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From Home Furnishing Business

Editor's Letter: It’s Time for the Sprint

The obvious question is, “What happened to furniture stores’ share of the rebound?” The answer is that it is in the BACKLOG. At the end of September, on average, stores had a 10-15% backlog. In other words, you just need to ship.

You just thought to yourself, “easier said than done.” While enduring all that the last six months has delivered you need to sprint to the fi nish line to make your year. The task of securing merchandise while minimizing cancellations will be more of a challenge than coping with the shutdown and subsequent reopening. Finding and motivating a workforce will increase in diffi culty. However, the industry is up to the challenge. While facing this challenge, we should consider why the other distribution channels that have a 52% share of market already have recouped last year’s shipments and more. A topic for further discussion.

Cover Story: SHOPPING BEHAVIOR EVOLVES AS THE PANDEMIC CONTINUES

Slowly consumers returned to shopping at regular home furniture stores, not so much in quantity, but with a commitment to purchase leading to higher close rates and average tickets.

Higher WRITTEN SALES
averaging more than 50%— and at times doubling the same week last year—created an exuberance along with a fatigued sales team. Beyond what was obviously pent-up demand, there was a feeling that consumers had rediscovered their homes and would continue to allocate disposable income to home furnishings. The statistics supported that optimistic outlook. According to consumer personal expenditures (CPE), furniture has rebounded, recapturing the loss in March/April.

To better understand this shift, FurnitureCore, Inc., parent company to Home Furnishings Business, conducted a national survey of consumers who purchased furniture after March of 2020 to those that purchased in 2019.

Without a doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a seismic shift in the consumers’ lifestyle. In general, our focus moved toward the home and away from travel. The benefi - ciary of this shift has been furniture along with other large purchases that had “stay at home” appeal. The most immediate need was home computers to address the transition to virtual learning and working from home (56% increase) and communication (29% increase). Leisure travel declined (3%), but not as much as the purchase of new cars. Table A compares the ranking of importance with “1” being the most important of five major purchases.

The belief is that once the immediate need for computers and communications are met, there will be a continuing shift to the importance of furniture.

As with most major purchases, the acquisition satisfi ed an internal need as well as an external statement to friends and acquaintances. After the pandemic, the external satisfaction has become more important. As can be seen from TABLE B, the external statements have become more important, such as refl ected by the consumer’s sense of STYLE and PROSPERITY.

Over the past twenty plus years, acquiring home furnishings has migrated from the “lady of the house” to a more joint endeavor. Interestingly enough, with time on their hands, the male has pursued furnishings with a passion. Table D compares the before and after.

This trend could be significant considering that males are more inclined to purchase online. There has been a sizeable shift in who initiates the furniture purchase. Again, the male leads the way as can be seen in Table E.

This is a signifi cant change that will impact how furniture is advertised. What are the advertising messages that will infl uence the male compared to female? All of this will be addressed later.

With this shift in the buying process, was there a change in the basic motivation for the home furnishings expenditure? The change in lifestyle dictated by the pandemic has created a surge in home purchases. As can be seen in Table F this surge has been refl ected in purchases instigated by recent moves and remodeling.

A special note should be made in regard to a signifi cant increase in buying for the second home. Free from the constraint of working at the physical offi ce, consumers escaped to the mountains and the seashore.

Following the trends of the previous fi ndings, the male overwhelmingly ventured out into the new world of shopping using a mask and following social distancing recommendations. Table G presents the statistics.

The survey fi ndings supported the anecdotal evidence that consumers turned to the Internet to conduct research before venturing out to the stores with 56.37% indicating the Internet was the fi rst step in the buying process, up from 47.98% the year before. Traditional advertising, such as television, newspapers, and magazines declined to be replaced by recommendations from friends and relatives. Table H contains the breakdown.

This finding was substantiated by a national sample of traditional furniture retailers’ unique visitors to their website.

However, note the trending down of visits to the Internet after Labor Day. Should we have concerns? After the initial shock of being sidelined by being designated as “non-essential” independent retailers fought back and retained their share of the consumer demand. However, the Internet gained a signifi cant share of the market. Table J presents the statistics.

It is interesting to note the loss in the lifestyle stores and regional chains. A contributing factor could have been the length of time stores were closed initially. Owner/operators are more driven to keep the doors open. Contrary to popular thought, after the pandemic shutdown the online home furnishings customers were not first-time online purchasers based upon this national survey.

No matter the experience level of the online purchaser, the concerns were the same, but the inability to “see and touch” was amplifi ed during the shutdown.

The impact of the pandemic has not been refl ected in how far the consumer is willing to travel to purchase furniture. However, in recent years as furniture retailers have added locations to make it easier for consumers, the concept of furniture shopping being defi ned as “destination” has all but disappeared. Across the nation in large and small markets 10-24 miles is the norm. Table M illustrates.

If the distance driven has not signifi cantly decreased, the time spent shopping has begun to decline. With 57% of consumers fi nishing the process in less than two weeks, this indicates the furniture retailer must be prepared to close the sale. This points out the growing necessity to begin the selling/ buying process on the phone with a more interactive retailer website using “chat” and email. Table N illustrates.

This reduction in time spent shopping has been driven by a reduction in the number of retailers shopped. The trend to fewer retailers shopped driven by increased pre-shopping research on the Internet will be accelerated by the pandemic as can be seen from Table 0.

In this period of intense demand, the reputation of the manufacturer has surged in importance (15.4% – 21.89%) and is indicated as most important while perceived quality and design declined as a purchase motivator. Price increased slightly. Table P provides the statistics.

It should be noted that general merchandise retailers, such as Big Lots and Target, are selling reputed brands like Broyhill. Obviously with the disruption, new requirements have become necessities. In the retail experience, consumers ranked the importance of these new requirements and confi rmed that the use of masks was most important compared to the other requirements. Table Q summarizes.

With all the noise around the signifi cant changes in everyday living, furniture retailers are perceived to be doing a good job by more than 50% of the consumers. However, we should have some concerns when we compare independent furniture retailers to the Internet.

Our challenge is to reestablish brick and mortar to provide the best consumer experience. Systematic changes provide opportunities.

What Sells: The (Home) Office

Based on a FurnitureCore, Inc. survey developed by Impact Consulting Services, parent company to Home Furnishings Business, 76.47% of consumers polled on what they feel is the primary factor that defines a home office is the activity performed there as opposed to the equipment or furnishings in the room at 23.53%. This finding coincides with the reality of blended spaces in the home being used for work, school, and the daily routines of life. According to Lisa Cody, SVP of marketing at Twin Star Home, the need for home furnishings expands beyond the obvious need for desks. “With the shift to most consumers working and learning at home, the spaces in their homes have become blended. The home office for many is also the dining room. The kitchen is also the classroom. We are seeing tremendous performance in not only home office furniture, like our adjustable height desk, but we are also seeing strong sales in home furnishings for other spaces in the home as well. We will continue to lean into creating furniture for home office to meet the needs of consumers.”

It is fair to note that there has been a swell of companies in recent years, even before the pandemic, leaning toward remote work given the numerous benefits: better productivity, reduced costs for employers, increased employee retention, and fewer gas emissions to name a few. According to Remote.co, a resource for businesses exploring remote work and best practices, this style of work has grown 91% in the last 10 years. Without doubt, the business demands that have arisen during the pandemic will drastically increase this statistic and the work from home movement will be here to stay. Eric Holmstead, Malouf national sales director, shares, “Since the pandemic has shifted so many people to a work-fromhome schedule, we’ve seen a huge increase in demand for office furniture. It’s clear that having a functional office space in the home will be essential moving forward.”

With the blended spaces in the home, it is more than likely that the entertainment area is steps away from the home office. In recent years, home owners have been embracing the viewfrom-home entertainment streaming options that began with Netflix and has grown exponentially.

Creating the ideal environment to view movies, binge entire seasons of shows, or cheer on a favorite sports team has become a focus for many consumers. Based on the same FurnitureCore, Inc. consumer survey, it was no surprise that 50% of consumers polled reported having a TV 55” or larger for prime views! These consumers want beautiful displays for their screens to match and storage solutions to complete the look of the room, which 87.50% reported is typically the living room or family room.

Read on to explore the bestselling home office and home entertainment solutions for today’s consumer.

 

 

Take 5: Eric Grindley

Now, at 38, Grindley is trying something entirely different — revolutionizing marketing in the home furnishings retail industry. After creating the advertising technology company Esquire Advertising in 2012, Grindley and his team of tech and marketing experts execute unique, hyper-targeted marketing strategies for furniture retailers across the country.

Grindley first became interested in the concept of marketing strategies through his role as general counsel for a large advertising firm. Since then, he has committed himself to the steady process of perfecting those strategies while combining them with the latest consumer technologies available. The approach has proven to be quite successful, especially in the furniture industry. The company has seen incredible growth, which recently earned Esquire Advertising several listings in the 2020 Inc. 500 list of Fastest Growing Private Companies, including number three in the state of North Carolina, number six in advertising/marketing, and number 56 throughout the entire country. Esquire has also become the preferred agency for many Top 100 Furniture and Mattress retailers.

Grindley recently sat down with Home Furnishings Business to discuss his company, the reason behind its explosive growth, the many changes taking place in the furniture industry, and how retailers can make the best of their particular markets.

HOME FURNISHINGS BUSINESS: Your background stems from law, and later, digital marketing. How did you find yourself so heavily involved with the furniture industry?

ERIC GRINDLEY: I was first introduced to digital marketing when I served as General Counsel for an Internet marketing company several years ago. I became very familiar with the marketing industry and how it operated, and in 2012, I decided to make the switch and founded Esquire Advertising. After a number of years, we became quite good at tackling key challenges that all retailers face, such as tracking and quantifying lead sales, targeting the right consumers, and more. This allowed us to grow and carve a unique niche for ourselves in the marketing technology space. We’ve created a proprietary system that allows us to solve these problems and we’ve developed marketing strategies that worked extremely well for retailers, especially furniture stores. Since then, we have followed that path and have been helping furniture retailers get better results with their marketing.

HFB: Esquire Advertising has grown by more than 5400% in the last three years by servicing furniture retailers - what is the firm doing to generate this type of growth?

GRINDLEY: We have had the pleasure of working with some amazing clients in the furniture industry, and we realized that the industry as a whole was overdue for an update – especially in how retailers were approaching their marketing strategies. Many retailers still haven’t really developed their overall digital strategy, and others may not know how to home in on key audiences or in-market customers.

So, once we started to focus on furniture retailers, word of mouth began to spread and we found ourselves closing exclusive deals for companies like Ashley HomeStore and Tempur-Sealy International, among others. As we continued to pick up steam in the furniture space, we have developed new ways, in terms of both technologies and strategies, to deliver higher returns on advertising spend and communicate key insights for our clients. This provided an enormous boost to our overall growth.

HFB: What makes IP-targeting such an effective and unique approach for marketing in the furniture industry today?

GRINDLEY: Having experience with every form of digital marketing, we have found that IP-targeting is one of the most effective ways to target in-market shoppers. Unlike more traditional marketing methods, device-matching and IP-targeting allows retailers to focus in on customers down to the individual level. They also have the chance to glean deep insights into their customers and service them directly with ads for products that they are actively looking for.

This approach also opens the door to some very creative techniques that can greatly expand a retailer’s customer base in meaningful ways. For example, targeting specific IP-addresses of customers lets retailers reach neighbors who share similar demographic and income profiles. This method of marketing is relatively new in the industry and takes a much more calculated approach to connecting with customers than the traditional “spray and pray” method of the past.

HFB: Advertising and marketing are essential for retailers to maintain and grow their businesses, but you say that many are drastically overspending in this area. Why is that?

GRINDLEY: Across the board, we have found that most retailers overpay for their marketing operations. The conventional wisdom is that the more money you pour into marketing, the more people will see your ads and the greater results you will receive. But in reality – this simply translates into your ads going to people who are not interested in purchasing your products, which can be extremely costly.

Adjusting the marketing approach alone can be a real game changer in this area. We have found that retailers can typically reduce their marketing budget by a significant margin and expect to see an even higher level of sales if they apply a more targeted strategy.

HFB: What are the most important elements furniture retailers should incorporate into their marketing strategy to see greater ROAS results?

GRINDLEY: Improving ROAS starts with having a complete understanding of your marketing operations, and then calibrating for greater returns. Whether it’s a local mom-and-pop store, or even a large retail chain with co-op campaigns – many retailers remain in the dark as to specifics of how their budget is being spent, who they are targeting, and the efficacy of their campaigns. Naturally, this leads to overspending and less informed campaigns.

With that in mind, retailers should seek to obtain a crystal-clear picture of their operations from start to finish. Improving capabilities to identify and target customers allows retailers to get their ads directly in front of the people that count. Tracking marketing campaigns and matching them directly with in-store sales gives retailers a foundation for understanding their customers, how their ads are performing, and allows them to fine-tune for better results. Using techniques to improve these aspects of a retailer’s marketing strategy yields substantial increases in ROAS.

HFB: Why would you argue that a digital-first approach to marketing is better than traditional advertising?

GRINDLEY: In the 21st century – digital platforms are king. Customers increasingly spend more time online, they use more online platforms, and they provide a wealth of valuable data for marketers to use. More traditional advertising methods like TV/radio, newspapers, flyers, etc. can be successful, but a well-executed digital marketing strategy will likely provide higher traffic and higher rates of conversion. This is because with a digital marketing approach, your ads are served directly to customers who are interested and likely to make a purchase.

HFB: COVID-19 has forced many retailers to temporarily close, or significantly reduce their operations. What should retailers consider when reopening to ensure that they will be successful?

GRINDLEY: Depending on individual factors like location, local restrictions, and the severity of the virus’ impact in their area –reopening stores can definitely be a financially sound move for some retailers. After almost six months of restrictions and quarantine measures, there is a lot of pent up demand from the general public, and our analysis shows that consumer foot traffic is much higher than most retailers would expect.

HFB: Do you have any insight for how retailers on how they can tap into new audiences or reach new customers?

GRINDLEY: Even with COVID-19 continuing to affect retail stores in many areas of the country, there are a couple of new streams for furniture retailers to tap into. For instance, home interest rates are at historically low levels, and there are massive interstate relocations taking place across the country as residents of big cities are trying to escape the ongoing pandemic. Depending on the area, there may be large influxes of new homeowners and movers that can be fantastic demographics to target for furniture needs.

Additionally, as people are staying home more often, internet usage has skyrocketed over the past several months, which can be fruitful for retailers targeting online shoppers who are in-market.

Statistically Speaking: Furniture Industry Benefits from Federal and State Stimulus More than Other Industries

But what consumers did not stow away, they spent a lot on their homes – furniture, appliances, new carpet, window treatments, and yard equipment. Tables A, B, and C detail 2020 monthly consumer spending for key home furnishings products compared to the same months in 2019. Note that furniture spending, due in part to forced retail closures, fell to $100 billion dollars (annualized) in April, the lowest level since April 2015. Product growth will be discussed in more depth later in this article.

In addition to stimulus checks and unemployment benefits, for many consumers extra cash was freed up from numerous sources impacted by the government virus shutdown. A few of the cash sources included eating at home as opposed to restaurants (but higher grocery bills), saving on gasoline from not driving to work or school, curbing vacation and travel, giving up gym memberships, closed entertainment facilities or venues, and reduced or postponed physician and dental visits.

This quarter’s Statistically Speaking takes a detailed look into all the sources of disposable income and where consumers have put it through the pandemic, with a focus on growth in furniture and home furnishings. Disposable Income Beginning in late March, disposable income rose significantly during the first seven months of the pandemic, up 9.0% compared to March to September 2019 (Table D). Moderate monthly increases of 2% to 4% in the first quarter skyrocketed to 17% disposable income growth in April during the start of the of the stay-at-home orders as full Federal pandemic stimulus arrived. As parts of the economy began to open in May through July, disposable income increased another 11.3%, 9.4%, and 10%, respectively. As Federal stimulus ended by August, disposable income slowed but continued to improve over 2019, up 6.2% in August and 7.1% in September.

What did the consumer do with the influx of pandemic money and the rise in disposable income? As shown in Table E, most consumers saved a lot of it, feeling uncertain of the future. Compared to saving an average of 7.5% of disposable income in 2019, consumers saved 33.6% in April 2020 during the initial stimulus, 18.1% in July and 14.3% in September. Meanwhile, consumer spending fell significantly in April to 63.7% of disposable income but has continued to gain back share, up to 82.9% in September. This compares to 89% in all of 2019.

The excessive growth in disposable income is a reflection of the changes in the sources of personal income, shown in Table F. In 2019 year-end, wages and salaries accounted for the majority (50.2%) of personal income. In April 2020, that percentage dropped to 41% as many people lost their jobs or were furloughed. Meanwhile, the percent of personal income from government social benefits skyrocketed from 16.6% in 2019 YE to 31.1% in April 2020. By September, when much of the stimulus had dried up, wages and salaries as a contribution to personal income was still below half at 47.4% and government benefits finished the month at 20.8% of personal income.

Personal income (seasonally adjusted at annual rates) grew from $18.5 trillion 2019 YE to $21.1 trillion in April as stimulus checks were distributed. At press time, personal income had fallen to $19.8 trillion in September, still 7.1% above 2019 year-end levels. Figure 1 compares the primary sources of income: (1) wages and salaries, (2) government social benefits to persons (impacted by the stimulus), and (3) personal income receipts on assets (interest and dividend income). As Figure 1 shows, combined unemployment insurance benefits and COVID stimulus dollars grew over 1700% in April compared to April 2019. Meanwhile wages and salaries were down 8.2% in April, impacted negatively by job losses but positively by government stimulus to businesses.

Personal Consumption Expenditures
Despite dramatic growth in disposable income during the early months of the pandemic, the high rate of consumers choosing to funnel income into personal savings contributed to the decline of consumer spending since March (Table G). Personal Consumption Expenditures dropped 16.1% in April and declined another 9.2% in May compared to the same months in 2019. Once the pandemic reached June, the consumer became more comfortable and spending began to increase. By September of this year, consumer spending gained momentum but was still down 0.5% compared to last year.

Consumer spending is divided into three broad categories – Durable goods, like furniture and automobiles; Nondurable goods, like food and clothing, and Services, like transportation, hotels, physician visits, restaurants and drycleaners. As shown in Figure 2, durable goods were hardest hit during the initial retail lockdown of the pandemic in April but grew rapidly once retail establishments opened up in May. Meanwhile, spending on services, which is the largest share of the three broad categories, posted the most long-term negative impact.

Table H details the monthly growth in the three spending categories for select pandemic months. Spending on durable goods, the smallest of the spending categories fell by 9.8% in March followed by 21.1% in April. On the positive side, durable goods were also the fastest to recover (Figure 1) – bouncing back to 12.1% of total expenditures by August and 12.3% in September with the furniture industry benefiting from the uptick.

For nondurable goods, food for consumption at home (grocery stores, not restaurant sales), is a large part of this category and takes into account what little growth nondurable goods have experienced since spending fell 9.6% in April (Table H) as the consumer sheltered in place. However by September nondurables were up 4% over September 2019.

Meanwhile, spending on services includes many industries with long-lasting negative impacts from the pandemic that were the last to open or are still unable to open due to state mandates. Compared to 2019, spending on services started to decline in March before falling 17.1% in April versus April 2019. Spending has continued to drop below 2019 levels, but at a slower rate (Table H).

Consumer Spending on Furniture
As expected, with furniture stores and many factories closed and consumers holding on to their income, spending on furniture tanked from March to April – falling 23% over April 2019. Growth began slightly in May (1.2%) before jumping 15.9% in June compared to 2019. Momentum was maintained through July, August, and September as furniture expenditures increased by 15.1%, 13.2%, and 14.3% respectively (Table I). Year-to-date September, the industry is up 5.5% compared to the same period last year.

As shown in Table J, alongside furniture expenditures increasing beginning in May, other home furnishings categories saw positive growth once consumers felt more comfortable spending their disposable income. After dropping 21.7% in April, clocks, lamps, lighting fixtures, and other household decorative items increased 8.7% in September 2020. During the same time period, spending on carpets and other floor coverings fell 15.7% in April, but by September showed growth of 15.5%. Spending on window coverings fell 11.4% in April but rebounded by September, up 9.7% (Table J).

In addition to furniture and home furnishings, consumers also turned to outdoor equipment, appliances and electronics during the pandemic. Expenditures for both house and garden tools/equipment and personal computers/tablets never decreased year-over-year in April as consumers nested in their homes. Spending on both items then skyrocketed through the coming months (Table K). While major household appliances and televisions did dip down by over 12% during the month of April, both were up 8.6% and 3.7% by September compared to the same months in 2019.

Pandemic’s Temporary or Permanent Impacts
Many changes in the daily routine and lifestyle of Americans since the pandemic began have had at least a temporary negative or positive impact on many industries, including the furniture and home furnishings industry.

Pandemic Lifestyle Trends
- Remote connectivity from home (includes work, education, tele-medicine, and others)
- Renewed interest in the home; spending more time there and creating an inviting and comfortable environment
- Adapting to fewer entertainment choices outside the home -- movie theaters, concerts, sporting events, restaurants, etc.

Some of these routines/lifestyles, were they to continue, could possibly have permanent impact and long-term implications for many industries. Figure 3 lists just a few of the industries impacted by COVID-19 that stand to lose a lot or gain a lot and the growth they have lost or gained since the pandemic began in March. It also highlights the possible negative or positive outlooks going forward.

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