by Courtney Eckerle
, Manager of Editorial Content
Value City Furniture is a 60-year-old furniture retail chain with 118 stores across the country, although in some regions the chain goes by the brand name American Signature Furniture. A full line furniture store, the brand is privately held and does almost a billion dollars in sales.
Despite that large scale, Value City Furniture prefers to cultivate a personal, one-on-one relationship with customers.
"We believe that everybody has the right to a well-furnished life," Steve Haffer, Chief Information Officer and EVP of Marketing, Ecommerce and Information Technology, Value City Furniture, said.
Normal customer behavior, Haffer said, is to conduct a lot of research and discovery online before going to the brick-and-mortar location to purchase.
"Typically, the journey is — [customers] go and they browse and they discover ideas … Do their research, become familiar with the retail brand … Then they go into the store, and they have a physical visit," he said.
Haffer and his team wanted to create a higher level of engagement between the physical touchpoints the brand had with customers. To accomplish this, they decided to develop a platform designed to answer customer questions which, prior to this point, had been unaddressed.
"A lot of times it's not the price," he said, referring to a customer's decision to exit the buying process. Customers will ask themselves questions such as, "'I don't know if it will fit' … 'I don't know if I really love the piece. Is it the right style for me?'"
There are both emotional and rational components to buying furniture that the brand needed to address to help customers speed up their decision-making process.
Three years ago, Value City Furniture was a catalog-only site, and it has been migrating to ecommerce ever since. The team created a platform around omni-channel retailing called the "Easy Pass."
"It's obviously one ecosystem, but there's a lot of complexity in those parts … We've gone in and developed our sales teams [and] our organization around understanding and embracing the omni-channel experience that our customer expects," Haffer said.
While ecommerce is a growing share of the marketplace, he added, consumers have a preference for a tactile furniture buying experience.
"Making sure it's the right quality, it feels right, all those kind of things. So we believe that the brick-and-mortar experience is really, really important and we developed a data bridge that, as you start to organize your thinking in a cart or a shopping list, we can pull that cart up in our stores," he said.
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If a Value City customer browses online first, creates a cart
and then goes into a store, employees at the physical location can pull up that customer's selections and show them in-store.
"Just picking up the journey right where you left off online into the offline store. Then vice versa," Haffer said.
Alternately, if a customer comes in-store first to browse without being ready to purchase, the employee will send them an email with the product they were looking at.
"You can buy that product online just by clicking in that email, and it pulls it right out of our offline solution into our online environment," Haffer said.
The email sent will contain all the dimensions, pictures and information about the product a customer will usually need. If they need additional assistance, this email also has a link to a chat function. The in-store sales associate's name is included in the email, in case the customer wants to return to or call the store and ask for that person specifically.
Step #1. Chart customer path
There are a lot of factors that trigger a customer into the furniture market, Haffer said.
"It could be a life event moment — you graduated from college, a child moves out of their home, you get married, you get divorced — one of those kind of things that can trigger you coming into the market," he said.
Once interested in buying furniture, customers begin to discover the products available to them, browsing the Internet to find brands and stores.
"You'll consume a lot of pages online. You'll spend a lot of time on these sites, and you'll go to multiple sites. You may go to 15 or 20 sites, eliminating ones that are out of your price point, bookmarking ones that you really like and then putting products that you like … into different carts," he said.
Usually this search and paring down occurs on people's lunch break, he added, so it's important that the process be smooth and uncomplicated.
"Some of our busiest hours on the Web are at noon. Then, what [customers] will do is decide, 'Hey, we're going to go visit these two or three stores,'" he said.
Customers will most likely visit a store once or twice at that point, possibly coming back with what Haffer calls a "rational buying partner" such as a spouse or parent.
"That person's really not driving the sale as much … but he or she is there just to make sure you don't make a really bad mistake. If they're a live-in partner with you, they may have to sign off on comfort and those kinds of things," he said.
The omni-channel effort had to answer questions that would be asked not only by the customer but also by their rational buying partner.
Part of Haffer's responsibilities include being in-store, with four retail managers reporting to him. This is all part of ensuring that "our feedback loop is really rich" and that he understands all the steps of the customer journey.
Step #2. Enable employees to understand customer challenges
This omni-channel system speeds up a customer's purchase path without pushing them. It simply "removes barriers to people achieving their goal," Haffer said.
Any difficulty that prevents customers from having the "well-furnished life" must be assessed and pared down.
"These kind of difficulties — 'I have to make multiple trips to the store' [or] 'every time I leave the Web and then I go into the store, I have re-find everything' — all those type of things. Our ability to support you along that journey is something that we're using the … platform to help us do," he said.
Integrating Easy Pass with the ecommerce experience has been a transformational process, he said.
The team has developed a soft skills training around the Easy Pass for sales associates to be able to implement it effectively in-stores. According to Haffer, this makes "fulfilling our purpose something that we do on a daily basis."
Buying furniture is not only a large monetary investment for most customers, but a personal one. Because of this, a consideration has been meeting customers' emotional needs as well as their rational ones.
"There [are] a lot of people that have a real emotional attachment, and buying the perfect piece is super important. I would say a large majority. Sometimes it's a very rational side of, 'Hey, is it the right price? Can we get the delivery? What does the warranty look like?' All those kinds of things," he said.
The omni-channel strategy had to be able to address both rational and emotional needs, and the crux of that was helping and developing the in-store teams to understand those customer challenges.
Step #3. Meet employee needs
"On the back side, on the business side of it, in retail commission sales there's a lot of channel conflict," Haffer said.
In retail, he explained, it has historically been difficult to create a friendly relationship between digital efforts and in-store employees. By so closely integrating the website with email and in-store efforts, Haffer said, efforts are based on teamwork instead of conducted in silos.
"They feel like very separate environments. [But] because of this model that we've set up, we can get full attribution for our commission sales staff so they're not conflicting with the channel," he said.
Because in-store employees are integrated into the system when they register a customer, even if someone buys online later, that employee will receive credit for the sale. This also means that employees don't feel like they have to rush customers into a purchase they're not ready for, simply to have the transaction occur in-store.
For example, a customer can go home to measure their space for a piece of furniture and purchase it that day without having to go back to the store. Through this omni-channel strategy, the original employee who helped the customer will still be connected to the sale.
"In our world you just — boom — click on the link on the email we sent you or just go right in, it pulls up that invoice — the items that you wanted — and you can process it right there in the moment without having to go back to the store," he said.
In environments where digital and brick-and-mortar efforts are competing with each other, "the selling experience is horrible. It feels very transactional," Haffer said. He added that another downside is employees could abandon customers who aren't ready to purchase and need more product education.
This omni-channel strategy allows customers to take their own time down the purchase path, and employees can relax without worrying about competing with their own company's online transactions. Employees see strategies like email as an asset, helping to quickly educate customers and make them secure in their purchase.
"Probably if you were in a store and the person was committed to helping you and moving you along that path, you would feel much better about that store. We think it's a big deal," he said.
Step #4. Implement email into touchpoints
Value City Furniture had utilized some email marketing previously but began implementing a smarter, more engaging program with this omni-channel effort.
In this vertical, Haffer said, with a protracted buying cycle and structured buying process, "email plays a really critical role in keeping that connection with our customer and answering questions that aren't necessarily financially [driven]."
In answering practical questions and meeting "the emotional needs of what people view the room in their house should be, is really where these email touchpoints come in," he said.
That is the idea behind what the team has tried to refine their email messaging around. They're developing "our road map of where we thought there was opportunity, and we're really still in the initial campaign development piece of it. Our next round will be looking at doing A/B testing on messaging," he said.
Currently, customers receive an email when they abandon a cart, giving them the Easy Pass option, or they receive an email when they're shopping in-store. That email includes information such as the product they were looking at, the in-store employee's name, measurements and a link to a customer service chat.
The most important thing moving forward with email marketing will be integrating it into the entirety of the campaign.
"Right now we felt like there was a lot of revenue sensitivity just in getting really good, solid, first cut campaigns out there and keeping the connection with our customers," he said.
Personalization of the buying experience is critical to retail, Haffer said, and this omni-channel campaign has allowed Value City Furniture to do that.
The team has learned that thinking about the questions in consumers' minds at different moments in the buying process has been vital to supplying them with the tools to resolve any issues or impediments to purchase.
"At the end of the day, if we're there to help you through this problem, you're going to buy from us. We're going to be your brand of preference," he said.
As a result of this omni-channel strategy, Value City Furniture has:
- Raised abandonment revenue 283%
- Boosted overall email revenue 190%
- Reached 55% more online shoppers
"We're putting that [feedback in] and digesting it and creating what the campaign should be," Haffer said.
- Easy Pass
SourcesValue City Furniture SmarterHQ
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