Many retailers are caught in the trap of less product differentiation, sagging profits, poor back end operations and problems meeting customer expectations for quality.
Retail Repair by Peter Schlosser
Do you remember when we were children, and our teachers would give us an exercise asking us to find the hidden difference in a group of six drawings? All of the drawings were virtually identical, although one had a slight variation that made it different from the others. We would scrutinize each one, scratching our heads, trying to find out what it was that made one different from the rest. It wasn’t easy! But in the end, one would emerge as the variant.
Now, apply that same allegory to the furniture industry and maybe you can draw a parallel. I’ve noticed—and I’m sure the average furniture buyer has as well—that everything seems to look the same these days. It used to be that each manufacturer had a distinct look that would differentiate them from the pack: Henredon was distinctly Henredon, Maitland-Smith had a very identifiable look, and so on. Some manufacturers still possess that ability (notably the two I mentioned).
Those of us on the perimeter postulate about why this could be among vendors. Might it be because they’re all just buying from massive overseas factories and putting on their own label, tweaking the design just slightly with hardware or decoration to make it unique? Perhaps it’s because there is a huge surplus of dark semi-opaque finish in the global economy, and they need to use it up to prevent an environmental catastrophe? Or maybe there is no environmental disaster going on with respect to trees and forests, because there doesn’t appear to be a shortage of rubberwood and low-grade “mahogany” and oak.
And then there is the Hollywood glam scene which has been hot for a while now that is virtually carbon-copied into every store selling furniture, from Boyles to Big Lots. It seems that the time it takes to tool up a factory to knock off a hot line has decreased exponentially. This also has the unfortunate result of rapid market saturation, and a marked decrease in staying power for truly unique designs. Even dyed-in-the-wool compositions find dilution through cheaper and less detailed renderings, leaving manufacturers who command high prices for their fine offerings left holding inventory when a cheaper version hits the market.
OK, so what, right? If that’s all that’s out there, then the customers will have no other choice than to buy what is on the sales floor, because to get something better will cost a lot more. My solemn guess is that lower-priced furniture is gaining in popularity right now, which means higher volume for those goods, obviously. Higher volume plus excess manufacturing capacity means lower wholesale prices. Lower wholesale prices means more stores will be able to carry the lines. And now for the supreme segueway: More stores means less differentiation, and more difficulty standing out.
I’m a back-end consultant so there should be no surprise in what direction I’m taking this article. I am here to argue that increased sales are not the catharsis for sagging profits. In fact, I think that if the back-end organization is corrupted, then selling more can be the antithesis of a turnaround. It can be the final nail in the coffin. The logic is clear: Sell a little of something poorly, word gets around. Sell a lot of something poorly, and you’re out of business. Remember what I suggested about choices in a particular market?
So humor me and listen to a few suggestions about how retailers can remedy sagging sales with something that has nothing to do with sales—and can cost very little as well.
- As the owner, you are the subject matter expert. It’s not up to the organization to figure out what the standards are, it’s up to you. If you can’t do it yourself, or through trusted members of your organization, find someone who can—and command, compel, threaten, intimidate your managers to execute these standards or find work elsewhere. Consulting costs are money thrown into the wind if the organization isn’t dynamic enough to change and maintain.
- Hypnotize yourself and every member of your organization to forget these words: Factory standards. Those limitations apply to you, the retailer, not the end user, the customer! Somehow there are those who feel that an irate customer can be placated by telling her, Ma’am, I’m sorry you didn’t like the furniture, but those are factory standard defects, and besides, you didn’t pay a lot… The truth is, the retailer didn’t bother taking a few simple steps to ensure a better result—touch up, matching the furniture expectations to the customer’s budget, send delivery drivers who don’t frighten people and can speak English whenever necessary, et. cetera.
- Stop making floor samples look better than delivered goods. By deluxing and primping the floor models you are creating profound problems if the product leaving the warehouse isn’t the same quality. Moreover, using a model with a little distressing on it, when the majority of what you open up on the dock is heavily distressed, only serves to hang the salesperson and the organization as a whole. You must find the most representative sample to show your prospective customers.
- Begin autonomous inspecting immediately. By allowing your repair people to do the inspecting, you are essentially eliminating a second- or third-party opinion and handing the inmates the keys. Look, I’ve been in repair for over sixteen years, and I know that if something is really difficult to repair but absolutely critical to a successful delivery, a certain percentage of techs will “let it go” rather than repair the problem, especially when there is no follow-up.
- Empower your drivers to “just say no.” Remember my article in FURNITURE WORLD called “Pity The Poor Delivery Driver”? Drivers have the worst job in the organization. They are required to take furniture that may be well repaired, or poorly repaired, or not repaired to unsuspecting customers who then turn on them, sometimes vociferously, when presented with substandard goods. Give your drivers the right to refuse to load something that does not clearly have a snowball’s chance of being accepted by a customer.
You can probably tell from my tone and sarcasm that there are things about this industry that frustrate me. They frustrate me because I know that retailers can do better, and manufacturers can certainly do better, but for some reason, they don’t. Since this magazine is geared toward retailers I take issue with some of your practices that in the end, are hurting you and your chance to succeed—especially now. Here’s a good one, despite my close proximity to the subject: Poor repairs.
I have seen plenty of examples where a poor repair staff is in place, and management has done nothing to rectify the situation. Retailers have got to stop thinking that volume will outmatch poor quality and customer service. Either it’s acceptable, or it’s not. Here are some examples of lousy decisions made by inexperienced or lackadaisical repair people every day—if they even notice:
- Color mismatch. Every piece of a group must match the other—that’s why it’s called a group. Touch-up colors must match the product lines you represent, and you as the owner must make these products available to your repair staff. We can’t, for example, make red dark walnut out of golden oak and fiddletone cherry!
- Sheen mismatch. You can’t have a shiny nightstand top and a dull nightstand top. If the tech is going to make repairs, he or she must return the item to its original appearance. Steel wool does, in fact, remove scratches! But it also drastically changes what the piece looks like. There are other methods of repairing scratches.
- Wax filler repairs. Fill sticks are not to be used on tops, panels, faces, corners, edges. Remember, they’re wax. Ever seen clear, hard, durable wax? The correct product for these applications is called burn-in. Your techs will probably tell you they don’t use it for a variety of reasons, and all of them are excuses. It’s a difficult skill to learn and master on your own, and they simply don’t know how to do it without making a bigger mess. It’s actually not that hard if you know how to do it.
There’s no question that the economy isn’t doing any of us any favors. All of us have been hit. But furniture, for some reason, is still an antiquated industry, dealing with a lot of raw materials and relying on a subtle balance of function and form. We haven’t given enough attention to the end user’s expectations, which remain high. Some retailers are on the sharp end of the stick when it comes to correcting entrenched problems. While the task is not insurmountable, it will most likely be herculean, with dramatic efforts necessary in order to enact change.
Modifying community opinion about your reputation is difficult, but it can be done if the change within the organization occurs and is permanent. In the South there is a phrase called “backsliding” that refers to an individual’s regression from the holy principles of life, and the same term can be used to describe a business person’s drifting away from the driving force behind every successful venture… the customer.