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A Theory Of How Women Buy Furniture

Furniture World Magazine


Why 95% of our customers don’t care about furniture at all.

A lot of people sell furniture to earn a living, take care of their families, and build something for their future. They show up every working day to interact with shoppers who seek solutions to issues in their homes to create comfortable, livable, and memorable home environments for their families.

It seems to me that the way most retailers deal with customers sometimes comes up a little short, primarily due to a concentration on their story instead of the customer’s story. I wrote about this a few issues ago, but I think it deserves more attention.
Many retail furniture companies are fundamentally disconnected from consumers in ways that cause our industry to suffer low conversion rates (closing ratios) and overspend on promotional advertising. In order to draw more shoppers into stores to make up for these low conversion rates, retail profit margins get squeezed. This is, of course, not true of all furniture stores, but is prevalent enough to be cause for this current rant of mine.
As an industry we have forever been enamored with the things we sell. Everyone needs furniture, and most people in the United States have grown up with furniture all around them. Many store owners, therefore believe that the reason people choose to buy certain furniture items from a vast array of alternative offerings has all to do with the items themselves. This thinking causes them to focus on features and what we call “benefits”, and leave the consumer to choose the things she likes best or that she believes best fit her needs. Obviously, this doesn’t work all that well because about 40% of furniture shoppers don’t make their purchase for a long time after they first start shopping. How long? Who knows? We do know that the 40% number indicated a kind of floating “buying gap” that helps explain our 20% to 30% close rates.

Of course, price is an issue, but studies performed before the crash of 2007, 2008, and now 2009 showed that price wasn’t always the top issue on consumers’ lists of reasons not to buy. Other things were, like with the 41% who reported that there are too many options, and the 42% who said they have too much uncertainty about design. So, maybe it isn’t about our product offerings after all. Maybe there are things outside of our vast sea of offerings that people care more about. Like their homes for example.

Here’s a theory I have about the difference between how men and women shop that’s based on something my wife once told me about how I shop for clothing. She said “Joe, you see something in a men’s store that really looks good to you and you buy it. You never think about how it will look on you.” There you go. Most (male) furniture retailers see furniture products and their associated features in relation to items they’ve seen and sold (or not) over the years. Our female customers (who make 95% of all home purchase decisions per the Harvard Business Review, September 2009), in contrast, see only how those things will work for them in their homes, and if they can’t see it, they won’t buy it.
I’ve said this about a million times before, and I’ll keep saying it for as long as I can. Our business is not about furniture at all. It’s about rooms. It’s about rooms in people’s homes, not displays in our stores. As a woman in our business once told me; “It’s not a matter of life or death, Joe. It’s more important than that.”

Selling can be defined as meeting your customer’s needs, but what if you never really get to understand your customers’ needs? What if the questions you ask fail to go deeply enough into the customer’s mind to unlock what is really there? Suppose you ask a shopper, “Are you looking for anything in particular today?” What does that mean to her? What if she’s looking for something in general, say ideas for beginning to refurnish her family room? Having not shopped for furniture in a long time, and not being an interior designer or in any way connected to four furniture markets a year, how would she know if there was anything “in particular” she should be looking for?

Research shows that there are stages in thinking and planning that women go through when making a refurnishing decision. This progress includes such activities as dreaming, exploring, planning, selecting, and finally, enjoying the fruits of their decisions. How much do salespeople know about this process? If you did know where a shopper was in the progression, wouldn’t you serve her in different ways? Maybe it would be a good idea to take a more consultative, service-based approach – like this: “What brings you in today?” This isn’t a bad way to begin a discussion of caring and seeking first to understand your shopper. “Tell me about your room” is another customer-oriented question, as is, “What are you trying to accomplish in the room?” All these questions are about her, and put her needs first instead of trying to focus her on a specific category or thing, so you can get to selling – which is, after all, your job, right?

In the dreaming stage, how “particular” can she be? When exploring for ideas, should you try to pin her down and close the sale? I think our 20% to 30% close rates speak to that approach. 70% to 80% of the time, this fails! So, why do you keep doing it? Here’s why: nothing fails like success. Because some shoppers respond to these methods, and some shoppers buy something and become customers, you think you’ve got the right approach. Forget about the large majority who don’t respond well – who leave and go home still confused, still unsatisfied, and still searching for the one thing you don’t provide: more help!

Service is about serving. I know, I know, that’s redundant, but service isn’t necessarily about selling until after you understand the total need. Not just the things your customer needs, but the whole context of her room planning issues; the look and feel she’s seeking, the fears she has around making a mistake and not being able to fix it easily, and the help she wants, but doesn’t expect to receive in most furniture stores.

We deal with furniture that provides a background and setting for people’s lives. We deal with things, but people, including us, deal with surroundings, with the functions of things, with the way the things that surround them affect them aesthetically, emotionally, and actually. They deal with rooms and homes. Comfort comes not only from the recliner you sit in, but also from the way it looks in the room and fits into the whole of the space people live in. When you deal only with the stuff you sell, you miss the true connection with your customer’s true needs.
Selling home furnishings isn’t a matter of life or death. It’s more important than that!

Joe Capillo is a furniture industry veteran with 35 years combined experience as a retail consultant and retail industry executive. He is a contributing editor to FURNITURE WORLD and a frequent speaker at industry functions. Joe makes himself available for private consultations on any aspect of retail sales management and sales education.

His recently published book, ”Living On The Top Line”, available on Amazon.com, helps furniture retailers create and implement customer-centric selling systems. Joe can be reached at joecapillo@furninfo.com. See all of his sales management articles on the information packed FURNITURE WORLD website www.furninfo.com.