Retailer uses high traffic website to drive customers into their stores.
To say that Larry Schneiderman is pleased with the impact of the Internet on business, his business in particular, would be a radical understatement. In fact, some responses amaze him. He told us about a long haul truck driver, a Texan, who enquired about prices. The trucker loved what he saw on the Schneiderman website, wanted to buy several products, and asked if he could pick them up on his next trip north.
Then there was the lady from Seattle who plans to vacation in Duluth this summer. She wants to acquire several pieces and collect them before she goes home. Larry added, “And there was a person in California who purchased furniture over our website because they were building a house in northern Minneapolis. We delivered the goods directly to their new home!”
That’s the point, of course. “Imagine that a customer is planning to move to Minnesota, so they go on the Internet, to Google or Yahoo, to see who does a good job in home furnishings in the state. They would find us. And we’d be ready!”
As well as their powerful Internet presence, Schneiderman works to position itself as the premier furniture retailer in the Upper Midwest with stores in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and in Northern Minnesota, serving Minnesota and Western Wisconsin. There are also stores in Lakeville, Woodbury, Roseville, Bloomington, Burnsville, Plymouth, Duluth and Meadowlands with more than 300,000 square feet of showroom space. Their target demographic calls for a household income of $50,000 or more, an age range from the early thirties to the sixties and older, and educational levels in the post secondary zone.
Their history is one of growth born from plenty of imagination and entrepreneurial skills. Larry and his brother, Russell, bought the business from their parents. Profits declined during 1982 due to economic factors in Northern Minnesota’s mining based economy, and the brothers made the decision to increase penetration in Duluth. Two years later they opened two more stores, one in downtown Lakeville, the second in Roseville. Obviously good moves, because eight years later the downtown building was sold and they moved to their present location, adding an additional 27,000 square feet to the original 68,000. They built at Meadowlands to house a growing Administrative and Customer Service staff. Just another two years passed and they established their Woodbury store. Then, in early 1998, they purchased the Thomasville Home Furnishings store in Bloomington. One year later, Schneiderman opened the Maple Grove store and the Outlet Store in Burnsville.
With this solid foundation, it was in 2004 that Schneidermans.com was launched. “Not a day goes by,” said Larry, “that a customer doesn’t walk into our stores with printouts in her/his hand.”
We talked with Andy Bernstein, president and founder of FurnitureDealer.net, the Internet service company focused on selling and marketing furniture, that built and continues to manage Schneiderman’s website. Andy believes devoutly in, “Thinking outside the retail box. That’s what we’ve been doing with and for Schneidermans for two and a half years now, and the great news is, it really works!
“For home furnishings, the website is about information and research. It makes the time consuming process of shopping for furniture convenient and user friendly. The Schneiderman website targets those who live within driving distance of the stores. Consumers are invited to view a great sampling of all Schneiderman’s product lines on the website, then go to one of their showrooms to sit on chairs and sofas, feel fabrics and leathers and fine wood finishes. One in five customers today hit the website before they come into the stores, and 90 percent of Internet users really want to go in and sit on the sofa they’ve been looking at on the web.
“The site is updated constantly. There are several dozen new products added each week and we enhance the design elements. We work closely with Larry’s marketing division. When they place a new print ad (and they do a lot of newspaper advertising), they email it to us in digital format. Their Internet slogan is ‘Most Useful Furniture Home Furnishings/Decorating Website in the Universe!’ and it’s not an exaggeration!” Andy’s company manages every aspect of the website and that makes it “easy for Schneidermans, not a burden on anyone, and cost effective, too.”
Andy told us we should talk to John George and find out “how he uses the website to cash in”. John is one of Schneiderman’s top valued sales associates. He said, “The Internet is a selling tool for me, and I’m really sold on the concept!” He particularly likes to utilize the room planning function which permits consumers to enter desired pieces of furniture on measured configurations to match their own spaces, and “move them around until they fit their requirements. And I can do this on the telephone. They see furniture they like on the website, they call me, I direct them to the room planner, and lead them through the process. It’s magical! Almost like having them here at my desk. Most people have a hard time visualizing, and this helps them so much.
“It has been much easier to make sales since our website was developed. Thanks to Andy Bernstein I get along pretty well with the computer now; the logic is similar in all the processes.
“Not only does our newspaper advertising tie in well, we also have the capacity to email pictures of products to people anywhere, sometimes something that’s brand new and not yet on the web. I keep a follow-up system that I check frequently and if someone has been looking for a specific item and then we get it in, I can take a picture of it and send it off to him or her. Another sale!”
Said Andy, “There’s an additional tool John likes and uses a lot. Some of the manufacturers like Flexsteel and Clayton-Marcus have developed the capability of taking many different fabric and/or leather treatments and rendering them on frames on the Internet. The customer can really get a sense of how the pieces will look.”
Larry uses time-honoured marketing techniques but with distinctive flair. “Our budget has moved somewhat away from print to direct mail and broadcast media, but we do advertise extensively with the three major market newspapers every week, in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth. We use radio and television for specific sales events. Our preferred customer list is a great tool and we purchase additional lists by zip code. We send direct mail to people who have financed through us, and have a special email customer list of about 6,000 people, not much yet, but it’s growing fast.
“We’re constantly trying to do better in every way. We learn from others, attending impact groups where we meet with other retailers. Our designers go to customers’ homes and assist them on the spot. And we take a lot of pride in our delivery, setting up furniture in the homes. We have a system which enables us to measure deliveries, including the precise time we promise customers the goods will be there. We provide customers with response cards and we’ve discovered that they are satisfied 95 to 97 percent of the time. And there's a bonus system for our delivery people; they certainly deserve it. Their efficiency creates a lot of good will.”
Schneiderman’s public relations reach is increased by their work with the Ronald Macdonald House, the National Arthritis Foundation and an association called ‘Bridging’. When our customers give us their old furniture and it’s in good condition we, in turn, give it to ‘Bridging’ and they pass it on to families who need but can’t afford the furniture.”
All this synergy is very satisfying to Andy. He’s been a part of the home furnishings industry since he was a little boy in Southern Minnesota. “My great grandfather and my grandfather had started a small retail operation so, of course, I worked in the store on weekends and holidays. Then I went to college, worked for some big retailers, went through their management programmes and managed one of the stores. I guess I was ambitious, so I got an MBA, got into consulting, and worked with furniture manufacturers and marketing companies. In the past decade, I got really excited about computers and how they might be used in the industry.
“The romance of choosing home furnishings is not apparent in big box stores where furniture is stuck on shelves in a barn like atmosphere and where salespeople are scarce. It's very hard for the consumer to tell the difference between quality and lack of quality. If there are two sofas sitting on a shelf, one for $300 and one for $5,000, people need to educate themselves on so many elements before they are able to make intelligent choices, construction, fabric and/or leather quality, space planning, coordination of fabrics, colours and styling. My focus is getting retailers to help people shop for this stuff, to get good information to them to help them compare, then buy the best.
“The Schneiderman website is the culmination of over 10 years of research, market tests, trial and error and hard work. The site features over 7,000 items, detailed product information and useful shopping tools. For less than the cost of a quarter page newspaper ad, it attracts over 70,000 visitors each month and, very important, it makes money!”
We asked how results could be measured. “On web we are measuring traffic and the number of enquiries and sales generated, someone who never gets into the store, but orders over the phone. Every day we look at traffic and we can tell where all the enquiries come from. Got one from Canada the other day, from Thunder Bay!”
Andy told us, “Getting listed on search engines is easy, but the important thing is being found by the people you hope to serve. We’ve spent hundreds of hours developing key word strategies, an absolutely vital factor. Over 90 percent of traffic comes from key words, it’s called search engine optimization. That’s why it’s so important to provide good, solid information, not just pretty pictures. Search engines can only read text, so good solid text is critical. For example, a key word is sofa, but you also need couch... and maybe even chesterfield?
“There is pay per click advertising that doesn’t cost the advertiser anything until someone clicks. Usage, 100,000 visitors (as opposed to hits) every month to 800,000 pages, an average of eight pages per visitor. Ten percent of our site visitors spend between 15 and 60 minutes on our website. We send emails only to those customers who have asked to receive them and get 30 to 40 percent readership.
“We call it ‘right time marketing’ when people find us. Rather than us trying to find them. And it generates in store traffic and, of course, generates sales. We’ve noticed some really interesting factors, one of them time spikes when people want to shop on the Internet. One is lunchtime. People apparently bring a sandwich and coffee to their computer and start shopping! Another spike occurs in the evening when the kids have gone to bed. Much better, easier, more convenient, for them than dropping in to one of the stores. On the Internet, the customer can see entire collections; in the store it’s not possible to carry such variety. Then, once they’ve spotted what they want, they can arrange a visit.”
We talked about buying online and that some people are really frightened about putting personal financial information on computer. Said Andy, “It’s really totally safe with a padlock on browsers going directly to Wells Fargo. More secure, in fact, than if you did it on paper. For instance, if a transaction is made via fax, it can sit on the fax machine, exposed to the world! On the Internet, in a few seconds you get a confirmation back saying your credit has been approved, here’s your credit number, etc. Easy to use.”
“But,” Larry told us, “Schneidermans does not put prices on the Internet. Our stores are beautiful and after people have become intrigued by our product lines on their computers, they should call or come in to see us. We have no plans at present to price items directly on the Internet.”
Andy added, “If we established names and passwords, we could limit pricing. We don’t want to create situations where the customer is provided with ammunition. For example, take the prices from the Internet, show them to our competitors and start a price war!”
That times are constantly changing is obvious. “Fewer and fewer people are looking at newspapers or listening to radio. Television ratings are even going down. Like it or not, people are getting their news from the Internet. The effectiveness of conventional advertising is definitely on the decline. People used to think that only men would use the Internet. Not true! Now more women than men use websites daily.”
Schneidermans has created the best of all possible retail worlds. Easy consumer Internet access to a huge variety of product visuals, detailed information and their very useful room planner, and the most beautifully designed showrooms dotted about the Northern Midwest to visit personally. John George agrees it’s the perfect blend of tradition and twenty-first century technology! Ask any of the team, they’re ready for anything the future holds.