 10 percent purchased from an independent store—neither regional chains nor department stores.
NOT STANDING STILL There’s plenty of action among furniture stores moving into the online channel.
Take a look at Blueport Commerce, whose customers include brick-and-mortar retailers who want to extend their reach into e-commerce. Blueport recently announced that its sales are up more than 150 percent through 2014’s first two quarters compared with the first half of 2013. Sales for its Furniture.com e-commerce Web site are up more than 400 percent, comparing the same periods.
Part of the growth is attributable to a number of big name retailers who have joined the platform.
This year, $1.3 billion Canadian retailer The Brick signed up. Seffner, Fla.-based Rooms To Go has joined Furniture.com, and Ontario-based Leon’s plans to invest in Furniture.com and extend its Blueport contract for another seven years.
Those are just a few examples of how the big boys in furniture retailing are making moves. Such investments in time and money speak volumes about the present and future potential of the e-commerce channel for furniture.
FIRST STEPS Andy Bernstein, founder of Internet marketing and Web site services vendor FurnitureDealer.net, has seen growth in e-commerce’s importance in furniture retailing as consumers grow more accustomed to making online purchases.
In its business, Furnituredealer.net is focusing on two aspects to help clients address e-commerce: First, making it easy for consumers to use the site and buy online with a pure shopping experience; and second, communicating to consumers why they should buy from their client versus an online retail specialist.
“Ease of use means less clicking, easier navigation,” Bernstein said. “Second, is getting prices on the site.”
Regarding pricing online, retailers need to consider two aspects: inventoried product and special orders.
Manually pricing products is labor intensive. Bernstein pushes his clients to create Web sites that feature seamless access to price information through a store’s operating system.
“Forty percent of our clients (have sites) that are hand-shaking with their inventory management system,” he said. “It allows them to: one, communicate (to consumers) which products are in stock or in the store to see; second, it allows them to price it out” for special orders.
The hard part is up front, getting the Web site data set to match the store system’s data. Bernstein gave an example of the issues involved: If you’re selling a three-piece sectional or a seven-piece dining room, the shopper sees that as one “item,” while your store system sees an assortment of SKUs.
If a retailer is using photography from manufacturers online, it should match what is being sold. For instance, a vendor’s dining room image might show seven chairs, while a retailer sells dining groups with five chairs.
“Once you put a price on it with a picture, it gets tricky to make sure you get it right,” Bernstein said.
Custom orders pose a particular pricing issue for selling online, but progress is being made there, as well.
“We’ve been working hard on publishing manufacturer price lists that retailers can go to and put on a multiplier to get a price,” Bernstein said.
Manoj Nigam, president and CEO of Charlotte, N.C.-based Internet marketing and services vendor MicroD, believes a time will come when e-commerce won't be an option for furniture retailers, but a necessity.
"It's not a question of if, it's a question of when," he said. "E-commerce in our industry is in the same spot where Web sites were some years ago. Today, nobody questions the need for a Web site that shows your location, the products you carry, the services you provide."
Other retail sectors have created new online expectations for consumers that furniture stores must eventually match.
"The consumer expectations today are 'I can see it anywhere' and 'I can buy it anywhere,'" Nigam said. "When you are serving customers in any retail environment, you need to do it in an omni-channel way. That means the customer can see products in the store, go home an make a decision and purchase online; or find the product online and then come to the store to see and feel it, and make the purchase there."
Take a look at what other retail sectors are doing on line. Electronics, apparel and a host of others are meeting consumers' "see it anywhere, buy it anywhere" expectations.
"If you’re are going to be a retailer of any size, protect your market share, and come across as a company that's keeping up with the times, it's almost a requirement that you provide a click-and-mortar model," Nigam said.
Nigam does believe traditional furniture stores bring some advantages to the table.
"The online retailers' ticket size is typically smaller than that of brick-and-mortar retailers—for now," he said. "If you notice, Amazon is not in furniture in as big a way as appliances and other categories. Furniture is still one of the unique categories where consumers want to touch and feel, and that's a brick-and-mortar advantage.
"Big online retailers have created an awareness and expectation in consumers' minds. What (brick-and-mortar) retailers need to do to compete is to advertise and market in the channels people expect them to be like Google and social media, and promote their advantages" over online-only retailers.
For example, an online retailer can't hold in-store consumer events, and doesn't have a physical store where shoppers can experience the products in person. Retailers should tout their service stance and immediate, local recourse for consumers should problems arise.
"If you look at what's selling online (in furniture), it's mostly simple case goods, and not much in the high end," Nigam said. "If retailers sell specialized (custom order) upholstery, they need to promote that, along with the validation in the showroom of what shoppers see online. It's a huge advantage.
"Whether you sell online or not, advertise the fact that you're local and that you service what you sell."
How can retailers translate their store merchandising for a more impactful Web presence? Nigam had some suggestions. First, instead of single products, why not use a high-quality photograph of showroom vignettes? The items should could be sold as a package, but also allow shoppers to add individual items to their cart. This calls for a Web site robust enough to provide all the necessary information with a click.
"If you merchandise a group setting online with accompanying accessories and rugs, most sophisticated Web sites allow you to not only show that photo, but also have information on the individual items in the group," Nigam said. "We just launched a program with Havertys that allows you to slide in another rug and add that to the shopping cart. … The key is having a Web site robust enough to support your in-store merchandising and create a bridge to online merchandising."
Don't expect an immediate increase in sales once you step into e-commerce.
"I would say that having an online e-commerce presence is insurance in preserving your market share," Nigam said. "You might not have a lot of immediate sales, but not having the (online purchase) option is detrimental in customers' eyes. Hayneedle is selling every day in your market, and if you don't have the presence, you aren't even in the game."
And remember that a Web site with a shopping cart isn't the whole store for e-commerce. Your organization has to support inventory, delivery and after-sale service on items ordered online.
And while average tickets for online furniture purchases might not meet those of brick-and-mortar stores, expect that gap to shrink as consumers become more comfortable with big-ticket purchases via the Internet. MicroD manages Bassett's and Ethan Allen's online custom-order upholstery package.
"We've seen a steady increase in that sort of order online, and volume has steadily increased," Nigam said. He didn't give an exact figure, but the increase "is enough to where they've continued to support the channel."
THINK MOBILE An e-commerce Web site is more than a sales vehicle, it is today’s most valuable digital channel for driving traffic in to a physical store, according to Lance Hanish, co-founding partner of SOPHIS Integrated Marketing Innovations.
In developing that site, make sure to incorporate mobile-friendliness.
“Did you know that mothers turn to mobile when in store to save money?” Hanish asked.
If a retail site isn’t mobile friendly, consumers aren’t going to stay in the store long when browsing on the phone.
With e-commerce becoming more important, consumers have more ways to buy. If they use their phones in your store, make sure your mobile presence stacks up well with the competition.
“Today, everyone has a smart phone,” Bernstein said. “Every product has hundreds, if not thousands, of companies who can deliver it to (consumers), and they are operating inside your four walls through peoples’ smart phones.”
Suzy Teele, COO of Snap Retail, which has 2,500 retail clients across the United States and also works with designers and vendors, noted that starting last year, more online sales came over phones than computers.
“Does your product look good on the phone?” she said. “Use an app for mobile, or build a Web site that’s responsive, that readjusts its size automatically to fit the screen it’s appearing on.”
RETAILER RELEVANCE One way traditional retailers looking to take on e-commerce to compete with pure e-tailers is to do what they do best—talk to customers.
Bernstein is big on a full-service “assisted” shopping cart process.
“We see assistance from the retail associate as the most important part for the local retailers we deal with,” Bernstein said. “Our focus is not on the national-shipping part of e-commerce, but helping retailers do business better in the local market.”
That said, national shipping e-commerce players are a major competitive problem for retailers.
“Amazon wants to be the place where people buy everything,” Bernstein said, adding that a company such as home furnishings retailer Wayfair has the reach to get manufacturers to store product in their warehouses.
“The key is how do we communicate (online) why people should do business with our clients? What are your values, beliefs, services, community involvement? It requires a mind shift for us, because most of that information today resides in people’s heads, it’s not always published,” Bernstein said.
Most retailers tout their great service and knowledgeable, helpful people, along with selection or pricing, as reasons for consumers to shop and buy from an establishment.
“Get into the specific types of services you offer, the types of sales you do that differentiate, the types of financing you offer,” Bernstein said. “And tell them (online) why that matters to them.
“The Internet is going to commoditize a lot of products, and we have to communicate what value the retailer brings.”
Retailers should endeavor to build relationships and trust online. Retailers strive to do that in stores already?
“There’s going to be a huge need for retail salespeople and designers who can listen and help people solve problems online,” Bernstein said. “These people need to become experts at assisting customers over the phone and via chat and must have the tools they need to do that available.”
DEDICATING RESOURCES Do online shoppers browsing an e-commerce site see just the store’s telephone number, or are they directed to a dedicated call center when they want to buy or learn more?
The latter may be the better option. Think about it. Will a potential online customer wanting assistance call the store or go to the store?
Retailers showing particular online sales growth have established dedicated call centers for that segment. That way, the customer doesn’t get put on hold when she calls while the operator looks for the right person to field the inquiry.
“If you talk to the customer, that’s the moment of truth, and some of the best salespeople aren’t comfortable with the technology,” Bernstein noted. To compete with pure e-tailers, “our clients need to try to get people to talk.”
Del Sol Furniture in Phoenix decided to create a dedicated call center for its online sales, which the retailer started last year.
Alex Macias, vice president, had decided to spend time taking Web site-generated calls himself and realized how important they are. After the first day, he realized Del Sol needed to invest in an online sales team and service department.
“Those customers who come to our Web site are as valuable as those who come into the store,” he said. “If your Web site is an online store, today’s online customers have a high expectation of service.”
The first key to staffing such a call center is finding someone on your sales force that truly understands your company. It could be someone who isn’t doing that well on the showroom floor. That person might thrive in an online sales environment.
“Your best sales associates on the floor aren’t always the ones who have the skill for online sales support,” Macias said. “It’s a different skill set.”
A NEW CUSTOMER “There are a lot of people who have nice Web sites who don’t do e-commerce,” Macias said. “We consider our Web site to be our online store, 24-7, where the customers start the process.”
As it began selling online late last year, Del Sol had to make some adjustments. The store had catered traditionally to the Hispanic community with an emphasis on credit.
“That’s not the customer who comes to our Web site,” Macias said. While that traditional customer still leans toward in-store shopping, the online store attracted a much wider variety.
“Furniture retailers either get (e-commerce) or they don’t,” Macias believes. “Is your Web site just a Web site to you, or is it your online store?”
Even if you don’t sell online, it’s still a store.
“Look at leads coming in from the site. If they still think it’s just a Web site, they don’t get it,” he said.
ADDING VALUE ONLINE Furniture retailers have a depth of product knowledge sometimes lacking among pure e-tailers, and they need to make that resource available to online shoppers.
That’s one reason Sam's Furniture & Appliances in Ft. Worth, Texas, incorporates a live chat function on its e-commerce site.
“It's a great tool and gives customers another way to make contact with our stores when they have questions,” said Seth Weisblatt, vice president.
Consider incorporating e-mail marketing into your e-commerce strategy.
“I'm not talking about just e-blasts with promotions,” Weisblatt said. “We've started using prospect lead generation and it has had a great success. A customer provides their information to us via a pop up on the item page they are on, we will then follow up with targeted promotions for the products they were browsing for.”
Sam’s is constantly updating its Web site.
“From graphics, to product catalog, making sure every item has a price and stock availability,” Weisblatt said. “The ‘mission statement’ of our Web site is to provide customers the information they need to select Sam's Furniture as their place to shop.”
It’s all part of the retailer’s seamless shopping experience, whether the customer is in the store, on her computer, or using her smartphone or tablet.
“The more information we can provide customers the better our success will be online and in the store,” Weisblatt said.
SAVING THE DAY Goedeker’s, a furniture and appliance retailer in St. Louis, stepped into e-commerce after the recession hit in 2008 and crippled its business.
Owner Steve Goedeker said he launched e-commerce not as a grand strategy, but to keep the business afloat.
After starting e-commerce with 15 brands and around 4,000 products, the retailer now has more than 200 brands and a selection of more than 180,000 available items.
“We were just at the beginning of the recession in 2008 and were looking for a way to survive the challenges,” he said. “We started with a single table with two people, one who would answer the phone and one who worked on the Web site” adding and removing products.
As online sales increased, the Web site team went from two people seated at a table in the showroom to a separate, walled-off room with about a dozen people. The department moved upstairs when the online-employee count surpassed 20.
“Eventually we had to completely redo our building to accommodate more staff and inventory,” Goedeker said
Business grew to the point that two years ago, Goedeker’s converted 45,000 square feet of its 50,000-square-foot showroom into warehouse space and the hub of its online operations.
Selling online involved a tremendous cultural shift at Goedeker’s, with an explosion of information and an intimidating learning curve.
“It’s like starting all over again,” Goedeker said.
The Goedekers had no shipping experience and minimal knowledge of marketing.
“The challenges have been many,” Goedeker said. “From not knowing anything about how to start advertising, how to ship, how to deal with damages, hiring and training people. We literally were learning as we went along.”
There were also control issues. Along with delivery companies handling fulfillment came the need to hand over part of the business to an outside party.
SHOULD YOU SELL ONLINE? E-commerce represented 6.2 percent of total retail sales in first-quarter 2014, according to Snap Retail’s Teele, and is up 12 percent over the same period last year.
If there’s a single compelling reason to online for sales, she believes it’s that someone selling at least some of the product you offer is doing so online.
“A competitor might be supplying online the same item or service you do,” Teele said. “It might be a big-box retailer’s online (store) or an e-tailer with online sales only.”
She added that e-commerce is the No. 1 channel for electronics; No. 2 for apparel and accessories; and No. 3 for consumer packaged goods.
“It’s never flattening,” Teele said.