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Today’s furniture consumer no longer wants to browse a thick catalog or visit multiple home furnishings showrooms. They’re doing more research online and, therefore, expect more of a virtual personal assistant to help guide them throughout their buying journey.

Understanding a customer’s individual shopping behavior can make or break a company in any retail industry, but none more so than a home furnishings retailer. What they sell is personal – it’s the mattress you sleep on, the sofa you lounge on, or the dining room table you sit around to eat a family meal.

What kind of furniture you buy for your home is a personal choice, but what’s also personal is a consumer’s desire for the shopping process to be quick, easy and fun. The old tried and true method of simply trying to get a customer into the store to make the best deal just doesn’t cut it anymore, because furniture shoppers avoid the dreaded showroom visit until after they’ve researched online and found exactly what they want to buy.

Why Home Furnishings Retailers Need AI
Incorporating technology that allows for personalization gives home furnishings retailers the opportunity to use their website — or their online showroom — to get to know their customers and to start building a relationship. Smart AI-driven software tracks a shopper’s internet cookies and remembers who they are, what they previously shopped for, and makes suggestions on related items that might interest them.

AI and other interactive technologies also make searching for stuff online more intuitive, especially when websites display products by visual sort and serve up all similar items sold by a home furnishings retailer, says furniture marketing expert Bill Napier.

“Amazon and other online retailers make it really easy for you to find what you’re looking for and buy stuff quick,” says Napier, a former CMO for Ashley Furniture. “It’s the showroom experience online, but it’s also the online experience in the showroom.”

Think about how consumers buy items from places like Amazon or Wayfair. They search for a red leather sofa and the site quickly serves up all red leather sofas, as well as sofas with a similar fabric and look. Napier thinks the same approach can work on the website of a home furnishings retailer, combined with a customer-friendly kiosk in the physical showroom that displays everything offered by the retailer. AI automatically populates the site or kiosk with that exact sofa arm, sofa leg, fabric and color, so you don’t have to go searching for it.

Napier says some home furnishings retailers resist adopting new technology because they don’t want to get into the “special-order” business. “I say, ‘That’s all Wayfair and Amazon do is special order and they’re kicking your ass, so why aren’t you adapting to that?’” he says.

That reluctance to change is causing the home furnishings industry to implode, Napier says, with only about 21,000 storefronts remaining, while places like Ashley and Bob’s Furniture are growing. “They’re implementing all of the technology that makes it easy to buy stuff,” Napier says. “Everybody else is still operating as ‘come into my store and see my stuff.’”

“Technology is a roadblock for us,” he adds. “To me, technology is the only thing that is going to save our industry. It’s going to cut costs, it’s going to improve conversions, and it’s going to improve time on site and store visits.”


Overcoming the Roadblocks to AI

Home furnishings retailers that want to keep their brick-and-mortar stores open and compete with the big brands need to embrace AI as a way to make their jobs easier, not more complex, says Jason Pires, CEO of Furniture Branding, a California home furnishings marketing agency.

“The perception of AI is that it will take away work from people, and that’s not really the case,” Pires says. “What it’s going to do is facilitate different processes, but not necessarily replace anything. You’re still going to need people to strategize, to develop creatively, and so on. The role of AI is to help remove some of that complexity, medium to long term.”

Selling home furnishings today requires more knowledge than just what piece of furniture a customer might be interested in, says Alessandra Pecoraro, Furniture Branding’s digital marketing director.

“Demographics are good, but now we need to understand everything about their behavior: what they like, what they do on a daily basis, where they shop … you need to understand all of this behavior around how you will talk to the customer,” Pecoraro says. “It’s a new world. You’re not trying to bring your customers to where you are, you have to meet them where they are.”

When trying to sell independent retailers on the benefits of adding AI technology to their websites, Pires says he first considers a company’s overall marketing and advertising process and media strategy. They might be spending millions of dollars on media, but only a fraction of that is spent on what happens in the background to really make that media work.

“[Home furnishings] is not an industry that evolves particularly quickly,” he says. “The much larger ones, who spend millions of dollars a month on advertising, feel the pain quickly. For an independent retailer, it’s like a slow, dull pain as opposed to a sharp one. It’s harder to get them to move.”

AI Technology Must be Simple, Not Complex
Furniture shoppers want an easy way to search, and home furnishings retailers want an easy solution to facilitate that change.

Pires says some retailers think adding AI technology may be too complex, but many website tools only require overlay on an existing site with no code changes required. More importantly, he says, retailers need to stay on top of digital trends to remain relevant in today’s market. Using guided online shopping software tools and other interactive technologies, can help improve the bottom line.

“The technology is allowing you to give a much more personalized experience on a much larger scale,” Pires says, thereby reaching more customers with more products. “Technology allows you to focus on the quality of the products you choose, and allows you to focus on a tailored experience when you are one-on-one with a client.”

Seth Weisblatt, owner of Sam’s Appliance & Furniture in Fort Worth, Texas, believes the only way for smaller retailers to compete against the big guys is to use technology to keep up with the customer’s changing buying patterns. That doesn’t mean showing a website visitor 10,000 pictures of a particular product.

“How organized and easy are you making it for the consumer to not look at a million products, but look at the 10 that they are really interested in?” Weisblatt asks. “Focus that, so they see more of the product they are interested in and less of the noise they’re not interested in.”

Adding AI technology to a furniture retailer’s site isn’t very expensive, Napier says, and it doesn’t require a website overhaul, just one or two lines of code to make things work, which most technology companies help to facilitate. “It requires some backend preparation to apply the code, and it maybe costs a couple of hundred bucks a month per storefront. That’s basically selling one sofa a month,” he says.

Changing the Path of Resistance to AI
Napier says there are three reasons furniture companies are reluctant to adopt new technology:

  1. Small and midsize retailers don’t employ a true marketing person on staff who understands consumer behavior.
  2. Companies don’t want to invest in technology because they don’t understand it.
  3. Ultimately, they’re just cheap.

Retailers got burned a few years ago, Napier says, on the pay-per-click “new technology” that just didn’t pan out. “Everybody jumped into that, buying ad words, because they claimed clicks are conversions. You got a lot of eyeballs, but what did you sell?”

It’s also an insider vs. outsider scenario, with many furniture dealer platforms closed off to technology companies who want to innovate within those platforms, Napier says. “We need to open this up, so these technology companies can come in and make a good or fair platform a great platform.”

Instead of using technology to get consumers to buy more stuff, home furnishings retailers still rely on a strategy of hope, he adds. “We’ve lost thousands and thousands of retailers, over 400 factories, over 290,000 furniture jobs since 2004, mainly because we didn’t embrace change — and we still don’t,” Napier says. “Our industry is at a total disconnect from what everybody else is doing.”

Sidebar:

3 Steps for Home Furnishings Retailers to Adopt AI

  1.  Create a conversation with technology companies. Furniture retailers must aggressively seek out new technology solutions proven to work for the home furnishings industry.

  2. Do your due diligence. Figure out a way to try technology, test it and prove its ROI. Set metrics and goals. Technology companies should be able to facilitate analytics and A/B testing with time-sensitive guarantees.

  3. Consistently work to improve the technology. Track everything through analytics, and continually make improvements to personalize the experience. Gather customer feedback and never stay stagnant when it comes to implementing technology.


More about PERQ: PERQ (www.perq.com), boosts website conversion through its online guided shopping solution which leverages artificial intelligence to dynamically change existing websites to deliver the next best step in each buyer’s shopping journey. As experts in online consumer engagement and behavior, PERQ leverages over 10 million consumer data points, along with real-time visitor behavior.

Founded in 2001, PERQ solutions are used by more than 1,000 businesses in the home furnishing, auto retailing and multifamily industries. Its brands have been named to the Inc. “500 Fastest Growing Companies in America” list on three separate occasions. In 2017, PERQ won the Gold Stevie® Award for lead generation software and Product of the Year in the Big Business Awards.

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Read other articles by Scott Hill