Interview with Laura Khoury
The language of
furniture styles has become nuanced and complicated. This presents a
challenge for furniture retailers.
From 1960 through the early ‘90s Furniture World published many thousands of
“History of Furniture Styles” sales training guides for furniture retailers.
These 16-page inserts categorized furniture designs into traditional,
transitional and contemporary categories, then further, into styles
including Chippendale, Sheraton, Empire, French Provincial and others. This
made sense at a time when purchasing matching sets was the norm, and when so
many people owned Early American or Queen Anne-styled dining sets.
Since then, the language of furniture styles has become nuanced and
complicated. Some customers shop to find products that reflect their own
personal style. Others have eclectic tastes or can’t tell the difference
between style categories that often incorporate subtle design influences.
This presents a challenge for furniture retailers who need to collect
information on shoppers’ style preferences, either online or in-store.
Fortunately, when shown a product image, furniture shoppers know whether or
not they like it. This reality presented an opportunity for Laura Khoury who
founded Shoptelligence, a product selection tool that helps shoppers
identify furniture items and make suggestions based on relevant click data.
Furniture World spoke with Khoury to get her views about how retailers can
help their customers put together rooms that meet their needs.
“Most furniture shoppers start their purchase journey online,” Khoury
explained, “and every item a shopper clicks on leaves evidence of what their
style preferences are.”
Seven Foundational Styles
In 2015 Khoury decided to leave her big corporate job to found
Shoptelligence. It was a project she’d been thinking about for several
“Earlier in my career,” she recalled, “I focused heavily on B2C strategies,
using the internet to generate leads, drive shoppers into stores, retain
them and grow customer lifetime value. From there I became an attorney. It
was a short detour into practicing corporate and technology law before going
to work for KPMG, heading up their advanced solutions practice.
“The idea for Shoptelligence grew out of a terrible experience I had
shopping for apparel. I was pre-judged by a salesperson and it occurred to
me that their opinion of what I should purchase had no relevance to my
personal style preferences or shopping objectives.”
From that spark of inspiration, Khoury and her team started to look at ways
to combine consumer behavioral analytics with style reasoning to produce
home furnishings purchase suggestions. Khoury explained that defining
furniture styles in a useful way was challenging.
“At that time,” she recalled, “furniture styles seemed to be so much more
intangible and unstructured than data. “We brought in a team of designers to
get their thoughts on what differentiates the look and feel of a traditional
style from contemporary or rustic.
“Thankfully, in almost all verticals there are foundational styles. For
furniture, we found seven: contemporary, transitional, traditional,
mid-century, rustic, craftsman, and industrial.
“There are derivatives of these seven styles. Farmhouse chic is a blend of
contemporary and rustic. Many styles are related. Today, retailers might be
selling farmhouse chic. Tomorrow, a derivative style might be sold as
farmhouse glam. It’s just another combination we call a secondary style.
“Decorating with furniture is complicated,” she added. “Furniture can be
mixed and matched in various creative ways. A rustic-styled room may include
contemporary or craftsman-style pieces. Furthermore, retailers may
merchandise an accent chair as a living room item that may also work well in
a bedroom or a home office setting.”
To be useful, any algorithm needs to be able to identify furniture and
accessories that are appropriate suggestions for individual shoppers.
“That,” she said, “required the tracking of relevant product attributes
independent of style. The last piece of the puzzle we had to address was the
most complicated. Our algorithms had to be trained to output correct
combinations based on how products are used, the styles and inventory a
retailer has available, and the attributes of each item.”
A Million Choices
“The goal for any retailer,” Khoury said, “is to make decisions simpler for
consumers by helping them to visualize multiple items altogether. That by
itself helps drive up consumer engagement and yields as much as a six-time
increase in engagement plus 30 or more percent increases in average order
value. Imagine trying to show a million products, one by one, it would never
work. But if you can show them six, 12, 18, 30 products at a time, in an
engaging way, where it’s gamified, it becomes fun.
“The object of the game from the consumer’s standpoint,” Khoury observed,
“is to achieve their objectives. This is difficult for people as they scroll
through websites that present hundreds of SKUs. Let’s say a shopper wants to
purchase a chair, rug, sofa, coffee table, lamp and a piece of wall art to
put above that sofa. If there are 10 selections in each category, they end
up with a million choices (10 to the sixth power). That’s why consumers are
so overwhelmed when shopping online for furniture.
“If a shopper searches for farmhouse style online, there will absolutely be
a bias as to what items they’re clicking on,” she explained. “But when
considering the style or look of an entire room, there is a chance that
something from another style category will work perfectly to complement the
design. And so, it’s in a retailer’s best interest to initially expose that
shopper to more farmhouse styled items, but along the way, suggest
additional pieces that work together in the context of the room that the
shopper wants to create.
“The beauty of looking at consumer preferences by offering choices and
keeping track of where they click is that a consumer profile can be created.
This profile can take into consideration every click a shopper makes, and
all of the product attributes associated with each item a shopper looks at.
The objective is to show them more appropriate choices—and fewer items that
they probably won’t be interested in—to narrow the selection field.” This
process mirrors what creative design associates might do when working with
clients in stores to put together rooms.
Style surveys are highly effective at engaging shoppers who want to collect
personal style information and move shoppers forward into an online or
digital sales funnel. “But,” Khoury said, “retailers run up against
limitations when presenting lifestyle images. These can inspire, but what
happens when items go out of stock? It becomes more like a magazine
experience than an interactive digital experience.
“No matter how a retailer approaches the issue of choice, the goal is to
help move the shopper down that funnel, from ‘I don’t know exactly what I’m
looking for in this room’ to ‘I found one item,’ and then to, ‘I found
everything else I need to finish that room,’ whether it’s one more item or
Getting Them Into the Store
A primary goal for most furniture retailers is to engage shoppers on their
websites to get them to either purchase online or convince them that it’s
worth visiting a brick-and-mortar location. “The idea is to increase average
order value on-site,” said Khoury, “and capture lower funnel leads to get
shoppers engaged with products enough to provide retailers with an email
address for follow up.” Another goal is to convert store traffic into sales.
“Information collected from website interactions where consumers share
information on style preferences via surveys or for those retailers who use
click data, can help sales associates to make more relevant suggestions. The
better that retailers understand their customers’ style preferences and
serve them in the way they want to be served, the greater the likelihood of
The advantage of offering interior design services to dramatically increase
close rates and average sales is well documented. Furniture World asked
Khoury if making design suggestions online can work against stores that work
hard to offer these in-store services.
“Even if a retailer with an established clientele has designers on staff,
the concept of omnichannel is still relevant,” she replied. “Home
furnishings are the third largest purchase in a person’s life behind housing
and automobiles. It’s high-ticket and therefore high consideration. Whether
or not a customer is working with a designer, they want to go online and be
able to do research, experiment and interact with products outside of the
“While many retailers have started to adopt omnichannel practices, others
have fallen behind. Omnichannel creates a seamless experience throughout the
entire consumer journey across all channels. Not only does it allow
retailers to serve their customers in a convenient and effective manner, it
is individualized, leveraging consumer behavior as well as style data and
analytics. This can be used to serve up more recommendations to increase
average order value and engagement. It also allows retailers to fully
understand where each consumer is along their purchase path so tools and
marketing efforts can be applied when they make the most sense.”
“During COVID, there was more demand than there was supply. So instead of
just merchandising what looks best, we were able to add a bit more weight to
show items that were in stock. Now, as the economy is swinging back and
people are talking of a possible recession, the situation has changed.
“The objective is to show them more appropriate choices and fewer
— that they probably won’t be interested in—to narrow the selection field.”
“It is time for retailers to focus on getting the most out of every shopper
in terms of closing sales and raising average tickets. And that’s true for
first-time shoppers or returning customers.
“Retailers that are still looking at their websites as online brochures are
at risk, frankly, because the consumer is expecting more.”
More Suggestions From Khoury
Sales Education: When a consumer visits a store, they may
have already spent hours online looking through different products and
weighing the pros and cons of each. Be aware that shoppers are often more
informed than sales associates regarding information found on their store’s
website. It’s important for retailers to stop treating their websites like
separate businesses, almost completely siloed and sometimes a second
Not only does omnichannel help sales associates understand where each
shopper is along their journey, continued sales education will ensure that
shoppers are given the right information, in the right place and at the
Product Data: Many retailers need to put more focus on
updating their product data. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but at a
minimum, every item needs to have a least a couple of lines of well written
Lead Data: Make sure there is an email capture on every
website page. Collection of email addresses and phone numbers, whether or
not a shopper purchases, is increasingly important. Shoppers won’t randomly
give you their email addresses; there has to be a quid pro quo. For example,
if an undecided customer decides to leave the store without purchasing, the
sales associates might ask, ‘Would you like me to email you a report of the
items we looked at together that you showed interest in today?’ That’s a
value-add exchange that recognizes that the shopper isn’t just shopping in
one channel. They want that portability, which can and should be built into
the sales process.
Other Data: Third-party cookies will become almost
irrelevant going forward. The emphasis has shifted to collecting first-party
data through cookies. It’s the only way retailers can get demographic
insights about shoppers who visit their websites.
Access to high-quality data has become increasingly important for every home
furnishings retailer. Consumer behavior analytics offers better visibility
into shopping trends and preferences. Using it wisely improves customer
experiences, increases sales and boosts customer loyalty.
Questions about this article can be directed to Laura Khoury care of