Combining an online presence with a brick-and-mortar store gives retailers the competitive advantage
Casual Living Staff, February 13, 2018
Retailers and manufacturers agree that online retailing presents more opportunity than headache for traditional casual furniture stores. And a retailer’s objective should be to place the category at the top of the consumer’s mind—and not be unduly concerned about direct competitors.
Further, traditional retailers are finding it easier to develop an online presence; their websites sell directly to consumers and at the same time, draw shoppers into the store. It’s also becoming easier for them to display merchandise online and to handle fulfillment. But furniture will always be the type of merchandise most people prefer to buy in a physical store.
Meanwhile, etailers Wayfair, Amazon and Houzz report that outdoor furniture is one of their fastest growing retail categories, with new technology such as augmented reality helping to boost sales.
Tim Newton, managing director of Leader’s Casual Furniture (St. Petersburg, Fla.), predicts consolidation in the casual furniture business, much as pharmacies and hardware stores consolidated in decades past, with a few giant chains absorbing independent operations. Online technology is speeding and exaggerating that phenomenon, since larger retailers have stronger online sales and fulfillment capabilities. Newton urges brick-and-mortar stores of any size to develop an online presence, and combine the two models. Leader’s does just that, with 18 showrooms plus a user-friendly online store.
“Consolidation of the industry doesn’t have to be a disaster for smaller businesses, but it will make you work harder,” he says. “You have to be more tech-savvy, as the category becomes more top-of-mind to the consumer, with a wider range of product available and higher expectations of the level of fulfillment. The category will find a natural balance. E-commerce combined with a good in-store experience will be the winning combination.”
Newton also urges furniture dealers to broaden their idea of who their competitors are. Other furniture dealers, he says, are not the enemy.
“Anybody who takes consumers’ disposable income is my competitor,” he says. “People spend more on iPhones than on casual furniture. Your objective is to persuade the consumer to spend disposable income on furniture. If we compete among each other for market share, we’re fighting the wrong battle.
“The e-tailers who sell the most casual furniture, like Amazon, BenchMade Modern, Wayfair, are tech companies that sell furniture. They’re heavily invested in tech and fulfillment. They eat various merchandise categories up as they get better and better. You never see a furniture specialist getting into tech: just vice versa.”
Newton notes that a solid online presence will lead not only to remote sales, but to a stronger brick-and-mortar strategy. If customers have had good experiences preshopping your online offerings, they’ll come into your store pre-qualified and ready to buy.
“Casual furniture retailers are only now becoming open to displaying products on the web,” he says. “Many stores still don’t show a robust shopping experience online; they want you to come into the store to see what they have. How is that competitive in today’s conditions, when consumers can get similar product, with reliable fulfillment, from online retailers?”
MOST CONSUMERS RESEARCH ONLINE FIRST
Mike Gaylord, vice president of sales for Agio International, says he’s seen studies that show nearly 75% of consumers are researching product online prior to coming into a traditional store. Retailers must have an online presence, he insists, including ways to buy and fulfill remotely. He also agrees with Newton that casual furniture retailers should not focus on competing with each other, but on keeping the category in the consumer’s mind.
“We believe more players in the industry will increase the size of the outdoor pie, not cut into someone else’s piece of the business,” Gaylord says. “We know retailers who compete on several levels, whether they warehouse inventory or not. Showcase your collections.
“Retailers without the product on hand can connect prospects and ‘just looking’ researchers with their physical stores by engaging the consumer in conversations. Today’s consumers are used to sharing more of their personal stories than ever before, thanks to social media. Retailers can tap into that to learn their buying intentions, budgets and timetables.”
From those interactions, Gaylord says, the retailer can capture contact information for future marketing, and create and disseminate information that’s informative, instructional, perhaps even entertaining.
“Invite them in for a consultation or a special event,” he urges. “Offer ‘online only’ coupons or discounts. At minimum, conduct an online chat with them. Get into those online spaces; that’s where the customers are.”
E-COMMERCE BRINGS CUSTOMERS TO STORE
Gaylord notes that casual furniture can be compared to cars and bedding, in terms of how effectively they’re sold online. Those sales also involve online research, comparison, checking consumer reviews and product ratings.
“However, so much of a consumer’s buying decision for those products involves actually touching or seeing the product,” he adds.
E-commerce delivers customers to your doorstep, Gaylord notes. Once they’re in the store, already armed with their research, it will be easier to up-sell, offer accessories, promote your after-sale services, expertise and advice: all necessities for building customer relationships.
“We know people research before they buy,” he says, “so why not help them do that by becoming a resource? Be the expert consumers turn to.”
James Goff, vice president at Woodard Furniture, agrees that brick-and-mortar retailers hold a big advantage since they have furniture available for testing. “Prior to the Internet boom, customers would only buy furniture when they’d checked three items off their list: eye appeal, sit appeal and price,” Goff says. “The Internet took the furniture industry by surprise when customers were buying furniture without checking the sit appeal, but actually having the item in a store for a customer to sit on and get the whole feel—scale, size and comfort—is clearly an advantage.
“Also, if you have a website, you can turn a 15,000-squarefoot showroom into a limitless offering online with a ‘come test drive a lounge chair at one of our convenient locations’ approach. Brick-and-mortar stores have the advantage of selling services that the e-tailers can’t offer: timely delivery, personal customer service if something goes wrong, store warranty service for minor issues, a resolution team on staff, and the absolute advantage of intimate knowledge of the product.”
Further, a consumer will go to a store and reference what someone online is offering, and ask the store to match the offer. “We’re moving more and more to online sales, which is not a bad thing, just a different way of doing business,” Goff adds. “I prefer to purchase large-ticket items in person, face-to-face, and I would bet there are a lot more people out there like me.”
Serena Martin, marketing/tradeshow coordinator at Zuo Modern, says her company sells all of its casual furniture and outdoor accessories online. She agrees that competition is good for the individual retailer, and leads to increased sales for all.
“The market is also changing as more and more of our vendors now offer outdoor furniture,” she reports. “The market for residential outdoor and commercial resort-style living is absolutely booming. We attribute this to marketing and sales competition. Outdoor furnishings are no longer seen as a luxury, or only for the rich. Retail and online markets want to stay competitive while offering a variety of styles to meet any budget.
“Some retailers showcase a sale on an item they have on their floor to boost sales in store and online, or might share images of in-store displays so customers can come and test out the item. Others curate what they offer online based on what’s in stock and accessible or shippable. Whether the operation is small or large, showcasing even a small bistro table or outdoor bar chair helps to start the conversation and leads to more sales.”
Martin notes that since many consumers are well-traveled, the hospitality industry is influencing casual furniture.“For example, our Majorca Daybed is something you would find in a high-end tropical resort,” she says. “We designed this item to give everyday consumers the feel of escaping to a resort without leaving their homes.”
E-TAILERS EXPAND OUTDOOR OFFERINGS
Eliza Goehry, associate director of outdoor furniture at Wayfair, reports that more people are shopping online in the home category thanks to superior selection, delivery, customer service and visual merchandising techniques. While the outdoor furniture has traditionally been sold on a seasonal basis, she says, e-tailers like Wayfair can sell the category year-round.
“The target customer demographic and competitors align with those of the larger Wayfair brand,” she says. “We’ve expanded our outdoor offering to include dining sets, fire pits, hammocks and storage sheds, as well as thousands of exterior home renovation products. The View in Room 3-D feature in our app uses augmented reality to let our customers virtually see how an item looks and fits in their space. We also offer outdoor scenes in our Shop The Look feature, which lets shoppers explore more than 18,000 images of every room in the home, styled in hundreds of different ways.
Houzz, a website devoted to decorating and home improvement, would not comment for the story, but did share its Landscape Trends Study, which reports that the share of outdoor projects motivated by a recent home purchase increased in 2017 to 33%, compared to 25% in the 2016 study. Top outdoor purchases among renovating homeowners include lounge furniture (36%), fire pits (32%) and dining furniture (28%). This would appear to present remarkable opportunities to both brick-and-mortar and online retailers.