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Consumer Research Study: Be A Fly On Your Wall

Furniture World Magazine


Shopping with consumers reveals new insights for furniture retailers.

Take a walk in your customers’ shoes and you’ll see your store in a whole new light. Whether it’s a sea of sofas to wade through, a “racetrack” layout that runs you out the door, or a gauntlet of sales representatives to fight off, furniture shopping can seem like more of a battle than the blissful experience retailers hope to create.

Based on these all-too-common experiences in the furniture-shopping world, it’s time for new thinking about the shopping process. Furniture retailers as well as manufacturers must start connecting and interacting with consumers on a different level. While price is certainly a concern of most shoppers, playing to this element alone is a mistake. Do consumers want to feel like they’ve gotten a deal? Yes, but that’s not all…financing offers and deals du jour will only get you so far.

At some level, what all shoppers have in common is the need to find a furniture retailer who can relate to them – an emotional connection that goes beyond the short-term sale to a lifestyle solution. It’s more a matter of helping consumers create a home they’re proud of, rather than selling them what they say they’re looking for that day at the cheapest price.

Watch What I Do, Not What I Say

To create this connection, it’s helpful to see the shopping process from the consumer’s point of view. Although there’s much lip-service given to understanding consumers’ wants and needs, few companies ever spend the time and energy to truly get to know their customers. Instead, most quantify, on 10-point scales, the various attributes that are important to consumers. Surveys generate predictable findings like “quality, price and service” are “very important.” Findings such as these give retailers very little insight — no “breakthroughs,” no “ah-ha’s,” nothing to get you thinking differently about your approach to sales and marketing.

To understand consumers’ true motivations, an ethnographic study of furniture shoppers was conducted for Furniture World magazine. While not “projectable” to the larger population, the advantage this technique offers is a rich glimpse into the lives of consumers. In this case, painting a vibrant picture of who furniture shoppers are, how they shop for furniture, and what future opportunities exist to better meet their needs. This is the kind of research that provides insightful answers. It helps you to think about your customers differently and suggest innovative ways of doing business.

The ethnographic approach works because consumers can’t easily express what they want. Sometimes they are too embarrassed or shy to say what they think. Often they don’t really know what they feel, and many simply cannot articulate their feelings because a good deal of thinking is done on a subconscious level. An experienced ethnographic interviewer can learn volumes about consumer behavior through visiting consumers in their natural environments and accompanying them as they shop and make decisions.

For the Furniture World study, the ethnographic approach blended an observational component (where the interviewer was a “fly on the wall,” observing and documenting behaviors) with a more direct contextual inquiry component (where the interviewer asked direct questions as to the behaviors of the respondents).

A handful of shoppers in Chicago, Atlanta and Greenville, S.C., were interviewed for the study. Ethnographic researchers also spent additional time in stores watching and detailing the process. The interviews started with an in-home visit to discuss the room that was being shopped for and then continued with a shopping excursion to two or more stores where the interviewees typically shop. The shoppers were at different life stages (ranging from a single man in his mid-30s to a married couple with young children to a grandmother in her late 50s) and all were planning to purchase at least one piece of furniture within the next six months. Some of the items they were shopping for included sofas, children’s bedroom furniture, chairs, ottomans, entertainment centers, desks and kitchen/dining room tables. A variety of retail environments were visited from local independent furniture stores to clearance centers to major well-known upscale showrooms.

By going into the shopping environment with them, the researchers listened to what they said, watched how they shopped, witnessed interactions with sales personnel, and picked up on the shoppers’ body language and non-verbal cues. The results of this study produced some common-sense findings that still bear repeating, as well as a few surprises — information that retailers can start using today to connect with their shoppers on a more emotional and “real” level.

Core Emotions:Roots of our Behaviors

On the surface, furniture is a practical purchase. There are numerous surveys documenting the rational reasons why someone decides to purchase an item – to replace a worn out piece of furniture, to furnish a new house, to update a room, etc. What, however, ultimately leads a consumer to purchase a particular piece of furniture over another or to purchase from one store vs. another one? To get to this answer, it’s necessary to take a step back and understand consumers’ core emotions – those drivers that are the motivating factors behind our behavior and purchasing decisions.

Three Core Emotions Were Uncovered

Control (over one’s environment). For the most part, the shoppers in this study didn’t enjoy the process of shopping for furniture. Those who weren’t exactly sure what they wanted had the highest “anxiety” levels. At the root cause of this feeling is a sense they’re not in control. Most don’t know how to select furniture, they don’t feel competent to “design” a room, and they don’t have much prior experience on which to base or evaluate decisions.

The retail layout and the sales staff further contribute to this problem. The stores are designed around the furniture, not the consumer. Most felt uncomfortable putting trust into a sales person who they’d never met before, who’d never been to their house, who they felt was only out to make a sale. Someone who really didn’t “care about me.”

So consumers quickly become frustrated and annoyed. Looked at another way, annoyance is about wanting control. Consumers expressed this emotion through sentiments like: “Let me look at my own pace, don’t follow me... It annoys me to have to ask for information that should be displayed (like price)… Be there for me when I’m ready to talk to you.”

Consumers want to feel they’re in the driver’s seat. As one shopper put it, “A sales person should be there when I need them, invisible when I don’t.”

Recognition/Status. Consumers are using the home to express their values and project who they are; the home is the new status symbol. That's one of the reasons why they’re spending a tremendous amount of money on home furnishings. Twenty years ago, it was Rolex and Mercedes. Today, it's Sub-Zero refrigerators, Ernest Hemingway furniture, Ralph Lauren paint. The home is one of the few places where everyone can feel like an artist – where consumers can express themselves. While furniture has to be comfortable, it has to go beyond functional. It has to make an emotional connection with consumers and help them fulfill this desire to project a certain image.

For example, one shopper found a chair that he really liked. It was the right color, it was comfortable, but it had “rolled” arms and he was dead-set against them.

“In my place, I like really clean lines, the rolled arms just aren’t right – they’d look too bulky in the guest room,” he said. In other words, though perfect in every other way, the chair just didn’t project the right image.

Nurture/Care. Women’s influence in the furniture shopping process has been well documented. It’s no secret they’re a shopping force and the primary decision makers when it comes to furnishing purchases. Women are the researchers and men help with the final decision.

A strong motivator behind their decisions is the need to nurture – that old maternal instinct of “feathering the nest.” As one shopper who was looking for bedroom furniture explained, “I want my daughter to feel like a princess.”

Even male shoppers admit their nurturing side when it comes to furniture purchases: “I want my guests to feel like they can kick their feet up and relax in our house; we don’t want to live in a museum where you can’t touch anything.” It says something about who they are and about how they want others to feel when sharing their living space.

How Shoppers Feel How They Want to Feel

These core emotions manifest themselves into the feelings that become the overt signals consumers send off when they’re shopping. By looking at how shoppers feel vs. how they want to feel, retailers can discover ideas and think about new ways to create a better shopping environment.

For example, as the “emotional continuum” chart (page 22) illustrates, many consumers feel annoyed, stressed, pressured and even a little ashamed when shopping. Ashamed because they don’t know what they want or because they think they don’t have enough money. It’s easy to recognize these folks – they walk with a fast pace, no smile, grumble when spoken to.

Consumers really want to feel strong, confident and in control. So help them feel this way. Sales personnel should approach them and let them know they’re ready to answer any questions and also tell them how they can find you when they need you. A couple of shoppers suggested a pager system or a kiosk – something they can be in control of to alert you when they want to see you. Other ideas include making pricing information readily apparent and displaying sales literature so they can take it if they want to (don’t force it on them). Providing shoppers with a store layout map when greeting them was another suggestion.

“What I really want is a guide, not a sales person,” explained one shopper.

Another common feeling is intimidation and skepticism. While consumers are becoming more educated about design and home furnishings due in large part to HGTV, TLC, and the proliferation of shelter magazines, the average consumer remains somewhat mystified by the furniture buying process. They’re not sure why some sofas cost $500 while others are $5,000, or why it takes three months to get a table delivered. There’s no “Consumer Reports” magazine they can turn to when doing their homework.

Sales staff should teach them about brands. Consumers know home furnishings – they know Corian, Karastan, and Kohler. They’d be willing to learn furniture too. For the most part, the actual brands themselves have done little to educate consumers directly. While the sales staff may be getting brand information in sales training, they’re not putting it into practice on the floor. During this study, not one sales person spoke about brands.

Because furniture can be an expensive purchase, consumers want to feel well informed about their decision, so they will shop around. That’s OK – just make sure your store is the one they come back to. You can better your chances of a repeat visit by employing a savvy sales staff.

At one major well-known national retailer with a store in Atlanta, a shopper told the sales consultant she was looking for a “corner cabinet.” He promptly pointed her to a cabinet in a corner. Not exactly confidence inspiring – would you want to spend thousands of dollars with a store that employs a sales representative who doesn’t know the difference? Your sales representatives are not working the drive-thru window. Furniture shoppers expect much more out of them – the sales staff should at least know the basics and the major brands. Help shoppers feel more confident about the process by ensuring your “house is in order” before they walk in the door.

Fair or not, the consumers in this study likened furniture sales personnel with used car salesmen. There’s a high level of distrust – a feeling of “I’m going to get cheated.” There’s also a feeling that “I’m being judged the minute I walk in the door.”

Keeping that core emotion of “status/recognition” in mind, what consumers really want to feel is proud of their selections and recognized for their good taste. Sales personnel can foster this feeling by treating all customers equally. The old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” applies here. It sounds basic; however, it happened to shoppers in this study. When they got sized up and snubbed, they not only walked out quickly, they vowed never to visit those stores again. A customer may only be looking for ideas today. Next month or next year, they may be ready to spend thousands. Fostering and building relationships with these customers ensures they will return when ready to buy.

Another emotion these shoppers expressed is fear about the furniture shopping process. They want to make the right decision. After all, in many instances, they equate their decision with their ability to nurture, provide and care for their family and friends.

Retailers can help take the fear out of the process through a number of solutions. As one idea, encourage shoppers to take pictures – tell them to feel free to take a snapshot or two so they can bring it home and think about it. You may even want to consider providing them with a digital camera that will allow them to print out photos from your stores (emblazoned, of course, with your logos and contact information on each shot).

In many instances, furniture shopping is related to a celebratory experience in life – be it a marriage, a new baby, a first house or a vacation home. Find out what your customers are celebrating and help them enjoy it.

Setting the Mood: Decoding Body Language

The moment at which shoppers enter your store is critical. You can assist them in making the transition from the “outside world” to your store by welcoming them as an invited guest. When visiting stores, it was an instant turn-off when the sales personnel were gathered around chatting and laughing. It made shoppers feel uneasy – like they were intruding on the store’s own private party.

Shopping for furniture is more than a visual or tactile experience. Tap into consumers’ other senses – hearing, taste and smell. Soft music, the right refreshments and pleasant aromas create more of a “homey” atmosphere. Stores without music felt like libraries or museums – the exact opposite of how customers want their homes to feel.

Body language provides powerful clues about what consumers want while shopping in your store. Understanding what certain body language means can help you use it to your advantage. For example:

•One shopper in this study takes a drawer with her when she’s trying to match wood furniture. What a great opportunity to approach her, talk about the drawer and point her in the direction of similar styles for whatever she’s shopping for. Look for other items your shoppers may have in their hands – some will walk in with tape measurers, cameras, fabric swatches or magazine articles. These are their “tools.” Ask about them; make them comfortable using your store as their workshop or playground.

•The pace of a shopper’s walk is an important clue. When your store is set up in a circular “track” layout, there’s a treadmill mentality that takes over. Customers are afraid to veer off the path and take a look at your neatly arranged vignettes. Nothing is inviting them to get off this track. They also tend to quicken their pace toward the end – so much so they’re practically running out the door. Take a look at your store’s layout; determine how you can encourage them to walk through the vignettes. Watch where the pace picks up and figure out how you can slow this down in a natural way. Shoppers in this study were intrigued by accessories – candles, lights, picture frames, etc. Perhaps you can slow them down by displaying interesting accessories or the newest, eye-catching styles there. Consider adding a sales rack with your literature, catalogs or complimentary shelter magazines. Make some refreshments available.

•Touch, pull, sit, wiggle, bounce. When you see shoppers interacting with your furniture like this, it signals interest. Approach them, talk to them about the particular piece they’re looking at – ask them what they like, or even what they don’t. Engage them with an interesting detail about the particular piece. Tell them a story – for example, let them know why the fabric they’re touching is a popular choice for contemporary homes right now or inform them about the inspiration behind a particular Shaker-style bed frame.

Keeping the Sale Open When They Go Home

For the consumers we interviewed, furniture buying is not a snap decision. They browse, they talk over ideas with friends and family, they watch Trading Spaces and they read Traditional Home. They take their time. That’s why it’s important for retailers to make themselves available beyond the building’s four walls. Stores that offer beautifully designed catalogs and well-designed Web sites naturally extend themselves into the lives of consumers. Shoppers like them for this very reason.

As one consumer explained, “If I see something I’m really interested in, and the stores I shop make it easy for me to find out more information later on – I can go to their Web site or look in their catalog. This also allows me to think about it and show it to my husband without him having to make a trip to the store (which he dreads).”

Another idea is to make it known you’re willing to work with customers after they leave the store. In one situation, a shopper saw a couch on sale one day, but didn’t purchase it on the spot. After she was ready to make a decision, the sale was over. She contacted the sales person she had dealt with and asked if there was any flexibility. The sales person agreed. They negotiated a price and then she visited the store again to select fabric and the other details. She described it as the “best shopping experience of my life. It took all the pressure off knowing that I didn’t have to haggle on price and I could just concentrate on getting what I wanted. I will definitely shop at this store again.”

Be Your Own Fly on the Wall

For most people, furniture shopping is not a commodity purchase – there are a limited number of couches, armoires and china cabinets to be purchased in one’s lifetime. So don’t lose sight by only appealing to price sensitivities. Start to see furniture shopping from your customer’s point of view, and you’ll begin to understand the full-range of emotions behind every decision. Get to know the nuances of your customers. Watch them, shop with them, talk to them and then you’ll start to run the kind of store that helps them achieve their dreams… and ultimately yours too.

Deep Blue Insight conducted this ethnographic study on behalf of Furniture World magazine using the process described in this article. Deep Blue Insight has conducted numerous ethnographic, emotional branding and other creative qualitative studies for its clients including Kohler, Swingline Staplers, Springs Window Fashions, James Hardie Siding, and Johnson & Johnson.

Stephanie Husk is the president and founder of Deep Blue Insight, a full-service market research company that blends creativity with research to capture the true voice of the market. These insights are then translated into strategies for new product development, target audience profiling, brand positioning and marketing communications. Questions on this article or any market research related topic can be sent care of FURNITURE WORLD to deepblueinsight@furninfo.com.