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From Home Furnishing Business

Who Are You?

Whether you know it or not, like it or not, your store is a brand.

Maybe not a brand in the classic sense of mega names such as Coca Cola or Apple, but everything you say in your advertising, every touch point you make with shoppers, gives consumers a sense of what you’re all about.

You’re projecting an image to the people in the markets you serve. Working to ensure that projection lives up to what you offer—and vice versa—is what we’re talking about this month in Home Furnishings Business’ first issue of the New Year.

We asked several retailers to describe the brand image they want potential customers to associate with their store; and whether that’s changed over the years, or remained consistent.

Keeping it Real

“The image we project and want to be perceived as being is one of offering quality products at a great value with the best customer service available,” said Woody Whichard, president of Midtown Furniture Superstore & Mattress Center, Madison, N.C. “We strive daily to meet these expectations. This has been part of our vision since we opened in 1977. Even though I am a second-generation retailer this has not changed.  We believe that this is why people call Midtown Furniture their furniture store, and come back again and again.”

Whichard’s been front and center in Midtown’s promotions (see Sidebar: Personal ID) for years, but lately Midtown has let its customers do some of the talking.

“For the past year we have run most of our TV ads with our customers in them,” he said. “We called a few customers, and had a few walk in during production, and asked if they would like to do a testimonial for us on TV. All that were asked and available when we produced were excited to help us out.

“Now we are talking about real people talking to real people. That is about as personal as you can get. These commercials have no sense of urgency.  They are only brand-building ads that allow new customers to hear from a real person, like them, that we offer quality products at a great value with the best customer service.”

Dealing with the Big Guys

Hillside Furniture, a high-end contemporary furniture specialist, operates in the Detroit market, home of one of furniture retailing’s regional giants, Art Van Furniture.

President Jeff Selik has all the respect in the world for what he called the area’s “brand leader,” but said a retailer such as Hillside has to work that much harder to tell its story to potential customers.

Hillside’s brand image has been consistent: family owned, local, small, geared toward people who want to “shop local

“We project 'unique, very contemporary,'” Selik said. “We want to have that as our overall brand, and private labeling is a key to keeping your store exclusive in your market. When people walk into Crate & Barrel or Pottery Barn, they ask 'who makes that sofa?' They're able to say 'They make that for us.' It creates an exclusive outlet for that brand.”

Hillside’s association with the Contemporary Design Group merchandising consortium has helped in that regard. The buying group has worked hard to help members identify themselves as the go-to resource for upscale contemporary goods in their respective markets.

One example: CDG negotiated a deal to offer members the chance to create customized, magazine-format mailings—or “magalogs”—to a targeted list of customers. (Disclaimer: Home Furnishings Business created and published the magalogs for the group and continues to work with a number furniture retailers on similar projects.)

“The magalogs are a total brand-builder,” Selik said. “When people flip through those pages at home, they should get a sense of what it's like to visit and explore Hillside.”

Staking a (Believable) Claim

“Our brand image from the beginning has been ‘the best furniture value in Alaska,’ and that continues to this day,” said Ron Bailey, president of Anchorage-based Bailey’s Furniture. “We endeavor to buy wisely, contain our expenses and offer the best possible prices, everyday, for our customers.”  

Bailey’s also isn’t afraid to point fingers to differentiate itself from the competition.

“Our brand is believability and trust,” Bailey said. “We constantly advertise and educate our customers about the ‘unbelievable’ price swings of our competitors, and I believe that we are making headway.”

On that note, it should surprise no one that consumer research from Impact Consulting's FurnitureCore arm says "believability" is a key part of making furniture stores' advertising connect with shoppers.

Consumers don’t resent ads that seem too good to be true, they just ignore the stores running them, said Lance Hanish, principal of Scottsdale, Ariz., agency Sophis.

“They don't hold it against them, they just won't go to that retailer,” he said. “It's an immediate, visceral attraction as to what you believe in.”

Brad Lebow, president of Horich, Parks, Lebow Advertising, Baltimore, Md., said believability can depend on the messages consumers in particular markets are accustomed to.

“We want to be credible and believable, but we also want to promote and entice. At the end of the day, consumers want a deal,” he said. “It depends on the playing field, and it's a question of what consumers in a market are used to seeing.”

When people see ‘70 percent off,' they know that’ just to get them into the store, said Jason Pires, CEO and senior creative director at MVC Agency in Los Angeles.

“I think overall ads are believable,” he said. “For me, it's more than just being an offer or promotion. The brands that are smart create a lifestyle-centric approach that respects the consumer.

“We bought furniture for our office the other day, and the company had these catalogs showing this sexy—fully clothed—woman on the back cover. The spine of the chair looked, how do I say, like a part of a woman's anatomy. If that looks condescending to me as a guy, imagine how that looks to a woman. For you to treat a woman in an ad the way they were in the '50s or '60s, that's just unbelievable.”

Whose Voice?

FunitureCore’s consumer research also indicates that celebrity endorsements don’t resonate with consumers, and the industry certainly has its share of licenses with high-profile names.

One reason Whichard plays his on starring role in Midtown’s promotions is that “I am real.”

“The customer can come in the store almost any day we are open and meet me.  I have passion about our store,” he said. “A celebrity has passion for doing their job and being paid for it without a clue as to who or what your store is about. This works for some customers, but I feel that our customer wants a real person.”

While Hillside has invited local athletes to participate in its charitable work, the store doesn’t depend much on linking well-known names to its promotional efforts.

“I don't have a budget for celebrity 'endorsement.' For me, a lot of it's your image and branding,” Selik said. “Charitable efforts are a brand builder, and it does good in the communities where you operate.

Paid spokespeople are clearly just that. In general, they don't come across as credible. I'm president of this company, and I'm second generation here, so I'm committed.”

Hanish pointed out that celebrities such as Cindy Crawford and Oscar De la Renta have met with success in furnitureland.

“There are two things about celebrity endorsements,” he said. “One, the company who is proposing to use a celebrity; and two, it depends on the celebrity. The key here is you have a client who really wants to make it work. Their magic can't just rub on off on you.

“Anything can work if it works in a unified message, and you'd better make the investment to support that effort--his or her aura alone won't take you to a new level.”

Lebow at Horichs Parks said that from its

client base's experience, a celebrity association raises awareness for a short period of time, but most haven't stuck with it for the long term.

Done with a strategic approach, famous names can help, believes Pires at MVC.

“They can be fantastic if it's in combination with the rest of your strategy. I believe they do work if it's done right,” he said. “It's always better to have someone refer people to you versus saying it yourself.”

Where to Promote

It might surprise some in this digital age, but FurnitureCore’s consumer research indicates direct mail and newspapers remain effective media, with more than 30 percent of consumers saying those would encourage them to shop for furniture instead of other media—i.e. television, radio, social media, e-mail.

Whichard says direct mail print has worked very well at Midtown.

“You have to do a lot of planning for this type of advertising,” he said. “You have one shot to get their attention from the mailbox to the trash can.  Direct mail is usually a onetime shot so you better make sure you are offering them something they desire or you will be forgotten tomorrow.  Most people do not leave their mail out like they will a newspaper. You can get a few days and extra eyes on a newspaper advertisement. Direct mail can be substantially more expensive way to advertise compared to newspaper.

He doesn’t feel newspaper advertising is as effective as it used to be.

“I like to use newspaper to reinforce the message I have on TV,” Whichard said. “Also newspaper gives you an opportunity to reach your direct-mail recipients a second time with a reduction of the cost. There are effective newspapers and other newspapers. Make sure that the newspaper and the ad placements are a reflection of your business and that they reach the target audience you desire. 

“We have a small local paper that is very effective.  The price is less than the large city papers and it targets the same customers that we do.  It is a weekly paper that is well read by its readership.  It is direct mailed to their homes at no charge, and this a great bonus.  My prospective customer did not have to buy my ad to see it, nor were they only given an ad to throw in the trash.  It has value.   What I see is most effective is a good mix of all medias. We have a diverse customer base and different demographics are reached in different ways.  We try different things to reach customers in unique ways, but we keep our main focus and our budget on what customers are responding to right now.”

Selik at Hillside also believes in a discriminating approach to print.

“I certainly see that if it's in the right newspapers, it's still effective,” he said. “I'm very selective, and the one I work with, the Detroit Free Press, gets a lot of response.”

He also is a fan of printed post card mailings: “It's tangible, something people still hold in their hands, and it's pretty inexpensive.”

Bailey is more sold on the airwaves for promotion.

“We are 80 percent TV, 10 percent radio, 10 percent Web and others,” he said. “Our traffic continues to be strong,  and we are up double digits for the year in sales. We do not offer huge discounts and mark prices up and down,  but rather everyday low prices and offer the same prices on our Web site.”

Lebow at Horichs Parks Lebow said Impact’s findings don’t quite jive with what he’s seen in the marketplace, but that direct mail absolutely remains an important component of a promotional strategy.

“Our clients do that eight to 12 times a year, and that's more than it used to be,” he said. “Number one, direct mail retains existing customers. We also use it as a customer-acquisition tool for people who aren't our customers, but who should be.”

He suggests that retailers should use direct mail to target people who've shopped for the products they offer, but for whatever reason haven't checked out their store or Web site.

Regarding newspaper advertising, Lebow said the issue today is how fast circulation numbers are shrinking.

“Newspaper (advertising) is one of the first things to go when people have to fund other channels,” he noted. “We find we're lessening print advertising to fund digital initiatives. That's the trend within our client base now.

Print does remain viable, said MVC’s Pires.

“If a particular type of media doesn't work, it's a matter of how they're using that media and delivering an overall consistent message,” he said.

“It's all about strategy, positioning and knowing what you're about as a company. It's not what you're telling people, it's what they experience. You can't fool people for very long, and in a competitive market like LA, you can't fool them at all.”

Whatever your advertising mix, make you’re you pay attention to where a lot of shoppers get their first impression of your store—online. Hanish noted that the Web site is to shoppers today what store window displays were in the 1950s.

“Web site traffic is today's window-shopping,” he said, adding that the key is to put that vehicle to work in new, innovative ways to ask shoppers to come into the store. “In our industry, too many don't understand what she's doing today. The data from all this information we're accumulating--we're going to have to adapt that information to our approach.”

Closing the Deal

A believable, real impression is the key to brand-building promotion that makes for repeat customers.

“You have to be believable, because when they do come to shop they want to have the same emotion you created in your advertisement,” Whichard said. “You better not over sell your store, or they will be disappointed and never return. We shoot our commercials in our store, and the advertisements show people what they will expect when the walk in. We do not use product shots to show furniture, we use the furniture with the background showing more of the store. We want to be believable and create the same emotions that brought them in in the first place.”

Especially in markets with a dominant player, independents have to differentiate through advertising, product assortment and culture. Dealing with an 800-pound furniture gorilla in your market?

“His size means I have to be more nimble--where we spend our advertising dollars, our product assortment,” said Hillside’s Selik. “We have to offer the furniture, service and experience that's different from any place else in our market. When your brand can be 'the best at what you do,' you can differentiate. You don't have to be the biggest, but you want to be consistent.”

 

Consumers Crave Comfort

By Sheila Long O’Mara

Consumers shopping for motion upholstery want more heat, more massage and more creature comforts in their reclining sofas and sectionals. In a Home Furnishings Business survey conducted last month of consumers who had bought motion upholstery within the last 12 months, nearly 62 percent either bought or would like to have heat and massage in their seating. Automated adjustable headrests and lumbar supports were highlighted by more than 53 percent of the more than 500 participates.

Storage drawers at 50 percent and hidden tabletops at 48 percent were also in the top four of consumer wants in motion upholstery. That’s great news for the category in which suppliers are packing more and more function into motion upholstery. Vendors of motion upholstery have continued to push the functionality of motion frames with power mechanisms, heat and massage, drop-down tables, MP3 docking stations and more. Most suppliers report that the more bells and whistles packed into a frame, the better a particular model tends to retail. On a scale of one to seven, more than 82 percent of the consumer respondents ranked their satisfaction with their motion upholstery purchase as five or higher.

While quite a number of motion upholstery vendors highlighted power recline as a big seller among their customers, our pool of consumers haven’t quite caught on to the fanciest of the fancy. Just shy of a third—29.1 percent—say they’d prefer a power-operated mechanism in their motion upholstery. The remaining 70.9 percent lean toward hand-operated or push-back mechanisms. Possibly the best news out of the survey is that the consumers who recently bought motion upholstery are now hooked and are pleased with their purchase. On a scale of one to seven, more than 82 percent ranked their satisfaction at five or higher.

Reclining sofas and sectionals—motion upholstery—remain one of the fastest growing categories in the furniture industry. Since 2009, retail sales of motion upholstery have grown 16.07 percent to $6.59 billion in 2012—making it the fastest growing category for furniture retailers. The category made up 8.96 percent of all furniture and bedding sold in 2012, almost as large as the 14.05 percent that mattresses command. What is it that has the motion upholstery rocking along on such a growth projectory? We see a correlation between more upscale styling and function as a key driver. Motion suppliers are pushing the style envelope and marrying better looks with all the creature comforts consumers say they crave. Traditional lifestyles from sister company Design Circle like Classic, Estate and updated New Traditionalist have viable motion upholstery selections currently in the marketplace. Lane’s more classic styled, high-leg recliners, for example, add a hint of traditional to any setting. The Modern consumer shopping for motion upholstery can also find a varied selection of styles, including American Leather’s classy, contemporary swing recliners in a variety of updated colors. As we know, the beefy, bulky, plush motion frames tend to carry the marketplace, but if consumers are looking for a bit more panache to add to the homes the looks are available.

12 Reasons for Motion’s Growth

1.       The demographic for motion upholstery continues to grow alongside the aging population—a group that tends to gravitate toward lift, heat and massage features.

2.       Younger consumers tend to lean toward furniture with an ergonomic story to tell. Think gaming chairs or exercise balls.

3.       The influence of the automobile industry and its seating designs featuring lumbar support, heating and cooling seats, neck support and more. Why not relax as comfortably at home?

4.       The home theater has moved out of the basement and into the great room. Motion upholstery now has a broader audience.

5.       Motion suppliers have gained an edge by right-sizing their products. Motion comes in all shapes and sizes now. Remember the days when extra-large seating was all that was available?

6.       Better performance fabrics and fewer covers with scratchy olefin. Better fabric designs that work with motion upholstery have brought new consumers into the fold.

7.       Better leather education. Consumers now understand the durability of leather and its tendency to improve with time.

8.       Stressful lifestyles and long work days have consumers eager for soft place to land at home. Relaxation, pampering and nesting have come a long way with the benefits of motion.

9.       As the bedding sector have shifted its marketing toward better health through rest and relaxation, consumers have heightened expectations on how home furnishings can improve down time.

10.   Men and women are shopping together more these days, and having a man’s viewpoint in the furniture selection points toward better sales for reclining sofas and sectionals.

11.   Advances in motion seating size, silhouette and functionality, like wall huggers and multiple width seating, provide a broader reach to consumers.

12.   Successful marketing campaigns have removed some of the stigma of the category as “my father’s recliner” providing shoppers with “permission” to opt for a seating that does more—reclines, massages, stores and chills a drink.

 

What Retailers say

Ashley Primematic  Durablend  Sectional

This two-piece sectional is a fantastic look at an unparalleled value. The color is a great crimson red (not another brown sectional!) and has two power recliners, a drop-down storage tray and storage in the chaise/ottoman. Customers can’t resist the features and at $1,299, it has the price, look and bells and whistles that make this a HOT mover!

Seth Weisblatt

Sam’s Furniture & Appliances

Fort Worth, Texas

 

Comfort Design’s 114 Ventana

“We show it along with a recliner in a pale yellow, and it stands out like a beacon in a brown leather department. It has a split back with a high-grade leather so it’s very comfortable. We sell sectionals, sofas and recliners off that frame.” Retail price is $2,999.

Tom Lias

gorman’s furniture

Novi, Mi.

 

Coaster’s 550152 Reclining Loveseat

 “The majority of motion upholstery tends to be dark brown or black so the combination of neutral coloring, attention to detail and price makes this item a great seller.” Retails at $764.95.

Niraj Shah

Wayfair

Boston


 

What Suppliers Say

Palliser

Palliser’s Cortez sectional makes a powerful statement. Available in any of Palliser’s more than 300 leathers and fabrics, the Cortez is a strong seller, according to Lorri Kelley, vice president of sales and service. As show in this great leather with all power recline, the sectional retails at $5999; dressed in fabric with power recline, $3,599. “The power mechanism is the overwhelming majority of sales,” Kelley said.

 

Flexsteel Industries

Flexsteel’s Julio is all about comfort and eye appeal—sometimes a tricky combination when it comes to motion upholstery. Justin Mills, director of advertising and public relations, said the design tells the story. “Julio begins with a wonderfully soft automotive bucket seat and deep pocketed back divide,” he said. “The arm, arm pad, back and chaise page are lined with a French flap stitching detail that highlights the architecture of design.” In leather, Julio comes standard with power recline and is priced to retail at $1,999. Julio is also available in fabric with or without power recline.

Franklin Corp.

The Milano sectional from Franklin Corp. offers several features that make it a winner for the upholstery supplier—eye appeal, comfort with a chair and a half reclining scoop seat and a great price point. “The Milano is totally modular and can be built several different ways—including a console and tablet tray with USB charger,” said Chuck Tidwell, vice president of merchandising and product development for the company.As shown, Milano retails at $2,399 in bonded leather. In a smaller configuration with two recliners, two armless seats and a wedge, the sectional would retail at $1,699.

 

Best Home Furnishings

The Bodie motion sofa from Best Home Furnishings is a streamlined reclining sofa that features power recline. Eric Vollmer, sales and marketing specialist for the company, said is available in “hundreds of fabrics and also with a manual reclining function.”As shown in leather, Bodie retails at $1,374 with the power reclining mechanism

Lane

The Grand Torino reclining sectional from Lane is among the company’s top selling motion groups, as well as top viewed on the Lane Web site. “The transitional design with comfort cradle seating and envelope style padded arms make it incredibly versatile,” said Mindi Brothers, vice president of marketing. Grand Torino offers a myriad of creature comforts, including a storage console, pulldown table and drink holders, power recline option and a sleeper sofa with the company’s trademarked iRest gel-infused foam mattress. Estimated retail price as a four piece, double reclining, sleeper sectional is $2,499.

Cozzia USA

Cozzia’s EC618 robotic massage chair is marketed as the Ultimate Massage Chair, and its target retail price is $3,999 to $4,999. Controlled by a microcomputer that performs a number of massage techniques, Bob Bruns, president of Cozzia USA, said the chair is a best seller with its bells and whistles. The chair uses innovative 3D robotics technology to offer a thorough massage by focusing on the acupressure points of the back. In addition to the mechanism, the chair has 64 air bags and vibration massage in the seat to create the various types of massage techniques. In addition to the massage and heat functions, the chair offers speakers and LED lighting for audio and visual stimulation.

Ekornes

The Stressless Buckingham sofa is the winner at Ekornes. The three-seat, low-back sofa retails from between $4,200 and $5,800 depending on the leather. Inspired by some of London’s most chic addresses, Buckingham offers a sleek, classy feel to reclining sofas. Buckingham features gentle curves, padded arms and a supple seat to provide the ultimate in relaxation. Each of the seats offers individual recliner with the patented Stressless Glide System to provide the right amount of support.

La-Z-Boy

The Pinnacle Reclina-Way full reclining sofa from La-Z-Boy offers two fully reclining end seats that offer full-body chaise support and plush, pillow high backs. Amy Hellebuyck, manager brand marketing and public relations for La-Z-Boy, said the “line is a top-seller because of its smaller scale, as well as its customization and fabric and leather options, including power, a drop-down table and console.” Target retail price starts at $1,159.

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