Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce! More delivery options helps your customers feel in control.
If you're older than 40 you might remember a certain hamburger chain whose jingle went, “Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce, special orders don't upset us / All we ask is that you let us serve it your way.” I remember being confused by this, even as a kid, because back then hamburgers were largely served up in a certain way, and that was that. Don't like mustard? Focus on the ketchup!
I remember thinking, You mean, I can choose what I want? Unheard of! And believe me, the biggest hamburger chain, McDonald's, was not built upon customization. It was built upon mass production and no options. Today of course all that has changed.
Furniture for the most part was a lot like hamburgers back in the 1970s. There were few options and what you saw was what you got. Today there are so many manufacturers, price points and styles, that with a little shopping consumers can get close to anything they want. And, of course, at higher price points there are custom options. Billions have been poured into the sales end, where the magic happens and people fall in love with their new “digs.” Rightly so! But there's also opportunity for innovation on the back end of the business.
For the most part, furniture retailers offer only two flavors of delivery: will-call and white glove. Within those two categories there are of course many choices. Some retailers open, inspect, and even assemble some will-call furniture. Dave Berggren of Furniture Connection in Clarksville, Tennessee, is good example of a retailer who will not deliver knocked-down chairs. They're delivered fully assembled unless a customer is relocating (many of his customers are relocating military personnel) and the cube is critical. His rationale is that chairs are multi-component and easily built incorrectly. That's why he adds value to the transaction by removing the stress—and liability—of having customers build their own chairs.
White glove is an expression that hearkens back to a time when service professionals dressed more formally and actually wore white gloves to protect the furniture during delivery. Today, even with some 3PLs (which this article will discuss later) attire is rarely standardized and if there are rules they are rarely enforced. Retailers like Discovery Furniture and Furniture Mall of Kansas in Topeka do come close. At Furniture Mall of Kansas, Jeff and Jamie Winter have developed a modus operandi for delivery that is truly a treat to see.
Difficult To Sell
Every furniture store has services that are difficult to sell effectively. Chief among these is delivery. Delivery charges have become such an anathema for customers that it's like asking them to donate a pint of blood after they've spent thousands with you. Online reviews and comments exacerbate this problem. Yelp commiserations usually revolve around bad delivery experiences. “Never called!” “Broke my table!” “They got sweat on my new sofa!” and so on.
And suppose you're up against a competing retailer with low overhead costs who can offer free delivery—how do you compete? The Amazons and Wayfairs of the world will ship for free (although the service is never, or should never be, as good as yours).
So now, instead of a cursory looking-over in the warehouse where all your talent resides, you'll have to either replace it, offer an allowance, or have a tech repair it on-site or back at the warehouse.
The new ways of getting furniture to a customer begin with the easiest: drop shipping. The biggest retailers are good at this for a variety of reasons. It is incredibly convenient to act as a middleman, collect the rake, and farm out the dirty delivery part to any final mile freight carrier that will deliver cheap. What's not to love? And for high-margin, low-cost things like KD and foreign-made accessories, it's a winner. If the piece is damaged, just toss it and replace it, a new one is practically baked into the price consumers paid. I'd never suggest drop shipping a Century sofa or a Karges dining table.
Will-call is frustrating because as a retailer you have to choose: Do you open it up and take a look, or risk a bad customer experience? Some retailers look at will-call as a game of hot potato—once you take it, it's yours! No givebacks! To me, this is a mistake. Ask yourself: If something goes wrong after the customer leaves, will you honor any sort of remedy? Defects? Anything non-damage related? My guess is, probably. So now, instead of a cursory looking-over in the warehouse where all your talent resides, you'll have to either replace it, offer an allowance, or have a tech repair it on-site or back at the warehouse. Damages most often occur on corners, so I'd at least look at the corners and tops. And if you have a group that seems to always have a specific problem, be proactive and take a look. When I was a QC manager we established a will-call department that opened, inspected and deluxed everything. The furniture was presented to the customer in our building. Cameras were trained on the area to look for misses by our crew. As a result we had very few service issues.
When offering white glove delivery,
it should be priced sensibly and easily, but without apology.
The latest craze is curbside delivery. It's exactly as it sounds: The customer's furniture is left at the curb, and it's up to the customer to bring it into the house, and dispose of the trash. Often this service is offered by retailers for free, as direct competition to Amazon or Wayfair. If it's raining, virtually all retailers will have the furniture wheeled to the customer's garage or porch rather than let it sit in the rain. I remember participating in an experiment with a retailer where this service was offered, and even promoted, at point of sale. We gave it six weeks. In all that time, there were only two customers who opted for free curbside delivery. Of course, there were caveats: The furniture was not opened, inspected or deluxed before delivery. It was a true, raw, Amazon/Wayfair-style approach. And virtually no one wanted it. But here's the kicker. When we offered it as an option, we got to say, without fibbing, that we offered FREE DELIVERY!!! Of course, the pandemic has recently changed many customers' desire for curbside delivery.
Of course, not every consumer can bring a dual-reclining rocker sofa into a house without damaging it (certainly not me anymore!). So a lot of customers opt for white glove delivery, a misnomer since as mentioned previously white gloves are rarely used. Furniture retailers have different styles for white glove delivery, and most of that leans heavily on the personalities of the drivers. A gregarious team has fun with the customer, bringing humor and expertise to the event. Others just want to get done—either by zooming through the process, or plodding. Guess who decides how it's going to get done? Store owners. And if the owner doesn't seem too concerned about how the process goes, or won't enforce store policies with unannounced site visits and management/team meetings, then delivery experiences can be haphazard and contrived.
Uniforms: The United States military is the most efficient force on earth because it starts with one key ingredient: uniforms. Recruits are in one way or another stripped of their individuality so they can be efficiently and effectively taught how to protect themselves and to follow orders. A uniform conveys a strong sense of belonging, and the more tailored and designed the uniform, the better the result. A faded T-shirt that says “XYZ Furniture” on it is not as empowering as an embroidered polo shirt, a clean pressed pair of tan slacks or shorts, a belt, proper approved shoes, and perhaps a logo ball cap. And of course, non-slip white gloves. Just like dating, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Like the comedian Jim Gaffigan says, Nothing conveys to the world that you give up like sweatpants.
Pricing: When offering white-glove delivery, it should be priced sensibly and easily, but without apology. The most effective way is to price by zone. Outlying areas can be priced on a case-by-case basis. It is much easier to charge a delivery fee by not asking permission, but simply stating that the professional delivery cost is included in the invoice. It sure helps to have graphics of your best team with the cleanest truck at the point of sale when you're working up the price! And to quote Ricardo Montalban: Smiles, everyone, smiles. Salespeople feel confident charging for delivery when they know the outcome is going to be great. One of the most effective salespeople at selling delivery I've ever known was a guy I met nicknamed Boxer, at Gallery Furniture in Houston. It was almost impossible to say "no." He was confident, went precisely by script, and looked customers in the eye. We all know that hesitation can tank a sale quickly, and that man never blinked.
Although not a new concept, third-party logistics (3PLs) are rapidly gaining in popularity as an alternative to owning or leasing, maintaining, and staffing a fleet. I doubt any retailer reading this who has owned a diesel box truck ever said, “That thing just ran and ran! Never gave me any trouble!” The same thing applies to many drivers. Finally, how much fun is it to find drivers who have clean driving records, are able to pass a DOT qualifier and who want to work? While you do have to cede a certain amount of control when you work with a 3PL, the upside is that you can lower your operating expenses. One of the easiest ways to mess up a relationship with a 3PL is for store owners and managers to allow any kind of disrespect to poison the relationship. Drivers need to be respectful of the processes required to make furniture delivery first quality. Likewise, the retailer's warehouse staff need to ensure that drivers never have to put anything on their trucks that looks poorly made or repaired. When mutual respect and teamwork are lacking, this sort of behavior creates a toxic, counter-productive environment that can permeate the warehouse, leading to rapid turnover, poor attitudes and substandard delivery results. These kinds of problems are exceedingly difficult to remedy.
in many areas of
the country have
heightened the need for choice and expanded delivery options.
Being inventive and offering several different delivery alternatives for customers to choose from helps furniture retailers close sales. It allows retail customers to feel more in control of the process. COVID-19 concerns in many areas of the country have heightened the need for choice and expanded delivery options.
By augmenting the experience with automated calling, or working with an app that provides the customer with real-time delivery status, customers feel like what they've paid for is value-added. Information is valuable but time is even more valuable because nobody can make more time. The more you respect your customer's time, the more they'll appreciate the delivery experience.
Peter Schlosser is a backend furniture consultant based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His focus is repair, quality control, exceptional customer service, and all things operational. He is a contributing editor to Furniture World. To see all his articles
. Questions on any aspect of this article or furniture repair can be directed to Peter Schlossser at