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E-commerce is picking up steam in the home furnishings arena. Is your store ready to take on the changes required to compete?
By Daniel Beaird
The future for e-commerce of furniture and home furnishings is bright and getting brighter by the day.
Online sales of home furnishings is gaining momentum, driven primarily by younger consumers coming into the market. Those millinnials are in tune with technology and instant gratification that it can deliver. Plus, the hassle of going into a store, communicating with a “real” person and scheduling the delivery of purchases is too much for one hipster to manage.
U.S. retail e-commerce sales of furniture and home furnishings grew 15.2 percent last year to $20.4 billion, according to New York-based eMarketer, an independent market research firm that provides insights and trends related to digital marketing, media and commerce. Clients for the company include two-thirds of the Fortune 500 companies. But while digital is having an impact on furniture and home goods, shoppers remain very store-centric.
That said, more than 80 percent of furniture purchases are influenced online, according to Boston-based Blueport Commerce, which helps furniture retailers with e-commerce opportunities.
When furniture and home goods shoppers do commit online, they spend more per transaction than in other sectors.
According to San Francisco-based MarketLive, a provider of e-commerce technology and services to businesses like home goods retailers World Market and Design Within Reach, desktop and mobile commerce buyers spent $295.73 per transaction on average in the first quarter of this year.
42.3% Percentage of consumers who have bought furniture online
“It’s harder for furniture customers to describe what they want,” said Yory Wurmser, an analyst for eMarketer. “They may have a mental image, but it isn’t completely clear. Customers research online, but they don’t buy online.”
Furniture, mattresses and rugs often associated with delivery surcharges are a factor holding back the sector online too. However, that is changing as pure-play online retailers like Wayfair continue to grow in popularity. For example, only 2 percent of consumers had purchased furniture online in 2010 according to national consumer surveys conducted by Home Furnishings Business’ parent Atlanta-based FurnitureCore. Five short years later, that number has jumped exponentially to 42.3 percent.
Multi-channel retailers like Williams-Sonoma and RH, formerly Restoration Hardware, are also translating catalog success to digital sales.
“RH has been good at turning physical stores into showrooms,” Wurmser said. “They’ve turned traditional sales space into displays for a small portion of their stock, and they send customers to an online catalog encouraging them to buy online.”
RH announced a 22 percent gain in same-store sales last year and followed it with a 15 percent year-over-year increase in net revenue in the second quarter of 2015. It has gained a competitive edge by creating showroom displays that draw customers into the store, which is something Amazon can’t compete with. RH is currently about 50-50 for brick-and-mortar and direct.
80% Percentage of furniture purchases influenced by the Internet
Source: Blueport Commerce
“Retailers are realizing they can’t fight showrooming,” Wurmser said. “For furniture, the experience factor is important, brand names are important and quick delivery is important, which is an advantage to local stores. The upper-middle class wants a lifestyle experience in the store with upper-end furniture and luxury items in general.”
While pure-play online retailers like Amazon have disrupted the retail space and have been a catalyst for retailers to improve efficiency, they can’t compete against local fulfillment.
For example, a majority of the consumers who purchased furniture online in FurnitureCore’s national consumer surveys purchased from an online store backed up by an existing establishment. Almost half—49.1 percent—chose this option with approximately one-third, or 33.8 percent, choosing to purchase from a pure-play online retailer.
45% Percentage of consumers who purchased online and picked up in-store
Source: Blackhawk Engagement Solutions
According to Wurmser, the future growth of e-commerce has consumers buying things online and picking those items up at the store. But retailers have been slow to adopt omni-channel marketing and commerce because of lack of training for sales associates.
“Retailers are very sensitive to getting it right, and that’s why you’re still seeing the rollouts very slow,” said Ken Burke, CEO of MarketLive. “Not all retailers are going for this because they want to make sure the infrastructure is in place. You still need the human element at the brick-and-mortar level to complete the customer experience.”
However, demand for buying online and picking up in-store—also known as click and collect—is growing, and research suggests consumers are drawn to this purchasing option in order to save money and get their purchases faster.
In an April 2015 study by Lewisville, Texas-based Blackhawk Engagement Solutions, a provider of customized incentive and engagement solutions for consumer promotions, 45 percent of respondents had purchased online and picked up in-store in the past six months.
While some research points to low adoption of buy online, pick up in-store among retailers, more studies suggest usage is rising. An April 2015 study by KPMG and The Consumer Goods Forum queried retailers worldwide about shopping and delivery options they offered, and buy online, pick up in-store was the most cited at 59 percent.
5% Considered a “fantastic” online conversion rate in retail sales
Less than 60% cart abandonment considered a“breakthrough” for online retail.
Further FurnitureCore research also suggests consumers who purchase furniture online are very positive about the online buying process overall. They gave a very positive response to all three areas surveyed, including ease of shopping, wide choice of product and price. The only area in which a higher percentage of purchasers had very negative feelings was the product return issue. Some of this uneasiness may come from the consumer’s concern of never having seen or touched the furniture.
As research from Austin, Texas-based Edgecase, a provider of curated product data used by retailers, points out, shoppers in the home furnishings category need to ensure the products will fit both stylistically and functionally into their homes. By allowing a shopper to input both their functional needs as well as their style preferences, furniture dealers are able to provide them with a stronger set of results that can streamline the shopping process.
“Shopping and purchasing new furniture and home furnishings is a mysterious process for many consumers,” Marty Grosse, founder and CEO of Furniche.com, a San Antonio-based consumer research site focused exclusively on furniture and home furnishings. “Often consumers will admit they have no idea where to start.”
Grosse walks through a litany of problems for the furniture consumer at the beginning of their search, including:
• How do they know the quality differences in furniture that looks identical from one retailer to the next?
• What should they look for in a furniture store?
• What are the pitfalls when the shopping process begins?
• Whom do they trust and what should they know?
• How do they find the right types of stores in their area?
He argues shopping for one’s home should be a pleasant experience and not something to be feared.
“All customers go through a distinct psychological process when shopping and buying,” Grosse said. “Our purpose at Furniche is developing a relationship with our visitors as they journey through that process, provide honest information while maintaining a perspective that supports retailers and manufacturers.”
Furniche.com categorizes by product category as well as the stages of before, during and after shopping. Visitors can create a free account and upload pictures and plans for their home while commenting on others within the Furniche.com community. Furniture stores can be listed in its “Find a Store” directory that aims to enhance and expand stores’ web presence, and manufacturers can be listed to provide researching consumers information about products and support their retail partners.
“Furniture is a unique retail category, from its physical characteristics to the way people shop,” said Carl Prindle, president and CEO of Blueport Commerce. “Because of this, until recently, there had been a tremendous gap in e-commerce technology for furniture. And, it’s one of the few categories where traditional brick-and-mortar retailers actually have an advantage, a real opportunity to win online.”
The Amazon model is not well suited for furniture.
The product doesn’t fit neatly into an Amazon or UPS box. Brick-and-mortar furniture retailers have sophisticated and fast delivery networks, and infrastructure that makes it harder for Amazon to compete against. But now, retail sectors that were once thought not to have a place online like restaurants and car services have found their way with options like OpenTable and Uber, respectively.
Arash Fasihi, founder of Vancouver, Canada-based Cymax, an online retailer for home and office furniture, says furniture retailers didn’t want to hear about online just 10 years ago. But a different consumer base in millennials has emerged that has changed the game.
Bob Bradley, vice president of sales and development for Netsertive, a technology company based near Raleigh, N.C., asks furniture clients if they would buy from themselves on their mobile devices because that’s where millennials are pushing the market. Netsertive serves the home goods, electronics, automobile and high tech industries through local digital marketing and channel marketing technology.
“Furniture retailers didn’t think online was for them and they were partially correct,” Prindle said. “But as evidenced by Wayfair, the appetite for home furnishings online has exploded and furniture retailers are realizing they must catch up. It’s just a matter of how.”
Blueport Commerce has some of the largest furniture retailers in North America as clients, including Leon’s, The Brick of Canada, American Signature Furniture, Value City Furniture, Rooms To Go and Sleepy’s.
Prindle says bringing furniture retail online is a complex technological and operational challenge, but it can be done.
“It requires a completely nuanced level of technology and expertise in running an online store for real furniture,” Prindle said. “The marketing strategies are different, the merchandising standards are higher, and the customer service aspect of how you communicate delivery and tie up the experience is different.”
Furniture is a big-ticket purchase and shoppers need affirmation they are making the right choice. Brick-and-mortar retailers have trusted brands and seasoned sales associates in place for the shoppers. They also have an advantage in knowing their local customers.
“Furniture needs to be seen in person,” Prindle said. “Shoppers need to touch and feel it. Shopping for furniture is a really complicated omni-channel experience where brick-and-mortar store assets like their showrooms, vendor relationships and expansive product assortment bring huge value to the experience.”
According to Edgecase, a 5 percent conversion rate in overall retail sales online is considered fantastic while less than 60 percent cart abandonment is considered a breakthrough for all online retailers. This compares to an average in-store conversion rate of 20 to 40 percent that Edgecase argues has everything to do with the human touch of brick-and-mortar stores because training lies at the heart of all retail sales and remains the key concept of identifying shoppers’ needs and recommending products. Edgecase concludes the typical online store can’t understand these kinds of nuances and there is a language barrier between the shopper and the taxonomy created by the merchandising team.
“Independent furniture retailers have to use their advantages,” Bradley said. “Have your website up and accessible to your showroom merchandise, your SKUs loaded and be mobile ready. And finally, select the amount of product you need available in your delivery zone.”
The influence of Boston-based online furniture retailer Wayfair has been a benefit to the industry, according to Kyle Doran, president and co-owner of R&A Marketing, a second-generation advertising firm serving only furniture clients.
“More advertising dollars to a certain industry equals a benefit to everyone,” Doran said. “Wayfair’s pricing structure is in line with other furniture retailers as it doesn’t try to be the lowest-priced product.”
Doran says there’s some level of discomfort with Wayfair from furniture retailers because it’s seen as advertiser versus advertiser, but he said there shouldn’t be any discomfort.
“There are thousands of independent furniture store owners nationwide that can be mini distribution centers for manufacturers or online retailers,” Doran said. “Online selling will be there in the future, so the furniture retailers have to find ways to convert people to buyers.”
According to Mike Beaulieu, group manager of digital media sales for Wayfair, the Internet retailer has 30 million unique visitors per month and 300 million page views per month. Despite Wayfair’s e-commerce prowess, the large majority of its web visitors don’t buy anything because consumers often start by researching items online before purchasing at a store.
“We only convert 2 percent of our visitors into customers,” Beaulieu said. “The other 98 percent are going to buy in a local furniture store. It’s not that we lost the sale. The reality is the visitor was just using our site as an educational tool to figure out what to buy in a store.”
Hence, the launch of Wayfair’s “Get It Near Me” geo-targeting program in 2010, showing customers nearby furniture stores and charging local brick-and-mortars for the leads. Wayfair has partnerships with more than 100 clients, including some top 10 retailers like La-Z-Boy Furniture Galleries, Rooms to Go and Ashley Furniture HomeStore.
“Retailers are already spending advertising money, so why not partner with Wayfair to target local customers to their stores,” Beaulieu said.
Wayfair ran dozens of A/B tests comparing the conversion rates of online pages that displayed the advertisements to those that did not. The advertisements made absolutely no difference in purchasing patterns. Customers bought just as often on pages with advertisements.
Most recently, Wayfair joined forces with Houston-based Mattress Firm to offer shoppers quick online access to the most highly recognized mattress brands including Sealy and Tempur-Pedic on Wayfair.com. As a result, the Internet retailer will be able to shift mattress and box spring delivery to the more than 2,200 company-operated and franchised stores of Mattress Firm across 40 states.
However, the mattress deal has ended Wayfair’s “Get It Near Me” program with independent furniture retailer Steinhafels that would have liked to keep its own mattress deal with Wayfair.
“Local stores want to fulfill mattresses too,” said Dirk Stallman, marketing director of Waukesha, Wisc.-based Steinhafels Furniture, a third generation, family-owned business since 1934. “I can’t imagine we were their only call.”
Wayfair’s relationship with manufacturers like Hooker and Stanley differs from its retailer relationships in that it’s used more as a publishing vehicle for brand awareness and customer engagement campaigns for manufacturers.
The retailer launched an advertising program on its website in 2013 creating boutique pages and related display advertisements for suppliers of home furnishings designed to build brand awareness for suppliers and drive Wayfair’s traffic into brick-and-mortar stores.
“Brands spend a lot of time and money creating great assets to tell their brand story, and we have the ability to make sure those assets actually get seen by a large volume of in-market customers,” Beaulieu said. “When we got really serious about content, it was because there were so many e-commerce players in the space. We needed to find a way to differentiate ourselves, and reliable, helpful content was a good way to do that.”
Wayfair hired Kristine Kennedy, the East Coast editor of Better Homes and Gardens, in 2011 as its editorial director plus five additional editors and a copy editor. She has since moved on, but Wayfair has continued its push on the content side, recently announcing a partnership with Sherwin-Williams, the nation’s largest specialty retailer of paint and painting supplies, to launch its Restore & Renew DIY Hub.
The custom-designed online resource features four Sherwin-Williams diversified brands, including Purdy, Krylon, Thompson’s WaterSeal and Minwax, with exclusive content aimed to help consumers bring their do-it-yourself projects to life.
“Wayfair is the perfect partner as consumers have come to rely on the ideas and inspiration provided at Wayfair.com through unique and accessible editorial content and video,” said Ian Gresham, senior vice president of marketing for the diversified brands division at The Sherwin-Williams Co. “Together, we are enabling consumers to discover tips and tricks that will help them enhance any space.”
“We want to be taken seriously and want people to know they can come to our content hub for ideas on home improvement,” Beaulieu said. “We’ve also partnered with Condé Nast and Time in the past to put together programs with content at the center, meant to help people generate ideas. We approach brands when we have content that we feel is relevant to their business and sell them ad space based on that.”
Beaulieu says he’s not sure about the future of digital trends, but focusing on your advertisers and site visitors is very important because it’s the best research vehicle for consumers, and technology is only getting better.
“Our core business is e-commerce,” Beaulieu said. “We don’t take every single advertiser. If a brand does not get any value from our audience or the audience won’t get any value from the brand, we will turn them down and not run ads from that brand. It’s all about the right partners and not just trying to blast as many banner ads as possible.”
Bricks and Clicks
Mike Woodward, digital manager of furniture retailer RC Willey, also believes pure-play online retailers have helped the industry with geo-targeting initiatives by retargeting customers and serving up advertisements to specific, location-based customers.
“The No. 1 purpose of our e-commerce strategy is to drive store traffic,” Woodward said. And to that point, RC Willey wants its online experience to be similar to its in-store experience.
Utah-based RC Willey is owned by Berkshire Hathaway and has been in business for more than 80 years, starting as a small country store and the first brick-and-mortar in Syracuse, Utah. It’s just shy of $700 million in annual sales and, according to Woodward, once had 80 percent of the market share in its home state.
RC Willey tackled its e-commerce strategy in 2001, sooner than most furniture retailers, because of its electronics division. The retailer employs an internal team of web developers, database programmers and graphic designers to support the online strategy. Its omni-channel approach allows customers to finish transactions anywhere, pay online and schedule delivery online.
“Everyone’s happy,” Woodward said. “The consumer doesn’t have to come back to the store and the sales associate gets his commission.”
“A large majority of customers will go online to research,” Woodward said. “We offer coupons to redeem at the stores or we offer something else online to drive store traffic.”
Much like RC Willey, Canadian-based Stoney Creek Furniture also pointed out how much they want their online experience to be like their in-store experience.
Stoney Creek Furniture, like so many independent furniture retailers, uses Minnesota-based FurnitureDealer.Net for its back-end website development and support. FurnitureDealer.Net aims to create furniture retailer websites for consumers to explore, learn and shop their client’s product with the goal to deliver the best possible user experience, and make it easy for the consumer to find what they are looking for and make contact with the furniture retailer.
“Online will grow,” said Jim Fee, vice president of Stoney Creek Furniture. “But brick-and-mortars make customers feel good and online doesn’t bring that. It’s hard to recreate over point-and-click.”
Fee admits, though, that their website is the first place customers look when researching Stoney Creek Furniture and that today’s e-mail or phone call is the first face-to-face with customers looking to buy furniture.
Stoney Creek Furniture has a 20-year relationship with a local advertising agency that handles its direct access marketing, blog and social media accounts. The furniture retailer recently went through a rebranding exercise with its advertising agency and is in the process of reworking its website.
“Your online presence should be extra help for customers,” Fee said. “It’s the first time to engage them.”
Stoney Creek Furniture doesn’t have an online shopping cart, but employs follow-up surveys with customers via e-mail as well as e-mail blasts. Fee wonders how much is too much and how much is too little as Stoney Creek Furniture measures customer tolerance by opt out rates for its large e-club, direct mail group and digital offers.
“It’s an education for the customers, too, as they start receiving more and more e-messages from many different companies or sources,” Fee said. “It still boggles my mind that people will buy a $2,000 or $3,000 sofa online. That’s scary for any retailer, furniture or otherwise.”
But as mentioned before, Stoney Creek Furniture employs an advantage that independent furniture retailers have over Amazon or Wayfair. It uses a dispatch truck system to track the routing of its delivery trucks, and customers can check the status of when their purchase will be delivered and any special offers that are offered with it.
Josh Hudson, president of Florida-based Hudson’s Furniture, argues that pure-play online retailers like Amazon and Wayfair haven’t been able to make a profit in the furniture sector of their businesses even though there’s been a lot of communication about the effect they’ve had on the furniture industry.
“The heavier, larger items are just too costly to deliver and service,” Hudson said. “Wayfair’s new model to advertise products and then partner with a retailer like me to deliver them doesn’t seem like a threat, does it?”
Hudson adds that online sales are a challenge for furniture retailers because they require a lot of time, energy and resources to build, which can detract from the energy his stores need.
“I think they will grow in the future,” Hudson said. “But it will always be an insignificant number relative to brick-and-mortar store sales.”
He goes back to experiencing the product in the store where the customer can envision it, design it and talk to a professional about it. Hudson’s Furniture, like so many furniture retailers, aims to tie its website to its in-store experience.
“We try to create a website that represents us well from a branding perspective,” Hudson said. “If our site is appealing to the eye on a computer screen, then that should translate into a customer wanting to make an actual visit. And we drive them to the website through a digital marketing campaign as well as paid SEO campaigns, measured through Google Analytics.”
Ron Werner, president and co-founder of Colorado-based HW Home, has dubbed it “Bricks and Clicks.”
“It’s hard to have clicks without bricks,” Werner said. “Customer touch doesn’t happen in the online world.”
At a minimum, a retailer tells its story online and, at a maximum, customers effectively purchase its products online, according to Werner. While he is an advocate for online sales, he says shopping is a cultural experience and it’s something people enjoy.
“We’ve worked hard to de-commoditize the furniture industry,” Werner said. “The industry got in trouble because it commoditized itself. It was a race to the bottom.”
HW Home is a lifestyle furniture boutique that focuses on local buyers. It’s a regional player that brands itself as an alternative to the big design centers. It offers curated, stylistic furnishings based on the co-founders preferences.
“People like the shopping experience,” Werner said. “They want to interact with other human beings and they want products immediately. We want to be high touch and high service.”
HW Home makes sure all of its products are available online and aims to add a personal touch with a follow-up e-mail after an order is made.
“There’s nothing better than, at 11 p.m., seeing a sale come in online,” Werner said.
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