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Smart Furniture Web Tip #1: Virtual Retailing: Making the Sale Without the Sit.

Furniture World News Desk on 5/12/2014

by Melanie Silva

Since Pizza Hut made the first online sale in 1994, online shopping has become a staple in our culture. In fact, according to a recent study by Walker Sands, 62 percent of Americans with internet access shop online at least once per month. Online furniture purchases, however, account for just a fraction of the billions of dollars spent online annually. Combined with small appliances, tools, and garden equipment, they claimed just 3 percent of online sales in 2013 according to the National Retail Federation.

So why do furniture purchases make up such a small percentage of online sales? It’s called the “touch factor” and, although many people research furniture online before purchasing, there are still those who feel like they must finish the process in-store. However, there is a shift ahead for online retailers. Consumers ready to buy furniture are generally adults of a certain age, and these coming-of-age customers have purchased goods online their whole lives. They expect to make all of their purchases online, and there are some tried and true tactics to help seal the deal.

Online shopping can be overwhelming. Just ask anyone who has ever been faced with more than 1.6 million results after keying the word “table” into the search bar of Amazon. When a potential customer visits an online store, she is immediately faced with every item that the retailer offers. By incorporating personalization tools, smart retailers can guide shoppers to the items that they will be most likely to appreciate and purchase.

With prescriptive personalization tools such as quick, user-friendly surveys, retailers can better understand their customers’ preferences and are equipped to curate better shopping experiences. Personalizing these experiences by style, budget, and features leads to more engagement and conversion. Picture this: every shopper that walks into a store sees a different display that meets their individual style and budget. Not possible, right? With prescriptive personalization it is. After a quick online survey, shoppers can first see sofas that meet their pocketbook and aesthetic needs, and shopping just got easier.

Offer Up Expert Advice
Now that our shopper has eyed the living room icon of her dreams, she needs more information. Build a wealth of information around every product in your offering, and make it available to your customers through descriptions, images, videos and more. A great product page will include detailed information that surpasses the usual dimensions and design choices and answers common questions. Does a chair in your offering have three different seat height options? Explain the benefits - and limitations - of each option in detail aiding the shopper’s decision-making process.

One of the appeals of shopping in-store can be the availability of knowledgeable salespeople who are eager to help customers answer questions. It is this type of personal engagement that provides an actual customer service experience. This same experience and knowledge must be brought online; the digital space allows for a more in-depth - and more inclusive - experience than any salesperson could provide on the spot. Your goal is to take the knowledge of a product expert and outline it on the product page in an easily digestible way. After all, websites are open 24 hours a day, unlike in-store experts.

Be Responsive
Even with the most complete product information available, some customers will inevitably have questions. Make use of available technologies to provide multiple options for communication, preferably through live chat and phone. Allowing your extroverted shoppers to call and your introverted shoppers to type. Give them the resources to make informed decisions. This can mean answering questions about how firm a sofa feels when you sit on it to explaining how a particular fabric feels to the touch.

A one-on-one interaction with an informed furniture genius can make the difference between clicking “buy now” or going elsewhere, which may mean visiting a physical store in hopes of more information but it can also be an online competitor that does it better than you. Additionally, posting other customers’ questions along with your answers will allow people with similar inquiries to gain additional insight.

Remove the Worry
The previous three suggestions all play a part in making your customer comfortable enough to purchase. Furniture, for most people, counts as a big-ticket item, and with that increased price tag comes the fear of buyer’s remorse. What if it’s not comfortable? What if it’s too big? What if the color isn’t just right? These questions can keep a customer in limbo - and keep you from closing the deal.

The best way to get customers past the notion of having to feel the actual piece is to make the “worst cast scenario” something they can manage. An amazing return policy generally does the trick. If you do right by your customer; help her make the right decision, and offer a no issue return policy, then she really has no reason not to buy that new sofa or office chair.

Melanie Silva is Vice President of Sales for SmartFurniture.com, an online luxury furniture retailer which combines web based visualization technologies and mass customization to provide customers with personalized furniture products that are uniquely suited to each customer's needs and preferences.
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