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Next Gen retailers offer fresh take on business

Tackling the subjectTackling the subject of attracting young consumers and employees to the furniture industry.Seth Goldberg, left, Raymour & Flanigan; Will Daughtrey, Badcock Home Furniture & more; Jessica Tubman, Circle Furniture; Mark Mueller, Mueller Furniture; and Becca Sudbeck, Nebraska Furniture Mart.
NAPLES, Fla. - A panel of young retail executives at Furniture/ Today's Leadership Conference highlighted the successes of their family businesses and also offered a fresh take on what it's going to take to attract young people - both consumers and employees - to this industry.
     The second- to fifth-generation leaders of family-owned or operated retailers - Seth Goldberg of Raymour & Flanigan, Becca Sudbeck of Nebraska Furniture Mart, Mark Mueller of Mueller Furniture, Jessica Tubman of Circle Furniture and Will Daughtrey of Badcock Home Furniture & more - discussed issues ranging from what the industry can do to be more relevant to the consumer, to the challenges they're facing today integrating technology into operations, collaborating with supplier partners and hiring.
     They offered their opinions on the most pressing areas where the furniture industry could stand to improve.
     As for reaching out to the Millennial generation, Sudbeck - daughter of Omaha, Neb.-based NFM CEO Irv Blumkin and senior buyer for bedroom and bedding - said retailers have to rethink their marketing media mix to reach the younger generation while at the same time acknowledging that core base of Baby Boomer consumers remain active in the market, making sure they're not left behind.
     Along these same lines,
     Daughtrey, a fifth-generation category manager for Mulberry, Fla.- based Badcock, mentioned to the need to utilize various social media vehicles, from Facebook to Pinterest, to reach that young consumer and then to bridge those social experiences over to the store so they will be "more apt to buy."
     But Mueller, fourth-generation general manager and co-owner of Mueller Furniture in Belleville, Ill, added that it's not enough to simply be on social media.
     "We can go on Facebook, but if all I'm saying is I've got a sofa for $499, what we are doing?" he said.
     "It's about what we're putting out there, too. One of the biggest things we can do is sex it up a little bit," Mueller said, noting that other industries are much better at "selling the sizzle, not the steak."
     "We are in an industry that sells products involved in the most intimate moments of our lives, and we could do a better job of selling that part of our industry," he said.
     As the furniture industry moves more towards a hybrid retail model that involves brick-and-mortar stores that also sell online, Tubman, director of business development at the family-owned Circle Furniture in greater Boston, said it's important for everyone to ask themselves, "What makes you different? What makes you better, and why should anyone choose you?"
     The Internet is tearing down barriers for consumers, she said. They can buy anywhere, anytime.
     "So part of what I'm trying to do is private label and have exclusive product," she said. "I want my product to be (Circle Furniture) product, so my customer wants to shop me."
     Addressing a question about attracting more young people into the industry, Goldberg, vice president of business development for Liverpool, N.Y.-based Raymour & Flanigan, confirmed that it's a challenge given the nature of retail, which means working holidays and weekends.
     "I find there's a hesitancy to join a retail business ... but I think people need to realize that are longer-term career paths that are out there, and opportunities for entrepreneurship within this industry that are vast," he said.
     Getting his generation to recognize all the opportunities both on the retail and supplier side is an educational process, he said, adding that this industry offers the next generation "the ability to learn leadership skills, and manage groups of people.
     "A lot of people in our generation long for that sort of thing, to lead a team, and they sometimes forget that that's possible."
     Goldberg and Tubman put integrating technology into the customer shopping experience near the top of their list of things the industry can improve on.
     "I feel each channel of the industry is at a different point (in technology integration)," Tubman said. "If we could pick up the pace a little bit and be on the same page, a lot of our businesses would be more efficient."
      Mueller said the digital age is requiring a whole new skill set for salespeople, young and older.
     "You need to be able to not just work with people (in the store) but also be really good over the phone," with consumers calling with questions about something they are viewing online.
      Hopefully, the store's website answers most of the questions, "But eventually that zero moment of truth is going to come, and they're going to have to decide to buy or not, and they might need your help," he said. "You need to be able to walk them through and sell them just like you would in the physical location."

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