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Major Retailers Use Product Knowledge CD

Furniture World Magazine


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Federated, Norwalk, AMI/ Furniture Leaders Members, K’s Merchandise  and others use electronic course to efficiently educate salespeople.

Well, I guess I was wrong!” The remark, accompanied by a sheepish grin, followed the announcement of results of the focus group analysis. It had been carefully structured to guide a landmark strategic plan for the furniture industry in Ontario. The surprise was the revelation that consumers’ primary, up-front interests when shopping were quality, methods of manufacture and style, as simple as that.

Our friend confessed he’d based his marketing on deals, deferred interest buying and visual acceptance. “Shoppers seemed attracted to a red leather sofa because they thought it would look great in their media room... and that it had a low price point. Never mind the interior structure, type of leather or its longevity. Now shoppers are complaining our sales people can’t answer their questions and they’re dissatisfied!”

One 30-something consumer, a high school teacher, his wife a nurse, had spent free-time weeks visiting no less than 40 stores in search of, guess what? a new sofa. “We wanted traditional styling and excellent construction, something that would look good for a long time and would stand up to teenagers and pets. But we just couldn’t find anyone who could answer our questions satisfactorily. They couldn’t tell us about frames, springs, fabrics, leathers. And we didn’t feel we could trust them.” The sad end of the story, the couple had an existing sofa reupholstered! But this misadventure, and others like it, helped to kick off a revolution.

Bright retailers responded with high intensity workshops, some conducted by manufacturers’ representatives, some by the retailers themselves. It very quickly became apparent that sales were soaring. Knowledge and the skills to communicate with anxious shoppers appeared to be the answer.

“But economic times have changed appreciably since then,” said Tim Rooks. “Because of budget constraints, there have been big cutbacks. Those manufacturers’ sessions were very expensive. Where they do still exist, they’re much smaller, more intimate. Consumers these days do their homework before they arrive at our stores. They read design magazines, watch television shows, read books, research on the Internet, and they want to be greeted by intelligent, well-informed store personnel, real authorities on their product lines.

“We realized we had to provide good, solid, basic knowledge to our sales people, evolve a more direct approach. Technology came to the rescue!”

Tim is Manager of Training for Federated, in charge of technology and computer based training development. It’s now a huge operation since the merger with May Company, well over 900 stores in 47 states.

A couple of years ago, Mark Lacy, Senior Vice President of LetterPress Software, talked with Tim about an exciting creation, a new CD, “Fundamentals of Furniture Product Knowledge”. Mark had already sold the CD to one large chain. Tim saw its huge potential and asked him to expand the disc’s content to include a comprehensive rug/carpet module and tweak the overall design and flow. “We partnered on the CD,” said Mark. “Now Tim has it integrated on his master base.”

The content of this magical, award-winning CD is departmentalized into modules: casegoods, upholstered furniture, beds and bedding, fibers and fabrics, leather furniture and rugs/carpets. Cleverly, each module is broken into digestible sections. The student can work at her/his own pace. It’s designed to fit all systems and degrees of expertise. There are more than 300 original illustrations, a total of 36 self-paced multimedia lessons, five in-store floor activities, printable certificates of completion for each module and more than 50 interactive practice activities.

One of the secrets of the CDs’ universal acceptance is that it’s fun! And where, please tell us, is it written that learning can’t be fun? It’s the interaction that captures the attention, the non-irritating male and female voices that inform, praise and chastise, sometimes sending you back to re-examine modules and re-think your response to activities and tests. There’s something gleeful about printing out your own certificate of success at the end of each properly negotiated module!

There’s a good mix, too, of relatively difficult and easy modules, and this, like the concept itself, is designed to enhance individual strengths and define areas of weakness. The student is encouraged to print-out useful activities pages that persuade them to venture out on the floor of their own store and put the brand new, shiny info into useful action.

Mark is a veteran of the furniture industry, a trainer at TRPC Consulting for some years. “I went back to school, Utah State University and, after graduation, was hired by the University as a researcher. Then, with two colleagues, we turned research into practical application when we established LetterPress, a design firm specializing in scientifically based knowledge, delivered through the use of technology.

“Information is not instruction. If it were, we’d send our children to the library and not bother about school. The CD requires that the ‘student’ USE the information. That’s the reason people actually learn, absorb the data. They engage in activities; it’s the science of instruction.”

Once the CD was perfected, “It needed to fly”. Mark approached Furniture World Magazine to market it. And the rest, of course, is history... recent history.

Tim said, “Furniture is a rather unique product to sell. We hope to meet the needs of our customers by offering them an improved lifestyle, the romance of how they will use the pieces in their homes. We must tell them a story.”

We caught Jim Busek, Director of Training for Norwalk Furniture’s 75 stores, in the midst of leading a sales training group. “We’ve distributed the CD to our entire franchise base from Vancouver to Ottawa and from Seattle to Boca Raton. We’re custom upholstery specialists, so we provide excellent training ourselves in the upholstery part of the programme, but the CD certainly helps the new franchisees with casegoods and rugs, the terminology and the background.

“Sales people could be brand new to the industry, perhaps a dental hygienist last week and a sales person in one of the stores this week. Even for people who have design school backgrounds, it’s great updating. It takes away the fear factor! We’ve had absolutely no resistance from owners or sales staff. They can test themselves on multiple levels as they go through the CD. And they persist since they can work at it according to their own schedule. It’s discreet, too, since no one else knows how much you don’t know! Our design consultants are learning excellent fundamentals of furniture knowledge. We are very satisfied.”

Bruce Dunning joined AMI/Furniture Leaders when the buying group was established in 1972. He believes firmly that every furniture industry sales person in North America needs more knowledge. And he’s passionate about it! “Our 57 large retailers buy furniture in large quantities and bill centrally. You’ll find us in Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Utah and Alaska.

“At the Las Vegas show my friend Harmon Tobler advised me to look up Mark Lacy, that he had a new CD that could fill the void in furniture knowledge. I bought the CD, I’ve just distributed it and I’m excited about it! It’s the best training CD I’ve ever seen. I’m sure that with this CD, you can take a real neophyte, train them, get them out on the floor and they’ll be able to sell.” Vice President Bruce feels the disc’s interactivity is key, “It’s a fantastic tool!”

About a year ago, a mid-western firm, K’s Merchandise, a group of 17 stores in four states, bought the CD. “All our stores are using it,” Jeff Wolff, Merchandise Manager, told us. “We’ve experienced no resistance from our sales people. It’s helping them to understand the basics of construction. We’re seeing good results.”

And so is Tim Rooks. “We have curricula for all sales training efforts throughout the stores, point of sale, learning how to ask the right questions, how to greet customers. West California has reported back that the CD is making a difference in sales and there’s positive feed back from customers. And the sales people are enjoying using it. They love the CD, it’s providing basic information they can use and they can print the information at the end of the modules for further study.
“Perhaps an additional CD should be considered, features and benefits and how to link back to what the customer needs, asking about their lifestyles and matching them up with product. That could be valuable!”

Mark is proud of the CD’s many awards, including in 2004, the prestigious EDDIE (Educational Software Review Award). “A southern California group of independent experts review software from all over the world, and pick the winners in post secondary and vocational training; they gave us that honour.”


For more information contact FURNITURE WORLD, 877-235-3095, or e-mail educationcd@furninfo.com. The CD can also be ordered online at www.furninfo.comClick here to go to the Online Store.

Furniture World is the oldest, continuously published trade publication in the United States. It is published for the benefit of furniture retail executives. Print circulation of 20,000 is directed primarily to furniture retailers in the US and Canada.  In 1970, the magazine established and endowed the Bernice Bienenstock Furniture Library (www.furniturelibrary.com) in High Point, NC, now a public foundation containing more than 5,000 books on furniture and design dating from 1620. For more information contact editor@furninfo.com.