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The Evolution of Furniture Websites… or Lack Thereof

Furniture World News


While retailers have slowly embraced furniture websites and made changes, they’re still not engaging online visitors like they should be to increase sales. Follow the history of furniture websites and learn how to embrace your website better to see results.

It wasn’t until recently that website providers amped up their game. With huge technological improvements, the cost for a retailer to build and maintain a website has dropped dramatically, while the options for a better experience for the consumer has improved. The main problem that exists today with furniture websites is they ignore the primary reason for their existence: a defined process to engage visitors, increase their time on site, to create leads and sell lots of stuff, either in-store or online.

When you think about it, there are basically three things you can accomplish with the Internet: search for stuff, find stuff and buy/sell stuff. Retailers use their websites to get found, engage with their customers, and get solid leads to make a purchase. Duncan Hines is a good example by asking their online visitors a question: What do you want to bake today? They immediately engage visitors with a question.

Early Furniture Websites Needed “Hits”

Most everyone knows that Google transformed how we accomplish these three basic functions of search, find, buy/sell online.

When I entered the furniture industry directing the marketing for Ashley furniture, I remember the typical furniture website landing page had a logo, maybe a picture and a bunch of links.

If there were pictures next to the links, they were usually the size of postage stamps. The pages were small because the operating systems were just beginning to evolve, many having only 256MB of ram, compared to the 4 to 8GB today.

In 2000, there were 282 million people in the U.S. and 121 million were wired for the Internet. The goal back then was to get traffic – “hits” to your furniture website with the hope that people would search out your brand/product and then visit your store to make the purchase.

Retailers Slowly Embrace Furniture Websites embracing furniture websites

The whole concept of search began to take hold in 2001-2002 with the introduction of Windows XP, which had a much faster operating system, better graphics and much more. This allowed companies to upgrade their websites with better images and content. Content was becoming critical because of Goggle’s search algorithms.

Coincidentally, Wayfair was founded in 2002 and Apple launched iTunes in 2003, along with peer to peer networks such as Napster and Skype. Soon video conferencing, video messaging and more took hold and social networking launched with websites like LinkedIn and MySpace, with Facebook soon following.

Around 2005 retailers started to embrace the web, although skeptically. There were a few companies that entered the category specializing in building furniture websites, yet most consisted of a landing page and maybe a few of their bestselling pieces of furniture. It wasn’t cheap building a furniture website back then and the tools to do so were hard to find. The concept of selling furniture online was in its infancy and mostly dismissed.

Around 2007, the idea of selling online became a hot discussion. Coincidentally, Apple launched the first iPhone and the “mobile friendly” seed was planted. Also, the recession hit, and everything changed for the worse. Furniture retail fell off a cliff. Internet users decreased too, and the brick and mortar furniture store count began to decrease dramatically.

Most people said selling online would never happen, because you must see, touch, feel and sit on furniture. I knew different, because I was working as the CMO of a company that was selling $50 million/year to Costco who was only selling that product online. Yes, they had returns because of the color, touch, feel, etc., but that was around 7% and they built that into the price.

Content, SEO and “Style” Define Websites

I remember 2009 as the year furniture retailer websites started to become relevant. There really wasn’t a good argument anymore about not having a website because the percentage of Internet users doubled to 222 million users.

The problem for retailers was that there wasn’t any good content. When I say content, I mean “words.” Manufacturers had pictures, but relatively no content or “word descriptions” that could be found in search. Google doesn’t recognize pictures in search, just words: however with metadata today, that has changed.

Because of this, everyone was selling SEO packages, so your furniture website would get found. You couldn’t open an email program without a ton of people guaranteeing you “search results,” much like today when every other email is about selling digital marketing/AdWords so you’ll get found. But no one ever addressed how to engage people into a sales funnel that was quantitative, a problem that is still prolific today.

Back then and still today, if you Googled a search phrase only the website that had those words or part of that search phrase would be found. Retailers loaded their websites with pictures and the website providers started to implement a “Narrow Your Search” function by style which most still use today. The problem is that people don’t search by style, they search for “the look.” I always ask people … “What is a Transitional Style”? I have no clue, and everybody has different definitions of style, so this function makes no sense. Who makes those decisions anyway?

In 2012, the Internet started to explode, gaining 20 million new users in the U.S. in one year. To create a better experience, many web providers started to implement Save to Favorites, Sort by Price, What’s in Stock and a Room Planner that required a degree in design to figure out how to use it.

The website providers amped up their game and with huge technological improvements, the cost for a retailer to build and maintain a website came down dramatically, while the options for a better experience for the consumer improved. However, these websites still ignored the primary reason for their existence: a defined process to engage visitors, increase their time on site, to create leads and sell stuff.

Why Furniture Websites Still Don’t Meet Expectations

The look of furniture websites has dramatically improved, as have the navigation elements, but there are still a couple of major problems haunting retailers: Content and Engagement.

Retailers need to take steps to improve furniture websites. Furniture websites need content, so your retailer will get found in search with “words/descriptions” because our industry manufacturers don’t invest in this. We all see such a proliferation of companies trying to sell us digital marketing/AdWords, much like they did 10 years ago with SEO packages, so you’ll get found, supposedly. Buyer beware, there is an absolute ton of fraud with BOTS and Click Farms in this arena.

The second and probably most profound failure is not getting people to engage on your furniture website. Once you spend all that money to get people to your website, then what? What’s your process? How do you work them through the sales funnel? A strategy of hope?

Consumers aren’t spending a lot of time on furniture retail websites, some less than a couple minutes and retailers are starting to question their web providers. Even though websites are prettier, much of the brief time on site issues can be attributed to a pedestrian user experience that hasn’t changed much in the last 5 years. No one searches by style, they search the look. No one helps/engages you through the search experience on your websites. It boils down to that word again – hope – hope they find it, hope they come to your store – hope for anything to happen.

Engaging Furniture Shoppers Online Today

A website needs to be your no. 1 salesperson, or silent salesperson, and as such must act like one. It needs to HELP the consumer find what they are looking for and it needs to be done quickly and efficiently, especially when it comes to a mobile experience.

As a salesperson, why wouldn’t you ask the same questions on your website that you ask in person when someone comes to your store? You ask those questions to expedite the search and find function in your store for your customers, correct?

The first question Duncan Hines asks when you go to their website: “What would you like to bake today”? They don’t talk about their company, they want to help people find what they are looking for … narrowing the search and find function. What’s the first question you ask your consumer when they visit your website?

Today there are 290 million people in the U.S. on the Internet, 87% of the population is wired. If you don’t engage your visitors with questions, how can you give them answers or solutions?

The goal of your website is to create actionable leads, helping people looking to buy furniture find what they want and buy it from you. If you don’t create that environment, your website just becomes a picture album with some pricing and that awful room planner that no one uses with a proven strategy that doesn’t work … HOPE!

More about the Author: Bill Napier is Managing Partner of Napier Marketing Group. He has been the chief marketing officer of several small, medium and large companies throughout his career, most notably Ashley Furniture Industries Inc. Bill is also a featured writer and speaker in the retail industry. His passion is to help retail brands & brick mortar retailers grow their businesses by creating, guiding and deploying successful marketing B2B/B2C solutions integrating traditional marketing with the web/social media. He has demonstrated this with his FREE website www.social4retail.com with hundreds of articles and “how To” strategies for retailers and brands. Bill can be reached at; billnapier@napiermkt.com or 612-217-1297.

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