• Clint Engel

Panelists spot ways to engage customers online and in-store

ClintThomas Lester, Home Accents Today business editor, moderates the buying trends panel made up of Matt Huber (left), Belfort Furniture, Keith Johns, MicroD; Seth Kaiser, Design Distillery; and Paul Thompson, Paul Thompson Signature.
WASHINGTON — One speaker at Progressive Business Media’s NEXT conference here talked about how important it is for in-store product to look at least as good as a retailer’s website photography, but for Belfort Furniture, it’s often the opposite that poses the challenge.

“I think that’s one of the reasons why you see (industry) trend numbers showing prices going down,” said Matt Huber, executive vice president of the Dulles, Va.-based Top 100 company. “It’s really easy to look really good online.” The difference between a $500 sofa and a $1,000 sofa is a little tough to see between the pixels.

Huber was among the industry leaders on a NEXT panel discussing changing consumer and shopping trends impacting the industry. The session was moderated by Thomas Lester, business editor of Furniture Today’s sister publication Home Accents Today, and also featured Keith Johns, senior manager, operations for MicroD; Seth Kaiser, lead designer and sales manager of Baltimore’s Design Distillery; and Paul Thompson, owner and principal designer of Paul Thompson Signature.

Huber said Belfort is, and wants to remain, store centric and conceded that there’s always a tension between balancing the in-store experience and what consumers are going to see in the store with the need for an endless-aisle online offering for those looking for a very specific items or, in most cases, something inexpensive.

“Most of the transactions happening in the shopping carts are people who have been in the store,” he said. “If not, they’re buying the least expensive things we offer.”

Indeed, that may be one of the driving forces behind two key industry trends presenting by Lester and researched by PBM Strategic Insights. Online purchases are growing rapidly, with 7.8% of consumers saying they bought furniture and bedding from an online-only retailer last year, up 2% saying they did the same in 2010. An estimated 11% of all furniture and bedding sales were transacted online in 2015, according to Lester’s report.

MicroD’s Johns said that as he visits clients across the country, “I would say fear is still something quite a few retailers are up against” when it comes to online competition and obstacles.

EhrenEhren Gaag, longtime customer of Design Distillery in Baltimore, stands by the Skee Ball game (and his high score) near the entrance of the store.
But Johns added the solution to that fear is information, and “there’s a lot more ways to go about Internet commerce than just e-commerce. The end point of your strategy does not necessarily need to be a consummation of the order in the cart.”

Johns said MicroD has very successful clients who stop the online selling process before it gets to the point of transaction, including some who use a “contact for a quote feature” that gives salespeople the opportunity to connect, perhaps sell a little bit more and answer questions.

“The omnichannel approach isn’t just about the cart,” Johns said. “There are other ways to success that can help drive down the fear.”

Asked what Design Distillery does to create a differentiated customer experience, Kaiser noted that the store is a small mid-priced to upper-end retailer with a local focus and looking to stand out in a number of unusual ways.

The goal is to create a low pressure environment, he said, one that makes furniture shopping fun again. And what could be more fun than a Skee Ball machines, positioned right off the entrance, where visitors can drop in a coin and try for a the high score.

“Kids love it,” Kaiser said. “If definitely disarms people.”

On top of this, the store aims to stand out with “great strong vignettes” and takes risks by deploying standout colors and style statement that its consumer base appreciates, he said.

Paul Thompson seconded the idea of stores serving as the true trend leaders in their communities.

“If you break it down, it’s all about the math,” said Thompson, who earns his living helping retailers, vendors and market centers with space planning, visual merchandising and display and branding. People, he said, spend so many hours of the day sleeping, eating, working and doing a number of other things.

“And then, once you step inside a store — for someone to ignore you or for you not to see something that’s relevant (to your needs) or that turns a want into a need — that’s shameful,” he said.

“That’s what visual merchandising, store planning, product selection is all about. You guys have to curate beyond what the manufacturer gives you, because if you’re just going to do that, you might as well give them the box.”

Clint EngelClint Engel | Senior Retail Editor, Furniture Today

Please feel free to email or call me with all of your retail news and tips, including expansion news, successful merchandising and marketing strategies and anything else you would like to see covered by Furniture/Today.  Contact me directly at cengel@furnituretoday.com or 336-605-1129.

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