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From Home Furnishing Business

Coach's Corner: What Is the State of YOUR Industry?

While this is good data to have and quite often provides insight about overall trends and future forecasts, I sometimes wonder how pertinent or actionable it really is for most of us that are down in the trenches fighting for every customer opportunity and the resulting sales.

I do think it is great to know how the American consumer is feeling about their life situation, which is influenced by employment levels, income growth, home sales and other economic indicators. We use the Consumer Confidence reports to give us a feeling for how all of these factors impact people’s willingness to invest in big-ticket items like cars and home furnishings.

It is also good to know what retail channels consumers are choosing to buy from. This can tell us the relative level of service, price points and type of shopping experience they may be seeking.

Historically I have also found that national information about what products and suppliers are doing well can be very useful. I call it “Who’s Hot and Who’s Not”. With a few exceptions, an item or line that is selling well nationally is a good bet for just about any market in the country. Fabrics and finishes might vary by region, but a good frame or style will usually carry its weight on any floor.

In addition, most highly effective marketing ideas, business systems and processes that are doing a good job in one region, will also help businesses in all the other regions, as will the majority of successful training programs, Web Site improvements and other business enhancements. These things are pretty universal in their application and ROI.

Therefore, much of what we see in the big picture does indeed trickle down to the local level and knowing about it can give us a nice heads-up about what we can be doing in our marketing, merchandising, sales and service efforts to give our potential customers what they want. However, while it is very helpful stuff to know, it is not the be-all, end-all. This type of information should influence what you do, but in order to properly plan your strategy to maximize your results, you must dig much deeper to gain a thorough understanding of what is happening much closer to home, in your backyard – your local market. That is what I call “The State of YOUR Industry”!

So while “The State of Our Industry” is nice to know, the national sales numbers and performance trends do not necessarily provide solid guidance or direction about how or what you should be doing. Certainly, benchmarking and comparing your results with the overall industry or retailers in totally different markets can be a good place to start and could provide points of interest to investigate further as you study your business. But any final decisions made about actions to take should come from solid, location specific information. It must be focused on what is happening with the consumers in your marketplace, the ones you want to target to create customers. Discovering the important data for your market, studying the consumers who live there and measuring your performance within it, are key starting points for any business planning effort. You must know where you are before you can determine where you can go. Total industry numbers will not give you that, only ground level, local data will.

This is because every market is different. So many things create our consumers situations and the vast majority of them are local, not national. They may be influenced by what is happening nationally or regionally, but that is not always the main driver. As an example, Ford may be doing great in the US, but if they move production and the associated jobs from a plant in your city to Mexico or Canada, the national trend is meaningless to those left unemployed in your market. Another wild card is the weather. As I am writing this article, the Carolinas are being devastated by Hurricane Florence. When we look back next year, I am sure the statistics will show that those states had a terrible month and they will most certainly have under performed the industry. However, in September 2019, as people rebuild and redevelop the area, they will most probably outperform the industry. Such has been the case with much of Texas after Harvey.

Therefore, business opportunities and results vary across the country for many reasons. But it really boils down to knowing exactly how you are performing within your market, studying the local target consumers to determine your potential and then determining how well you are doing with them, so you can find ways to improve and attract more.

As I have said in previous columns, a professional business advisor would approach this process much like a doctor approaches a patient with medical issues. First, the physician would ask a lot of questions to gain a clear understanding of the situation and get ideas about any underlying issues. Obviously, if the patient is at risk, the doctor could decide to recommend surgery immediately or take some other drastic action, but in most cases, the doctor would perform a physical and then order tests to see what could be causing the symptoms. After getting the test results, the doctor determines how at risk the patient is, and designs a treatment course that will help him/her regain their health and perhaps improve it far beyond where they were before the ailment. Trust me, I have had a few serious health issues in the last two years, so I know this process well!

I also understand the business analysis process pretty well too, having observed or participated in many successful projects over my career. It is very similar to the doctor analogy above in that the steps are pretty much the same. It is the tests and treatments that are different. Here is how we would recommend a retail store owner—who is interested in improving the health of their business—should proceed.


Steps to Take

  1. Get a Business Physical – Find a service that will give you reliable, accurate and consistent market share data covering your company’s performance over the past eight quarters. This will allow you to see where you have been and how you are trending. Looking at the movement of your share will tell you if you are healthy, a little sick or deathly ill. If you have been consistently growing your piece of the pie over the past eight quarters, then you are healthy and should keep doing what you are doing. Should you see a small but constant shrinkage, then you have a bug and need to get some treatment to make sure it does not get any worse, because someone is taking business from you. Most scary is when you see a dramatic reduction in your share because it could indicate that you are potentially looking at some rather dire consequences if you don’t reverse the leakage of business. It is best to drill down into your share by major category to see where your main issues might be coming from within your lineup. We have often seen losses in mattresses and/or case goods strongly influence a store’s overall results, while upholstery and motion might be doing fine. You also need to study your sale metrics to see if it is driven by a loss of traffic, lower closing rates or declining average sale. Each cause will require a different treatment.
  2. Study the consumers available in your market and compare them to your actual customers to find opportunities for improvement. This is one of the most useful treatments for any retailer trying to reverse shrinking market share or just drive growth in their business. You must first know who your target customer is and then you need solid data on how many households fit that profile in your market. The next logical step is to define the customers you have sold over the last two years in the same manner and compare the two groups. This will tell you how well you are doing at attracting and selling those you have targeted within your market. Properly done, this treatment will also indicate which ones you are underperforming with, so you can focus on determining how to capture them in the future. The main criteria here is the age for the head of household and the total household income. While there are over a dozen demographics actively tracked by government agencies, these are the two that have the most influence on when people buy furniture and how much they are willing to spend. Knowing this information will help you accurately define your target consumers so that you can find out where they live in your community and focus your marketing efforts on getting more of them them into your store.
  3. Find out where those that chose to buy locally are shopping and buying. This is the most critical information to have before creating any turnaround plan if you are losing chunks of market share. Remember, declining share means that someone is taking business from you. You need to determine who it is and why they are winning the battle for your potential customers in the market. Only then can you work to find out why it is happening and make changes in your marketing, merchandising, selling and/or service efforts to reverse the hemorrhaging. Most end up doing this by gut feel, but the best way is to conduct a professional survey of consumers that recently purchased furniture locally to find out who they considered, who they shopped and from whom they bought. This is the best way to get a complete picture of what is happening competitively in your market and it will give you the most insight into what you must do to take back market share.

There are more steps you can take and as stated, most depend on how sick your business is and what resources you want to invest in the process. Unfortunately, there is no Medicare or Health insurance you can use to help offset the cost of treating a business that is ill. But that does not change the fact that you must actively seek to determine “The State of YOUR Industry” before you create any plan to make it better!

What Sells: There is Change in the Wind

Stationary upholstery still represents over half of all upholstery sales and has enjoyed renewed growth in 2017 and continues in the first half of this year.

What is driving this growth? No linger is the sofa or sofa grouping – sofa/love or sofa/chair, the point around which the room evolves. The sofa, with its many configurations; sectionals, chaise, and the many other choices, have become a functional part of a more casual lifestyle.

“We have seen great success with our frames that offer deep, plush seating as well as fashion. This frame specifically can fit in a variety of spaces and is great for day to day family living. Everyone seems to love the ‘curl up’ furniture!”

 - Celeste Brayton, Product Development Manager, Emerald Home Furnishings

The demand of the consumer is more. More selection, that is. According to FurnitureCore research, a better selection was the most challenging issue as presented below.

Style is changing to meet the need of the new industry customer. While the Baby Boomers fade into the sunset, Generation X and the older Millennials are searching for a new look.

In a recent study of urban markets where style direction starts, FurnitureCore found that consumers under 35 favor Mid-Century design twice as much as those over 35.

As can be seen from the table, other styles are gaining favor with the emerging consumer target.

If we move beyond the very subjective definition of style, we find that consumers are moving away from the “plum overstuff” in favor of “sleek tight body cover.” 

“As a category, swivel chairs are in high demand due to their functionality that allows individuals to swivel to a conversation, a breath-taking view, or a big-screen moment.”

-Del Starnes, President/COO, Taylor King

A contributing factor is the continuing reduction of size of living space. Again, from FurnitureCore research on urban living, the “dream” style of consumers living in smaller spaces favor style other than traditional.

Stationary upholstery will always be the base of decorating one’s living space. Manufacturers today must recognize the taste of the new target consumer and the restriction of their environment.

Take 5: Jim Collins

Home Furnishings Business: How would you describe current business conditions in furniture for Lectra and what are the biggest challenges?

We see a robust market for technology in the furniture sector. It’s one of our key markets for Lectra North America. Companies with old technology are looking to upgrade to the latest and greatest, and to do more with technology. That’s where we have been hitting the market the last few months. We have a very high-tech piece of equipment and getting people to adopt that technology is our biggest challenge. The products that we are supplying can increase throughput, save material and labor. There is a long sales cycle on it because it’s new and almost futuristic, and it’s difficult for some to get their arms around it right now. Cutting machines used to be seen as doing just one thing, but now they are a real driver of profitability. If run correctly, they can improve the profitability of the entire company. North Carolina is the largest market, but there are clusters of manufacturing around the U.S. and Canada. A couple of areas of Indiana have quite a few manufacturers that supply local markets and there are other areas in the Midwest. Los Angeles has a robust local market.

HFB: A major driving force for Lectra’s product is the perceived need for customization to satisfy the needs and wants of millennials? How does this tie with their tendency for lack of commitment? 

Our Made To Order solution is geared toward millennials. They might want a fabric, but six inches longer and two inches deeper. We have the system that can do that on the fly. We have geared our Made To Order to specially handle that kind of business.  Millennials want a piece of furniture in their own style and they don’t want to wait eight weeks for it. So the manufacturing has to be done in the U.S. to maintain that kind of delivery schedule.

HFB: Will the potential tariffs on “cut and sew” from offshore drive the production back to the U.S.? Will this impact your adoption rate and what effect will the labor shortage in manufacturing have?

We have heard that a couple of large manufacturers are considering bringing production back. Things are on the path for speedier delivery. Tariffs have accelerated their plans. Back in the day, if you picked something from the La-Z-Boy gallery you could wait 12 weeks. No one is accepting that now. That is supporting our business. Obviously, there is a scarcity of labor in the U.S. Our solutions help speed up the process and reduction of labor allows them to move production to the U.S. Labor costs in China are increasing as well. Also, China is looking for American goods. Labor is a big problem across all manufacturing. The furniture industry needs degreed engineering people now with the complexity of pieces and the complexity of manufacturing, they really need top-notch people and companies are starting to recruit a higher level of engineers. A lot of that is coming over from the automotive seating business, which has had lean manufacturing in place for a long time. They are big in to Six Sigma and that has moved into furniture over the past five years.

HFB: A major tangible justification for capital investment is material savings. Ekornes stated that five to six percent is typical? What is the starting investment for cutting?

Material savings is one of the key drivers for ROI for any technology. Our customers have been using CAD and cutting for 30 to 35 years. They have experienced the major savings from moving to automation years ago. For the last couple of years, we have been driving new ways of accomplishing fabric savings. We’ve tested algorithms, developed better matching and our machines cut tighter. Twenty years ago we would have talked about fabric savings in the 20 percent range. Now, it’s in the three to five percent range and that is considered huge. Manufacturers have moved to way more expensive materials. We have seen our latest machine, Virga, in its first couple of tests in North Carolina, achieve three to nine percent in material savings. The way the machine looks at fabric, we are able to capture some of those savings. It’s the same for leather, too. We talk about major savings going from one cutting technology to another as being in the one to two percent range. That could be $1 million. In the past, the cutting area of manufacturing has been a big black box with companies doing whatever they can do to get parts cut. In the 1990s, when the market was rolling, they were like, ‘give me another machine, give me another one.’ When the Great Recession hit, they may have had 15 machines when they really only needed three. That brought the whole concept of lean manufacturing into these companies that didn’t have it before. The thinking was, ‘I’ve got 10 machines, but they are only running at 35 percent. If I had four running at 80 percent, I can save five percent on material. It has been driving a transformation. Cutting has always been like a panic mode business. Our system is one of the only ones out there that gives the cutting room more visibility. The same transformation is going on on the wood side as well.

HFB: What’s next in Lectra’s R&D pipeline?

“We just launched our Made To Order platform and we plan to expand it throughout our product line. The Virga [Lectra’s new single-ply cutting system] is one of our new machines and we plan to make this platform the normal way people do business. We are going to offer it on some of our older machines, going back to 2007. The cutting business isn’t really about cutting. It’s about the management of the entire process and it’s about driving savings. We do demos and events for people and very little of it is about cutting. It’s all about management and data flow. It’s become more important than just cutting. R&D is a long process. We have more than 250 employees in France working on R&D. We will pick specific customers, interview them, find out their needs and find out where they are growing and build with them. We will roll out new machinery even to a pilot situation on the factory floor. When we are convinced it is ready to go, we will then kick it out. 

Editor's Letter: A Cure for Declining Traffic

Flash forward—today the consumer is time strapped and relies on the Internet to make the buying process more efficient. Today, two stores shopped is the norm and, according to recent research, competitive shopping is not as important. To summarize recent research, the consumer indicated, “I go to the internet to select the stores I want to shop. I put them in rank order as to selection, price, and expected retail experience. If the first store is as presented on their website, I purchase. It is almost like a dating website—no need to over sell. Sooner or later, you must have that first date.”

Never before have retailers had the assurance that for 72% of furniture purchases they will have the opportunity to make a presentation.

The opportunity is there to impress. However, the industry must move beyond a catalog of products and present their unique selling proposition.

Many exciting things are happening to engage the consumer before they make their decision to shop. Unfortunately, many of these exciting things are happening with other retail channels pursuing the consumer purchase.

Let’s go industry: make the consumers ours again!

Cover Story: The Internet An Industry Perspective

Prior to the Internet, consumers followed the recommendation of friends and family as to which retailer to shop. Today, that source is one of the last steps that a consumer will process on the way to a purchase. The graphic below presents the steps by two distant groups: the Millennials and the Generation X / Baby Boomers.


It is obvious from the accompanying graph that for over 50% of consumers that have purchased furniture, the first stop is research on the Internet. According to the same research, in total 72% of all consumers use the Internet during the purchasing process.

The conclusion is that the Internet has become the advertising medium of choice for the furniture purchaser. This is not to say that Internet advertising is the only source because the consumer must be influenced by other sources, to be enticed to visit the site initially through other traditional or digital advertising. The Internet is a primary touchpoint for everyone, but not everyone is using it for advertising purposes.

Without a doubt, the Internet is embedded into the buying process. An important measure is the differences between traffic into the store and the unique visitors to the website in that more than 72% of consumers visit the retailer’s site before purchasing.

The graphic below illustrates the measurement.

Source: FurnitureCore

It is true that prior to visiting the retailer, the consumer may have visited the retailer’s website in the prior month. Based on FurnitureCore research, 25% of the difference between visits to the website and a visit to the store consists of consumers educating themselves and indicates they will purchase beyond the month. Research from PERQ, a company that boosts website conversion through online guided shopping solutions, shows this at the beginning of the sales funnel, but 17% will buy within 2 weeks.

According to PERQ’s CEO Scott Hill, there is a significant opportunity. “Stores are getting traffic to the website and in some cases, paying a large amount to do so. This data shows the importance of having a way to stay in front of these consumers for the next 90 days while they decide their purchase destination.  Nurturing these consumers through just e-mail marketing has proven to double the amount of consultations being set with sales associates. This is because, when on the website the first time, they were not always ready to schedule a consultation.  But, 45, [or] 60 days later, all of a sudden getting an e-mail with an easy "Schedule a Consultation" button in it, allows them to engage when they are ready.”  

Hill provided some interesting statistics (average).

  • Website visitor – call to action click 12%
  • Conversion from click to lead – 29%
  • Conversion from lead to sale – 12%

According to Hill, the best performing clients have converted 20% or more of their leads into in-store sales. Hill added to the results, saying, “By giving consumers a way to research and engage that they value, local dealers can appeal to the type of consumer who will eventually come in-store and are able to learn more about the consumer prior to their purchase, to set automated nurturing efforts based on the personalized information learned.  This allows for the consumer to better plan their purchase prior to visiting in-store the way they like, and allows the local dealer to stay in front of the consumer during their research process and for a personal reach out from a sales associate.” 

A major concern with the design of the website is the impact of intruding into the consumer’s web-based research. It is documented that unsolicited intrusions increases the “bounce rate” of the site.

A more friendly approach is used by DesignCliq, an industry provider that helps furniture retailers realize the potential of internet marketing by offering a series of Style Preference Quizzes as an information feature on a retailer’s site. The tool assists the consumer in defining their unique style. The graphic below illustrates the output that is emailed to the consumer. In essence, it is the consumer’s “style DNA.”

Fred Star, founder of DesignCliq, offered some interesting statistics:

  • DesignCliq builds immediate-long term customer loyalty—average 39% of visitors completing DesignCliq Style Quiz will register (name, Email address, and zip code) versus 4-6% Internet average
  • Visitors’ DesignCliq engagement runs 7.14 minutes versus 1.6 minutes internet visitor site average
  • DesignCliq Quiz establishes new retailer customer relationships—83% of visitors are new retailer customers
  • Retailer enjoys immediate and lasting customer loyalty—33% of registrants will purchase within 12 months
  • Retailers income—average DesignCliq Quiz customer purchase runs 29% higher than store average, as style becomes more important than price

With all brick and mortar retailers facing declining traffic, trying to influence the consumer at the one place they know potential customers (72%) will make that decision to shop is understandable.

When consumers that had purchased furniture were asked to rank the advertising media that had the most influence, the internet was number one for all consumers under 35 and 31% for older consumers. The graphic below presents the influence of all.

The importance of the other media should be noted. For example, Direct Mail is number three for Millennials and number two for older customers.

The major question for brick and mortar retailers is ‘when will the Ecommerce bubble stop’? Impact Consulting, a management consulting and retail operations firm specializing in furniture and home furnishings, offers research for durable furniture purchases which states that currently the level is comparable for both consumers under 35 and consumers over 35. The table below illustrates.


The Internet Has Changed Everything - Including Furniture Retailing

Perspective submitted by Micro D 

Ever since the Internet became commercially available around 1989, much has been chronicled about how it would, and indeed has, changed everything. Just consider how it has transformed the way we stay informed, communicate, socialize, work, and shop. There’s simply no denying that in a short 30-year span, the World Wide Web has profoundly impacted our everyday lives.

The Birth of Ecommerce

Changes in consumer behavior are also driving a digital transformation for home furnishings manufacturers and dealers. Since the launch of the first ecommerce websites early and mid-1990s, companies large and small have embraced the connectivity, convenience, and power of the Internet to support our changing lifestyles.

Early marketers of books (Amazon 1995), online auctions (Ebay 1995), and other inexpensive and easy-to-ship products launched a new wave of ecommerce. While some home furnishings fall into this category, major furniture purchases and bulkier products like sofas and beds that typically require more research and consideration came online later.

According to Manoj Nigam, chairman and CEO of online furniture solutions innovator MicroD, “The earliest home furnishings websites started appearing around 1995, followed by the first successful furniture ecommerce sites in the year around 2000.”

One such early industry adopter was Carolina Rustica, a retailer of high-end furniture, lighting, bedding, and accessories. The company became nationally recognized as an industry leader in ecommerce for its progressive user experience, multichannel strategy, and growth that averaged 25% per year prior to being acquired by Mattress USA Inc, in 2012. Former president Richard Sexton, who now serves as chief product officer for MicroD explained, “In 2000, if you had a website with products and a checkout option, you were in business. Almost all the competitors I faced back then are now gone with the notable exception of CSNStores, who we now know as Wayfair.”

The Growth of Ecommerce

While furniture has lagged many other product categories in ecommerce, the relatively young online market for furniture has grown significantly in recent years. According to the U.S. Census Bureau[1], in 2004 ecommerce sales accounted for only 3.2% of the total furniture industry with store sales making up 93.4 %. The share of ecommerce grew to 15.3% in 2017, mostly at the expense of in-store sales. Since then, market analysts widely report steady growth of online home furnishings that consistently outperforms in-store growth rates.

Perhaps of even greater significance is the impact that the Internet is making on in-store furniture sales.  MicroD’s Nigam believes that, “while some number of consumers are warming to making furniture purchases online, many more are using furniture sites to interact with products and make key buying decisions before they visit the store to finalize the purchase. When it comes to their bigger and most important purchases, most furniture shoppers still want to see and touch it in the store. The difference is that, rather than traveling to and shopping at multiple stores, they now visit just one or two stores that have the product they have fallen in love with online. That makes the quality of a retailer’s website even more important and why we focus so much on improving the customer experience.”

His observation is supported by analysis conducted by Statistica that shows 58% of U.S. home products in-stores were ‘digitally-influenced’ in 2016. Similar studies conducted by Google and others indicate that furniture sites will influence about two-thirds of all furniture sales in 2018.

Future Progression of Ecommerce

Looking at modern industry websites, it is easy to understand this growth. In contrast to sites of 15 years ago, new technologies provided by vendors have vastly improved the online shopping experience.

Difficult to navigate webpages have been replaced with fully integrated merchandising and ecommerce platforms. Flat product photos are being replaced with 3D assets that engage consumers to view products from every angle, get more accurate color representations, drape various upholstery fabrics, configure and personalize their product choices. Augmented Reality (AR) tools take the experience to a whole new level by enabling shoppers to virtually bring new products into their own home to confirm the look, fit, color, placement and more to be confident in their purchase.   

According to Sexton, “Today’s furniture leaders are better adapting to market demands, leveraging their physical presence advantages, and making better use of visual technologies like 3D and AR.”

While many more advancements are certainly on the way, industry-focused technology partners will not only participate in the change – they will likely continue to be the agent for change in the home furnishings industry. 

The Internet: Not One Size Fits All

Perspective submitted by BluePort Commerce 

The Internet hasn’t impacted everything equally or in the same way.

On one hand, goods and services where “information” makes up the bulk of an offering – think music, books, photos, advertising, banking, TV, radio, newspapers and the like – have been fundamentally transformed.  

On the other hand, areas involving more physical bulk have been more incrementally altered, mostly around the edges where information impacts a transaction that is primarily physical – think restaurants, car services, travel and, of course, dating.

Retail is somewhere in the middle.  While shopping is an information-rich process, particularly in the area of marketing, it can also be deeply dependent on physical interaction with a product and its delivery. 

Today, just under 10% of retail sales are transacted online with Amazon on track to do 50% of those transactions this year.Most of this volume is in easy to understand, easy to ship items, where the Internet’s strengths are most easily leveraged.

It’s in more complex categories like furniture, however, where the Internet’s impact on retail can best be evaluated.  And, it’s by looking at these categories as the other 90% of retail transforms that the Internet’s future impact on retail can best be predicted.

The First Wave of Digital Retail:  The Amazon of [Everything]

Despite looking the part, Jeff Bezos wasn’t a bookseller who put his bookstore online. Bezos was a hedge fund manager who shrewdly selected books to be the beachhead for Amazon, the website he launched in 1994.  Books - easily understood, easily shipped, with a brick and mortar shopping experience easily disrupted by providing vast selection – proved right in the internet’s retail wheelhouse.

Amazon’s success led to a frenzy of copycats, applying the Amazon model to less ideally suited categories powered by a torrent of capital willing to fund them to do so.

The fundamental premise of these early dotcom models was the promise of vast selection at low prices, without the real estate or personnel expense of opening a store.  In other words, more stuff, cheaper. 

In categories where stores didn’t provide much value to shoppers, dotcom models thrived at the expense of suddenly useless brick and mortar players.  Retailers like Blockbuster, Borders and Tower Records, all stores that essentially sold physically packaged information, didn’t stand a chance.

At the same time, retailers whose stores did provide value to shoppers, as a place to experience and/or efficiently obtain a product, rebuffed early dotcom insurgents like WebVan, and, of course, my

The First

As an attempted pure-play, was a perfect case study of a retail category stubbornly refusing to hop in an Amazon box. With over 250 smart, committed employees and nearly unlimited financial resources, we 

developed amazing technology for marketing and selling furniture.

The economics of doing so, however, were horrendous.  

Furniture isn’t easy for shoppers to understand online.  As a result, we had to lower prices significantly to prompt “it’s so cheap, I’ll take a chance” purchases.  And, once we sold a sofa, the expense of delivering it was punishing. 

Our delivered margins were minimal, which when combined with the usual marketing expense of attracting shoppers online meant we lost hundreds of dollars on every order. 

When ultimately closed, I spoke to a number of top 25 furniture retailers who were unsurprised by - and admittedly somewhat happy about - our demise.  But, they also hinted that we were on to something, sharing that they’d had hundreds of shoppers in their stores carrying printouts, ready to buy. 

It wasn’t that hadn’t impacted furniture retail it just wasn’t the same type of impact as the internet had on categories more readily suited for an Amazon box.

With ill-suited dotcoms closing in droves and VC funding evaporating in the “nuclear winter” that followed, it seemed possible that vast swaths of retail would remain unaffected by the Internet.  Then, Steve Jobs relit the Internet’s retail fuse.

The first iPhone launched in 2007.  Suddenly the Internet wasn’t confined to a bleak looking PC or laptop in your home or office.  It was in your hand, it was personal, and it was everywhere. 

Moreover, the iPhone unleashed two radical new capabilities.  Its camera unlocked social media and democratized content creation. GPS finally anchored the Internet in the physical world.

Suddenly, the Internet was ready to disrupt two key pillars of traditional retail – media and location.

The Second Wave of Digital Retail: Enabling vs. Replacing Stores

Whereas the first wave of Digital Retail focused on replacing the store, these new capabilities made the second wave about enabling stores.  As a result, this wave has had a far more profound impact on more of the retail landscape, particularly on big-ticket categories like furniture. Furniture retailers’ tried and true tactics of attracting customers – TV, Print and Radio – have been upended, with the internet both garnering shoppers’ attention, and raising the bar for smart, personalized advertising that traditional media can’t match. 

The Internet is now in shoppers’ hands while they’re out shopping, raising the bar for synchronicity between the information they get online, and experiences in physical stores.

The New Retail Imperative

At one time, the Internet represented little more than a cheap way to open another store. It was, for many retailers, optional.  Most retailers in big-ticket categories like furniture sat out that first phase, deciding that Amazon-style ecommerce wasn’t for them.

Today, a great retail website – the first place people land after seeing a retailers advertising, the means by which shoppers decide to allocate scarce time to visit a physical store, and a constant mobile companion inside that store – is no longer optional.  Not just another store, a retailer’s website must now be their flagship store.

The Next Wave:  Unique Solutions for Unique Product Categories

We are still in the early innings of the second wave of digital retail, as retailers adopt digital marketing strategies and point them towards increasingly powerful websites.  For most retailers, there is a long way to go in both of these areas.  In furniture, this transformation is just beginning.

At the same time, this transformation, nascent as it is, isn’t hard to predict.  Other categories further down the Internet adoption curve provide a playbook for how retail will evolve in categories like furniture. 

Perhaps more interesting is how furniture will evolve differently from other categories once this baseline digital competency is established.  How will the Internet impact furniture retail and other big-ticket categories next?  That has little to do with what the Internet can do for furniture retailers, and everything to do with what shoppers want it to do for them.

The Ideal Furniture Shopping Experience circa 2018

When it comes to furniture and the Internet, shoppers want something different.

A June 2018 survey asked 2,000 shoppers of all ages to describe their ideal shopping experiences on two dimensions: 

  • Whether they preferred shopping in a store or online
  • Whether they wanted help shopping, or wanted to go it alone.

The result was striking and powerful evidence of something that those of us in this industry have felt for some time:  Furniture shopping is a uniquely omnichannel experience, on both of these dimensions. 

Future of Furniture Retail

80% of people prefer to shop in stores for furniture, and 50% want help when they do so.

It is in enabling and activating these shopping preferences that the Internet will ultimately most deeply impact furniture.  Just like Amazon did for shoppers’ simpler preferences for books way back when.  

In furniture, that means making store visits easy and efficient – as simple as making a reservation with Open Table or getting a car with Uber. Engaging one of retailers’ biggest assets – salespeople, currently on the sideline of digital retail – need to be providing the assistance shoppers want, both online and off.  It is meeting unique requirements like these that will unlock the Internet’s true impact on furniture, and on the other 90% of retail.

Arguably, the Internet’s only superpower is to get people what they want more efficiently.  Thankfully for furniture retailers, furniture shoppers want a store and some help.  To the extent that Amazon-style businesses (or Amazon itself) capture share in furniture, it’s because brick and mortar retailers have failed to deliver an experience that feels easy, relevant and personalized.   Those retailers who leverage the Internet to do so will prove as disruptive to the future of retail as those first dotcom insurgents, twenty-five years ago.

The Evolution, Optimizing for Mobile

Perspective submitted by Commerce

The Internet has revolutionized the computer and communications world like nothing we’ve ever seen before. It is the ultimate mechanism for moving information. From its roots on the PC or laptop, to today’s mobile devices, the Internet is everywhere including in shoppers’ hands before, during, and after shopping. As technology continues to evolve we need to harness the emerging technology to have an impact on the way home furnishings companies market and sell their products.

Andy Bernstein, CEO of agrees.

“I believe that the Internet is one of the greatest if not the greatest invention we have ever come up with, but it really only does one thing. It moves information, and does it incredibly well.”

Whether you are a consumer shopping for furniture, a retailer who wants to find perspective customers, a manufacturer who wants to sell to a retailer, or you simply want to share your product and tell your story to end-consumers, moving information is part of the equation.

Fifteen years ago, many in the industry thought it was too costly to extract data from a retailers POS system and too labor intensive to include pricing on websites. Additionally, retailers were concerned about making their prices available on the Internet.  The initial thought was that once a retailer puts their prices on the Internet for the world to see, it would become easier for a competitor to beat that price, or for a consumer to use that price as leverage for negotiating elsewhere. There were pros and cons for both sides, but the mindset was “we need to focus on other things right now”. That’s no longer the case.

“Five years ago, we declared war on our customers’ sites that didn’t have prices on them,” Bernstein says. “Today almost all of our clients’ sites have pricing. It’s a massive amount of work but it’s necessary. At least half of our clients’ sites now connect to their POS software as well as their inventory system. Now we can communicate inventory, location and real pricing information.”

The retailers’ website is where many customers are making their initial furniture purchasing decisions. Searching for furniture that fits their needs and finding information about cost and delivery is a time saver. Visitors must have a good experience or we risk losing them as potential customers. Offering a sub standard shopping experience is something retailers can’t afford to do.

“At we’ve always hired digital natives. In most cases, they are recent college graduates with a good working understanding of the Internet. As long as they are good learners, they can learn the furniture part along the way,” Bernstein said. “But one of the things we realized is there were very few people in our company — who were creating information being used by furniture shoppers — that had first hand experience with furniture shopping. Since many of our employees were recent college graduates either still living at home or living on their own with hand-me-down furniture, we knew they had not walked in the shoes of our consumer,” he said. “We get about 4.5 million visitors per month on our network of websites from people who are actively shopping for furniture. So, it’s important that our team understand that journey. We decided to launch a training initiative and bonus program and gave employees who completed the training $2000 each to go furniture shopping. The goal was for them to really be a part of the experiences and the hassles of shopping and owning nice furniture,” Bernstein continued. “We got clubbed over the head,” he said. “The first thing we noticed during the initiative was that if you don’t show prices on your website, it’s useless. It’s hard to tell the difference between a $500 sofa and a $5000 sofa. They look the same. So, if you don’t show the prices on your website, the tool becomes less valuable.”

Now, mobile is changing the game. Devices like smartphones, iPads, and tablets are dramatically changing the way consumers shop and how furniture retailers should manage their business. We know that customers are using their main weapon of choice— the phone in their pocket— to access the Internet.

“ Over 55% of the traffic across our network is coming from mobile devices,” said Bernstein. “Very quickly mobile became the dominant way for people to access the Internet, which makes sense because we have our phones with us all the time now.”

With 85% of all searches for furniture beginning on the web, and mobile web searches exceeding desktop searches, furniture retailers must have websites that are optimized for mobile.

Mobile marketing is also becoming increasingly popular for retailers with tools like location-based marketing, SMS marketing, and mobile search ads allowing retailers to customize offers at just the right time. “It’s not easy to shift the mindset to be a mobile-first company, but the consumer shifted a long time ago and the furniture industry must do the same,” Bernstein said.

Bernstein believes we need to reinvent everything to be ‘mobile first’ and figure out how to create amazing experiences for the consumer. “Technology providers, including us, are creating friction, frustration and hassle in the process. Whether you are a retail employee servicing a customer or a consumer just trying to do business with a store, we are doing things that make it really difficult and we need to fix that. Our company is doing a lot of little things, as opposed to one or two big things. We are trying to look at every touch point and find ways to do things better.”

According to Bernstein, “We are looking at every single aspect of the consumer shopping experience and every aspect of the details to better understand the communication and information needs between the consumer and the retailer. We believe the consumer is using the Internet before they ever step foot in the store, as well as when they are in the store and even after they leave the store. They expect to use their main weapon of choice —the smartphone in their pocket—to access the Internet as part of their shopping journey.”

Bernstein says is having a profound impact on consumer expectations. He believes experience has trained us to be frustrated by any tiny little thing that is not quite as good as the Amazon experience. But, big box and brick and mortars are responding to Amazon’s Prime Day. Target and Best Buy have done some incredible things to make it so that consumers can use the Internet to find which products are available at which locations. “I’ve used both platforms and while Best Buys’ was a good experience, at the same time it was horrible compared to what Amazon provides,” Bernstein noted.

“So, If Best Buy and Target are struggling to deliver an experience that can satisfy a customer in a world of expectations set by Amazon, how do you think my customers feel? That scares me and keeps me up every night.  Amazon is making a huge push into our category. My clients, the independent brick and mortar furniture retailer, are for the most part, a lot closer to flat instead of growing and growing, so we are looking into every single aspect of the customer experience from what they are researching online, to when they find products, to how they are managing their process, to how they are interacting with the salespersons. It’s a really hard mindset shift for companies like mine to make.” has focused a lot on sight engagement tools. “Basically we built tools that engage customers. We ask them questions to understand what they are really interested in so we can personalize and automate a lot of different things, to continue to deepen our understanding of each person.  We’re obtaining granular data one customer at a time,” Bernstein said. “We are programming the website to have a software brain that behaves much more like a salesperson would but it’s performing marketing functions. We are creating customized offers, but they are low on the totem pole of what really matters. I am far more excited about the ability to successfully understand, assist and recommend product solutions that match. “ Bernstein continued, “What’s far more valuable and harder to do is to develop the ability to more expertly make matches, not just make matches and discount them, but to make better matches by listening and understanding, but we still have a long way to go.”

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