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How City Furniture modernized its retail tech - and brought employees closer to customers

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed April 3, 2018
Empowering store associates with technology is becoming a key strategy for retailers of all sizes. But for City Furniture, its legacy back-end was a big obstacle. Here's what it did about it.

At NRF 2018, aka “The Big Show," I made the case that employee engagement was the hidden theme of the show, and the missing link in retailers' pursuit of the omni-channel grail.

Several experts, including the folks at Nudge Rewards, insisted that putting better tech in the hands of store associates is the best way to improve employee know-how and customer experience - in one push.

But what if your stores are running on legacy tech? That was the predicament that Steve Wilder, CFO and CTO of City Furniture found himself in. A leading Florida retailer, City Furniture relies on 1,300+ store associates to bring a better furniture experience to its customers.

Taking over IT - "I'm not looking for a technologist"

But for Wilder, that mission brought plenty of obstacles. Not the least of which: he isn't a classic IT guy. As he told me:

When our CEO asks me to take leadership of IT five years ago, I told him, "I don't think I'm worthy, because I don't have the deep technology understanding."

For City Furniture's CEO, that was the whole point:

He said, "I'm not looking for a technologist. I want a business leader. I want someone who understands the business, someone who can bring a strategic level of IT to contributions that technology should be making at a strategic level to our business, rather than just a techy."

How do you modernize when green screens are everywhere?

But Wilder couldn't start with a white board. City Furniture is a 46 year old furniture company with roots as a waterbed retailer. Its longstanding relationship with IBM includes the AS/400 systems that still power the business today. So how do you modernize when your employees are fluent in green screens?

We've had a partnership with IBM since 1979. As you can imagine back then, there was no custom off the shelf software solutions for a waterbed retailer. So we had to do a lot of self development. We built everything in-house, on an AS/400 type architecture. And so we've struggled with: how do we become more agile? How do we take advantage of new technology? We frankly can't move quickly enough, because we're tethered to a large amount of technical debt.

Another struggle: how do you balance modernization priorities?:

Part of the challenge I am trying to take on is how do we modernize that back end technology while still taking advantage of these digital, I'll call them edge applications?

Dialogue with Gartner convinced Wilder that lagging on tech doesn't mean you have to stay there. If you do it right, you can "leapfrog" ahead:

Gartner convinced me you can leapfrog your competitors because you haven't made huge investments already. And you have the opportunity through adopting APIs and web services, you can create these cutting edge, user-friendly edge applications.

The goal? Extend the digital edge quickly, and modernize the core slowly:

[We wanted to focus on making] the customer experience, the sales associate experience, the best it can possibly be, while not causing a great deal of disruption and risk to the back end systems, until we had time to modernize them in a more risk averse manner.

Working with IBM, Wilder developed a plan: wrap the AS/400 systems in APIs, and get better tech in the hands of store employees.

We actually said, "Where should we start?" And we thought the front end of the house, the retail brick and mortar showroom was the greatest place to start.

First project - close the online and in-store gap

City Furniture ran into a classic omni-retail problem. As it’s online investments took hold, an "experience gap" between online and store emerged:

90 percent of our customers start online and they have a certain experience there, but when they walked into the showroom, that experience did not continue. So there's a huge drop off. No technology in the showroom, other than fixed sales corral areas where you had desks with HP Thin Clients, running emulation software back to the server. So how do we bring that out and enrich the customer's experience, so it continues from the website throughout the showroom?

It decided to put iPads in the hands of all store employees:

We wanted to re-leverage all of that content, so that any question the customer asked, whether it be about the product or the details, size dimensions, product availability, delivery scheduling availability, hopefully anything that the customer would ask, we'd be able to answer at our fingertips - and avoid disengaging from the customer.

That's a very different way of working with customers:

In the old environment, we would write it down on a sticky pad, run back to the central office, try to look it up on a green screen, answer, and then hope to reengage. But many times, that re-engagement just didn't happen. So by not disengaging, you have a better opportunity in your closing rates.

Turning the iPad into a front end platform

Bringing new employees up to speed quickly is crucial:

One of the goals is: you take a brand new sales associate that's only one, two weeks on the job, how do you make them very, very effective, so that the customer walking through the door gets as close to the same experience with that new associate as they do with a veteran associate? And so the tools help close that experiential gap.

And has it worked?:

Absolutely. The tools are relatively intuitive as you would imagine. And particularly most of our younger associates - we have up to 20 sales interns every summer from the universities. And so gravitating to iPads... They're used to having that technology in their personal lives.

Wilder approached the iPad as a platform - it's not just for the mobile apps City Furniture develops. It also uses it for a corporate phone extension via Cisco Jabber. That's Bluetooth  and microphone-connected for associates on the go. Then it is using Axonify for training:

The iPad is the palette on which we can paint many different things.

The fact that the data is wrapped in AS/400 APIs matters not:

They have no idea what it's powered by.

The training savings is significant:

It used to take literally weeks to train someone how to transact on the green screen, how to get information. In a high turnover environment, where your sales staff turns over about 35 percent a year, that gets very, very expensive. And it's not efficient.

The wrap - adoption by choice, not mandate

Wilder has seen other teams fail with mobile solutions due to lack of adoption. His plan? Avoid forced adoption:

We needed to make it so enticing that they would not go back to the green screen. So you have to build in all of these features and functionalities to enable them.

It launched with deep functionality, but took it store by store:

We gradually rolled it out to every showroom in a very controlled manner, because we have the benefit of having the green screen still as a safety net.

Eventually, it decided on Ingenico 750 mobile devices that Bluetooth-connects to the iPads.

So we began a path with Ingenico and IBM and Apple to make that a reality.

That required a mandatory shift to iPads for payment processing. Older workers who resisted the move to iPads started using them for payments, and then more. The last green screen holdouts made the switch. But for the younger workers, adoption was a breeze:

All of the younger associates, the college recruits, the majority of our sales team or sales associates, they love it.

For those retailers embarking on similar paths, Wilder has a key piece of advice: involve your users early and often.

Users have been involved from the very, very beginning, in terms of selecting the iPad through the Kaizen event, to being involved in the actual user experience development.

Wilder still intends to modernize the back end. But working closely with IBM, and enhancing the skills of his RPG programmers, he believes he has a risk-adjusted bridge to that future.

Oh, and there's one more interesting part of this back-to-the-future story: Waterbeds are coming!

We're bringing them back... We actually formed a company and we're developing prototypes as we speak.

"Alexa, set my waterbed to 90 degrees." Yeah, I could make that work. Stay tuned.

End note: for more on employee engagement as the missing retail link, check my other pieces Retailers are finally catching on to employee experience - but there's a knowledge gap ahead and How Total Wine & More uses employee engagement and video to fuse digital and store.

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