Brick-and-mortar retailers need a point of view and spirit of service

I have needed new eyeglasses for a long time. A really long time. The frame of my current pair is stretched out of shape. The lenses are scratched and match a prescription written years ago. As wave after wave of Covid-19 arrived, I didn’t relish a trip to an optometrist to try on dozens of frames, so I’ve put off buying new ones.

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Eventually, I told myself, I’d order them online. I can’t count the number of times I’ve visited the eyeglass e-tailer’s website. I created an account. I had friends measure my pupillary distance (once we figured out what that is) and they assessed the shape of my face so that I could narrow down my frame selections to those that will flatter my roundness. I’ve filtered for frame size, color and price. I’ve even virtually tried on several pairs. This has been going on for months. Still no glasses.

At this point, I’m ready to head to a local eyewear store, knowing I will pay more because I just want someone to give me some direction, to narrow my choices, so I can stop writing “get new glasses” on my to-do list every week.

Why am I telling you this? Because consumers setting out to buy home furnishings need help, too. If you’re a furniture or accessories retailer with a brick-and-mortar store, they need your help.

E-commerce isn’t going away, and we know consumers have found a comfort level buying for their homes online. There is a reason that the company sitting atop the inaugural Home News Now Top 125 Furniture and Bedding Retailers is Wayfair and its associated online brands.

But shopping online can be isolating and overwhelming. There is so much choice — confounding, maddening choice — that consumers’ often abandon digital shopping carts. Or they click “Buy” and then return the not-quite-right products later, where they end up with resellers, in landfills or even burned. The National Retail Federation reported earlier this year that the average rate of returns for online purchases is 20.8%, up from 18.1% last year. That’s a lot of not-quite-right products.

Search filters, chatbots and even AI-driven technology can help. They may allow us to see how a sofa will look in our living room; they even may recommend other pieces to pair with it. But as interior designers who’ve spent years educating themselves and practicing their craft know, you need to know some fundamentals of design, like scale and proportion, to create a great room. DIY design isn’t always as much fun as the home shows would have you believe. How many of consumers’ Pinterest pages turn into actual home designs?

A point of view

Most brick-and-mortar home furnishings retailers can’t compete with e-commerce in terms of selection,  price or convenience. But it’s not about just what you can sell your customers. It’s about how you can serve them.

I recently interviewed celebrity designer Thom Filicia, who has licensing deals with Vanguard Furniture and a host of textiles and accessories sources. We talked about how retailers can better merchandise their floors.

Tim Douglas/Pexels

“Sometimes retailers take a lot of pieces and they just sort of put them together,” he told me. “So I would recommend to retailers that it’s really important to create a vibe, an aesthetic. Because I think people come to retailers, not just for individual pieces, but because they have a certain energy and point of view.”

Embrace an aesthetic and carry it through your entire store, from the music to the scent. By developing a point of view, you can give your customers what they can’t get when they are endlessly scrolling through hundreds of sofas or area rugs online. You’re giving them direction.

This means showing shoppers how case goods, upholstery and accessories can be layered together for a complete look. It means regularly changing your floor displays, not just to accommodate new floor samples but to inspire your customers. Use photography to your advantage. Reconfigure product into different vignettes, photograph them and then display the photographs as backdrops or in frames on a console table to show options. You may already have lookbook and inspiration rooms on your website. But there are ways to bring those in-store, too.

At their service

Your own merchandising can inspire a lot of shoppers. Others (like me with the eyeglasses) need more direct help. Furnitureland South offers cool free online tools like project and room planners and mood board creators, but those augment a core of its business: a 17,000-square-foot design center, complete with swatches, samples and workspaces. It’s where customers can work with one of about 150 of the retailer’s design consultants, who will help them plan projects, shop and customize their furniture selections. The service, along with 1.3 million square feet of showroom space, has helped make retailers a destination for customers from all over who need assistance choosing roomfuls — often housefuls — of furniture.

On a smaller scale, Michael Alan Furniture & Design in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, has a team of designers who make house calls to start what it calls “the discovery phase” of its customers’ plans, inventorying their current space and creating a budget before bringing them back to the store for a design presentation and purchasing appointment. That relationship building — and a calendar of fun in-store events — has built the retailer a loyal customer base.

Can you employ the army of on-staff designers that Furnitureland South or even Michael Alan does? Maybe not. Can you hire a designer or expand your current team and offer more in-home visits? Can you partner with a local design firm? Can you host seminars to educate customers and shine a spotlight on the expertise your retail sales associates and category buyers already have? Can you make your store not just a place to buy furnishings but a place to turn when shoppers need advice? Yes. Yes. Yes. And yes.

Maybe you follow up months after the purchase: “I hope you’re loving your new dining set. We just got in a console table that would be fabulous with it.”

I’m also intrigued by the way RMP Partners is reimagining the traditional design center, expanding its scale and scope, and broadening its focus beyond just the trade but to the general public, as well. The company’s vision for the new Fondren Collective in Houston as an everything-for-the-home destination where people can shop and linger could be a model for others as the industry rethinks brick-and-mortar retail as a service-based enterprise.

Much as we’ve seen pricing bifurcate, with the high-end and the promotional ends doing well with their targeted consumers, retail is splitting as well. Online is ideal for convenience and selection. In-store is where the industry excel with advice, guidance and expertise. It brings new meaning to the opening, “How can we help you?”

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