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.”