With ecommerce demand going through the roof against a backdrop of enforced store closures, the need to embrace technology has never been clearer. In this article, Paul Farley asks the furniture sector’s tech vendors how they can help retailers rise to the challenge …  

The pandemic has worked wonders for online shopping, with the furniture sector one of the major beneficiaries. In 2020, online sales of home products in the UK grew by +74.4% (reports IMRG Capgemini) – indeed, online furniture sales were up +63% in December alone.

Interestingly, the real winners of this accelerated channel switch were not the big pureplay online businesses but multichannel retailers, which saw online sales growth of +57% (versus just +9.1% for the pureplays) – proving that bricks and clicks (and a pinch of ‘shop local’) is a recipe for success.

Increasingly, technology is playing a vital role in enabling businesses to meet demand. A retailer wishing to upscale or optimise their operation must turn to modern management platforms, which can provide them with a detailed and immediate picture of stock levels, marketing activity ROI, buying trends and more, while cutting-edge services guarantee robust and engaging ecommerce websites at the front end. 

Greater technological agility means businesses can pivot to meet changing demand, cut costs and reduce waste, at speed – while freeing up time spent on mundane tasks.

The area is complex, yet understanding its potential is necessary for keeping up with the pace of progress. In the March issue of Furniture News, we asked a range of sector-specialist tech vendors to talk about their services, and how they were best applied. We started by asking them how they can help furniture retailers overcome today’s challenges in particular …

Wayne Robbins (Iconography): I think people are looking for productivity gains from smaller teams, so efficiency and accuracy are essential – these are the key benefits of a unified system. If a web order comes through for a made-to-order sofa, the lead time given to the customer online will be the right one – there aren’t different lead times for the website and back-end legacy retail system (this sometimes happens due to different calculation formulas, where one system uses working days only, or doesn’t factor in turnaround time in your warehouse). 

If a phone order is received and the customer asks about stock availability for “those cushions” or “that lamp”, the information about stock and its location (across multiple stores or within a single warehouse) should be easily accessible and always accurate. With unified commerce there is no delay, no sales order file to be updated, no data to be re-keyed later in the day, or warehousing updates held up by an integration. All data is entered into one database, in true real time. 

David Thompson (Swan Retail): Overcoming the challenges of the pandemic means using retail technology to connect with your customers, no matter where they are. Retail solutions need to go above and beyond traditional in-store requirements to give consumers the same experience of furniture retailers online. 

That is why our solutions include the creation and integration of ecommerce. Our systems integrate with WooCommerce, Shopify and other leading ecommerce platforms. Having an in-house digital agency means we can equip the furniture industry with cutting-edge web design, backed by the power of our retail management systems.

Consumers expect the omnichannel experience when buying furniture, and we give our retailers the tools to deliver that. For example, our new mobile app, Fuse, is fully customisable and allows retailers to engage with their customers in their pockets. It harnesses the power of push notifications, loyalty rewards, promotions, news, polls, events and more.

Integration is key for our retailers, and we make sure our solutions are joined up. It reduces admin, makes processes more efficient and gives retailers a single customer view. This brings together cross-channel customer data to give important insights into behaviour and loyalty.

David Hewitt (RetailSystem Group): By minimising the back-office work required in, for example, updating prices, the retailer’s time is freed up to allow them to concentrate on running the store and making the environment a safe place to trade from. It also reduces the need for representatives to have face-to-face discussions with buyers, freeing up more time for them to become ambassadors for their product and assist with training and merchandising, rather than waiting in line to see the buyer. 

Branwell Moffat (KPS Digital): At KPS, we have a number of customers (including furniture retailers) that have been impacted over the last year. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic forced most furniture retailers to close their stores for a long period of time, we were working with our customers to help bridge the gap between the in-store and online experiences.  

Part of this is the tactile aspect of seeing, feeling and trying furniture – but also the personalised service you will often get within a store. We would describe most furniture as a ‘high-consideration’ item, which means that a customer is much more likely to spend time considering the purchase, and is much more likely to want to physically see it in person before purchasing than when they are purchasing a low-consideration item.  

The first step is to really understand what the in-store experience is like. How do your showroom staff interact with customers, and what types of questions are they asked? How do they make a customer feel, and what are the key triggers to helping a customer make a decision to purchase?  Once you understand that experience, you can look at how you can replicate some of this online.

We have worked with our customers to bridge this gap with initiatives such as enhanced product photography, enhanced product information (such as clear explanations of the different levels of firmness of a mattress or sofa), live chat with product experts, and also levels of personalisation which take into account a customer’s complete omnichannel engagement with a retailer.

While it is unlikely that a retailer can fully bridge the gap between in-store and online experiences, there is a lot we have achieved over the past few years, and this has helped to drive a much higher proportion of purchases online for all of our customers. We see a future in which stores will become showrooms for a digital business, and where every order is a digital order.

Read more from furniture retail's tech experts in the March 2021 issue of Furniture News.