The COVID-19 crisis and the consequent shift to online has thrown up a number of e-commerce successes across multiple retail categories. Some of these have been predictable - groceries, home entertainment, fitness products etc - while others have perhaps been a little more unexpected. As diginomica has noted, there’s been a big digital uptick in DIY and home makeover, while on a similar theme, home furnishing online pureplay Wayfair has been a major beneficiary of consumer behavior during the pandemic.
Buying large pieces of furniture online isn’t just confined to the pureplays though. Furniture Village is the largest privately-owned furniture chain in the UK, set up by two friends back in 1989 with the aim of offering high quality, affordably-priced furniture backed up with exceptional service. Today is has 54 stores throughout the country as well as an online store that had been been upgraded, prior to the COVID outbreak, to a Salesforce Commerce Cloud platform.
When the pandemic struck, Furniture Village’s physical outlets closed to customers, making the digital storefront even more of a priority. In the pre-COVID era, it might reasonably be assumed that the customer journey involved in buying the likes of a new sofa might well involve online exploration of options - styles, fabrics, product and price comparisons etc - but there would still be a desire to ‘touch and feel’ the product in-store before committing to what still counts as a ‘big ticket’ purchase for most buyers.
COVID changed everything, of course, as Mike Broughton, Business Development and IT Director at Furniture Village, recalls, not least that the firm found itself unable to do home deliveries, which in turn leads to a revenue slowdown for a firm like his. But the consumer interest in buying was still there, he notes:
We could carry on selling online, so we put more people into online sales because, surprisingly, after the first couple of weeks, people still wanted to buy furniture. I think that whole thing of being at home and becoming more intimate with your sofa, your dining table, trying to go somewhere in the house where you could work in peace and quiet away from pets and family, it’s quite difficult. So a lot of people were trying to find office furniture, new sofas, new beds and that's carried on all the way through [the crisis].
That pre-pandemic online upgrade proved to have been a prescient move, he adds, although it became clear that its increased importance to the operating of the business as a whole would mean more resource was needed behind it, particularly in the area of live chat where Furniture Village’s capabilities fell short:
Once we we recovered from the shock announcement [of lockdown], we thanked our lucky stars that we had a website and that we were on Commerce Cloud. We've been a Commerce Cloud customer for probably five+ years. One of the first things we did was we got in touch with the account team and said, 'Look, we need to get more people onto the website to actually satisfy some of the live chat we're doing. Is there anything that you can guide us with in the next two or three weeks so we get some quick benefits out of the site?’.
A speedy response was critical, he recalls:
We were able very quickly - in fact, the next day - to put our tele-sales people to work at home. The technology to sell on the Commerce Cloud site was very easily deployable by laptop.
See and (virtually) feel
While customers weren’t able to get into the stores and stroke the fabrics on the sofas, the Salesforce platform allowed for virtual viewings, says Broughton:
We found that people wanted to see the product, so we didn't close all our stores. We kept some open for virtual consultations. People would go onto the website to buy directly. Some people would be seduced into having a conversation on live chat, and the expertise of the salespeople bred some fabulously rich conversations. That enabled us to upsell and cross sell, but also it enabled us to then pull people into a video conference and show them the product. That worked very very well - we would have not survived without that.
The video-conferencing capability was also put to good use in supporting the Furniture Village employee experience, particularly in terms of maintaining a sense of connection against an awareness of the mental health issues that could emerge from isolated working. Broughton explains:
We were communicating [with staff] twice a week. We were writing out to them a newsletter about what was happening in the business, how people were adapting, how they were keeping themselves occupied, but also hints and tips in terms of how they were managing that relationship with customers on live chat. We created a WhatsApp group called Live Chat Legends and they would be sharing their experience with customers. It was quite fascinating to see the richness of debate and the passion for people to get back to work and to meet their customers again.
A long term silver lining of sorts to have emerged from being locked down has been the opportunity taken by many companies to re-examine key strategic priorities and this has been the case at Furniture Village. Broughton explains:
We kind of looked at live chat again and we started to learn from that. One of the things we got very clear about was the hours that people wanted to shop. Even though they're available to shop 24/7, there’s a huge amount of six-till-midnight customers. We weren't covering them in a good enough way, so we put more people on that.
The human element also matters when making furniture choices it seems:
We learned very quickly that people didn't respond to bots on our website, they responded much more to the human touch. So we've put a lot more people onto live chat. We spun round some very quick training. We have some highly-skilled people in the stores who sell the products. We put them onto the website and we learned from the website.
Data coming back from these chats provides valuable learnings for the future, he adds:
Some of the live chat capabilities that we've got on the Salesforce side give us very clear feedback on how those conversations going. You can actually observe the conversations and coach people, but you also get very fast response in terms of customer satisfaction.
Top of mind for Broughton is to get a socially distanced selling application, jointly developed with Salesforce during lockdown, out into the hands of the sales team:
We know that it works. We're just desperate now to get that out and actually used. So you can sell something whilst you're sitting at a sofa, socially distanced of course, at a dining table, or sitting on the edge of a bed with somebody selling that bed. That whole interaction is much more intimate and you can upsell and cross sell on it. It's a great piece of tech, which we're desperate to get out there. But the biggest priority is to invite customers into a safe, shopping experience.