Next generation execs talk benefits, challenges of supply chain visibility, technology

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ORLANDO, Fla. — After literally dancing onto the stage at the Furniture Today Leadership Conference, three next-generation executives gave a taste of the energy that will galvanize their companies as new talent takes the helm.

Mark Mueller of Mueller Furniture Co. in Belleville, Ill.; Andy Shefsky of Omaha, Neb.-based Nebraska Furniture Mart; and Travis Wagner of Ashley Furniture Inds. shared their vision of what it will take to succeed in the years ahead during a panel discussion titled “A New Generation Sets Its Course.” Shefsky said that his title, customer engagement analyst, indicates where the industry needs to head when it comes to reaching consumers.

“With so many options, whether to research or to buy, every customer is unique,” he said. “We don’t think of ourselves as a B2B business or a B2C business, but a B2One business. Whether on the web or in the store, it’s ever important that wherever our customers are, we need to be listening to them.”

The “Amazon effect” driving the imperative for unlimited purchase options and fast delivery plays out at brick-and-mortar as well, noted Mueller, co-owner and general manager at the family-owned retailer.

“The customer rewards you for more transparency, and the customer demands it,” he said. “At Mueller, we look at ourselves as a concierge service for people who want furniture. Different customers want different levels of service.”

Wagner, vice president and general manager of Asia manufacturing, spent much of his early career in Vietnam. That gave him a close-up look at the challenges of speeding product to the consumer through the supply chain.

“It challenges us to look at the whole supply chain — whether in Asia or down the street — looking at inventory and being in-stock,” he said. “It’s looking at how you take hours, days and minutes out of (producing) an item because over a year that all adds up.”

While technology creates increased competition for brick-and-mortar stores from online retailers, it also can help vendors and stores work hand-in-hand for better service to consumers.

“We’re looking at driving more speed and accuracy in the process for better customer service,” Wagner said. From sales to manufacturing to shipping and delivery, “technology is turning that into a proactive rather than reactive process. … We have more accuracy and clarity in our supply chain to be more accurate at the point of sale (for forecasting). That starts eight to 10 weeks before you make the sale.”

Such visibility is a big help for retailers.

“It’s great when a manufacturer has a strong B2B website,” Mueller said. “The RSA can tell a customer when it will be delivered,” adding that his “dream technology” would be an order tracking function for furniture along the lines of Domino Pizza’s tracking app.

“I would never (have) to answer another customer call on order status, especially with custom orders,” Mueller said.

Order visibility will avoid “the unknown” for customers, Shefsky said.

If “we have someone come into the store and make a purchase and later didn’t feel good about it, that’s a loss,” he said. “If they’re ordering for the holidays and have family come in, (with order visibility) we can set the expectations up front.”

What did the panelists expect to see in the next five years?

“From a manufacturing standpoint, you’ll have a lot less time to make decisions, and that’s driven by the customer,” Wagner said. “The next thing is having the people to do it; developing talent is another challenge.”

Keeping a caring attitude in a technology-driven environment will be a differentiator, according to Mueller.

“Five years from now, if your people still care, this something that used to be a norm will be a competitive advantage,” he said, adding that 3D room planners will be used to make more buying decisions. “The biggest objection is ‘how will this look in my room?’”

Shefsky expects technology to have increasing influence on the purchase process.

“More than 90% of the purchase decision has been made when they walk through the door, and we have only so much time to make a difference with that,” Shefsky pointed out. “That will only speed up. Technology does make it easier for the staff and easier for the customer to do business with you.”

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