Months of quarantine have been a bittersweet boon for the home category—who hasn’t taken a critical look at their space and found a few corners that could use an upgrade? The challenge for brands who sell furniture and decor has been to harness all that enthusiasm without a key selling tool: a brick-and-mortar store where customers can touch fabrics and sit in sofas.
For California Closets, shelter-in-place orders hit particularly hard. With more than 100 showrooms and a sales model that typically included sending a specialist into the client’s home, the organization and storage company relied heavily on the in-person experience. “Pre-COVID, we were so focused on what that in-home experience looked like that I don't think we thought much about virtual,” says COO Andrew Wadhams. “In February, we had close to 10,000 consultations, and 95 percent of those were in-home." But it didn't take them long to pivot: "By early April, we were 70 percent online,” he recalls.
The move was rocky at first—conversion rates dipped—but the company’s designers soon found ways to inspire customers through the window of a computer screen. And they aren’t alone: From Parachute and Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams to CB2 and The Container Store, home retailers have discovered that virtual design consultations are a great, relatively easy way to engage with customers. What’s more, they work. Parachute founder Ariel Kaye says that the average order value for a virtual consultation is nearly double a regular order placed online, and other brands have noticed similar trends.
As a result, even though a vaccine seems closer than ever and shoppers hope to soon venture out again, most companies are planning to keep going with their virtual offerings. “The more opportunities we have to talk to a customer, the better,” says California Closets CMO Samara Toole. “They see the CAD drawing virtually, they go to the showroom to see the samples, and maybe the designer comes to their house to check one last thing. Those are always the ones who convert higher, buy more, are more engaged.”
These virtual programs tap into an open secret of the home industry: When customers shop for their furniture and decor, they’re not only questioning the product, they’re questioning their own taste as well. Unlike fashion, where people are more likely to trust their instincts, home shoppers often feel more at ease when they’re given design advice by an expert. And if that expert can actually see into their homes via a Zoom window? All the better.
For the digitally native furniture brand Interior Define, pivoting to online-only selling was a return to its roots. Unlike many furniture retailers, Interior Define had already invested in cutting-edge technology, from visualization tools that show what a piece looked like throughout the upholstery customization process to an AR app that shows customers what a piece will look like in their own living rooms. Its in-store sales team had always juggled in-person and online clients, with upwards of 40 to 50 percent of sales coming from virtual customers. They also frequently put together mood boards or room plans for clients that incorporated a customer’s existing pieces—a service that often leads to stronger sales.
“We can show you how pieces you have will look with your new sofa in your living room using the same wall color you have, but adding our rugs and side tables,” says Interior Define’s chief marketing officer Jill John. “We’ve found that the conversion is so much higher because now you're getting an entire design concept rather than a one-off sofa or chair. Maybe they can't touch and feel, [but] they can get the overall impression of what that design will look like.”
When the company's Philadelphia store opening was postponed in March, John decided to have the in-person sales staff the brand had hired start selling online, taking on primarily local clients. She soon discovered that while clients weren’t enthusiastic about in-store shopping, they were often willing to let a sales associate into their home. “They want to make sure they're buying the right piece because they're not able to go into a store to touch and feel,” says John. “They want someone to walk them through the buying process.”
The model has proven so successful in recent months that the company has expanded with that setup to Atlanta, Dallas and Denver, and is targeting four additional markets by the end of the year—not as a way to circumvent opening stores, but to pave the way for new outposts.
Some brands are arriving at a client’s home with more than just advice. When British upholstery brand Maker & Son brought its bespoke, all-organic sofa designs to the U.S. market in 2019, founder Alex Willcock’s growth strategy was centered not on opening stores across America, but on a network of vans that contained a sofa for interested clients to test out while perusing brand books and fabric samples. “The van is a few yards outside their front door—they’re not even going onto the street,” says Willcock. “People deeply appreciate the convenience of it, and not only from a COVID point of view.”
In September, Maker & Son experienced its biggest-ever single order: a customer who started a conversation with a sales associate on the site’s online chat, was visited by the van, and bought enough upholstery for their entire house less than two days later. “If someone gets to a point that they say, ‘I would like this van to come visit me,’ and then the person who gets out of the van is on brand, and then they like what they see in the van—it’s a full thing,” says Willcock. (Maker & Son currently deploys vans in New York and California, as well as throughout the U.K. and Australia.) “If the touchpoint where the customer finally speaks to someone builds trust, you can very rapidly go to a sale.”
Innovation around consumer touchpoints fits into a shift that was already underway before the pandemic: the move away from “experiential retail” and towards “service retail.” According to leading retail designer and brand strategist Justin Huxol, brands are shifting their focus away from the immersive, Instagrammable moment and towards a shopping experience with a takeaway that’s more useful for the consumer. “We're seeing a lot of brands that are actually trying to add value to your experience in the retail environment,” he explains. “You're not just taking away a selfie. Instead, you're going to a brick-and-mortar location actually having a one-to-one interaction [and] guided experience.”
In the home world, that may be a Zoom chat with an interior designer, or a van with a sofa and fabric samples rolling up to your front door. Whatever it is, companies are scrapping plans to funnel their customers into specific lanes. Rather, the goal is to meet people wherever they are, in whatever fashion they’re comfortable with, and give them something they value.
The result can seem like a bit of a grab-bag approach, but it’s working. “We really are trying hard to not prescribe that path,” says Toole. California Closets has found that more clients are doing their first consultation online, but see no huge drop-off in conversion rates. For Maker & Son, 70 percent of clients who opt for a van visit will buy a sofa—many of them while the van is still in their driveway. The future of shopping isn’t just online, it’s wherever you want it to be.
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