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An End To Replace, Return, Refund: How To Reach 100% Perfect Deliveries

Furniture World Magazine


Think about the retail furniture business today. When I was new to the business, China was just starting to gain a foothold. It wasn’t until the end of the century that domestic casegoods all but evaporated from North Carolina, where I lived, and everywhere else in the United States. High-end furniture, while still coveted, became further and further out of reach for most Americans, while the quality and aesthetics of import furniture continued to improve. Major players began to consolidate market influence, styles began to homogenize (“sea of brown”), and furniture became more of a disposable commodity rather than heirlooms. I miss how it used to be. But that can’t be an excuse to ignore the fact that customers are customers, money is money, and we all want more of both.

I remember arguing with reps about chargebacks back then. Dents finished over, shade variations, little things that we had to repair in order to deliver perfect-quality furniture (can you even imagine delivering a Henkel-Harris dresser with a scratch on it?). Today, chargebacks are factored into our invoices and we’ve essentially become what I like to call the “final mile of manufacturing”. It has become increasingly important to look the furniture over closely and correct any imperfections you find before delivery. One constant remains even after domestic production shifted overseas: Hers. That’s right, your customer may have accepted the fact that it’s virtually impossible to find affordably-priced eighteenth-century reproductions, but she’ll nitpick chocolate brown furniture like she always has.
I’ve been a consultant since 2004. These days I work a steady job. But I’ve been to many stores where the belief is that this is mass-produced furniture, and it’s not worth fixing or sweating the details. This statement makes absolutely no sense to me, and yet I’ve heard owners say it themselves. Now, before anyone concludes that this is an exercise in self-preservation, think again. I’m writing this article because I have helped to achieve 100% first-time delivery for the company I work for, and so can you. But, you’re going to have to change.

Why 97% Perfect Just Isn’t Good Enough

I recently visited a distribution center that shipped 2400 pieces a day, with a 97% first-time delivery rate. While their attention to detail was highly commendable, 3% of everything came back. Put that into perspective: Three percent of 2400 is 72. Shipping six days a week, that’s 432 pieces per week. Consider the costs of a failed delivery. What options do you have? Replace, repair, refund. Each one costlier than the next. Replace, and you have the effort to open, inspect, wrap, load, deliver… plus return, repair, send to clearance or rewrap. Repair, and you have some pretty expensive people in a van hoping to appease the customer and make it right. Refund, and you lose money in a big way (see “Replace” but subtract all the money she spent).

Where I work now, we don’t handle nearly that volume. But our market is much smaller, and quality is relative. You can consistently put out a poor-quality product or an excellent-quality product, it’s your choice. If you are interested in 100% first-time delivery, read on, but note: Unless you and your managers are willing to demand nothing less than perfect, don’t bother trying.
  • Factory standards mean nothing to your customer. Maybe finished-over dents and scratches are acceptable to you, because your selling agreement means that you’re the final mile of the manufacturing process, but that does not mean that you can force this standard on your customers.
  • Stop saying something “isn’t worth fixing.” Employees cannot and will not discern a difference in your words and will apply that mantra to any and all products in your warehouse.
  • Seriously consider closing your clearance center. If there is a way out for your employees, they’ll take it. People are people. 
  • Only order parts as a last resort. It’s easy to get caught up in the practice of ordering a part for every little problem. But that does several things—it clogs up your inventory, it reduces the need for a repairman when an assembler will do, and it dumbs down your repairman’s skills by not challenging him.
  • “Pull another one” only as a last resort. What tends to happen is that the damaged one will end up in a holding area and stay there. Or they’ll order a part.
  • A customer service issue is a 911. It should be addressed as such. I call the customer immediately, schedule the call or order the part, and make resolving the problem my concern for her, not what’s good for me. 

Maintain Urgency

The rubber meets the road the minute the delivery truck shows up from the factory. Some manufacturers have available some very helpful videos showing how to, among other things, properly unload a truck. At this warehouse, we insist on using one such model for the way we unload trucks. Result? Very, very few crushed edges. Never a broken mirror. Hardly ever a bent mechanism or rubbed-through corner. It just doesn’t happen.

Locating is done by picker or by hand, and we watch each other closely. If someone is being a little rough, or can’t handle the weight due to a lack of strength, we quickly reassign the person elsewhere. We use the same philosophy during pulling as well, never letting a box hit the floor. Managers here are constantly circling, watching the floors, making sure the product is handled appropriately and carefully. Once the product is opened and staged, the quality team that I manage begins the inspection process, usually three or four hours each day. The lighting is very good, the product is spaced well so we’re not tripping over each other, and we use rolling repair carts, one for casegoods and one for upholstery and leather.

Deluxing is the process of making sure the piece is clean, presentable and operational for the customer upon delivery. But there are different schools of thought regarding how much should be done to a piece. I judge a piece like this: If I don’t like it, she won’t like it either. It’s just that simple. Most repair technicians, refinishers and restorers know full well what is acceptable and what is not. 
One of my sayings is that, “Those who have mastered the art of work avoidance have a boss whose clearance center is full.” 

Tips For Deluxers

Consider sharing these highly-successful tips with your deluxers if you’d like 100% first-time delivery.

1. Good enough is not good enough. A repair can look “muddy” if too much pigment is used to mask the damage. Using smaller amounts of glaze, or dye-based toners, and thin amounts of wax-pigment blending sticks, reduces this effect. If you block out the grain, put it back.

2. Keep the repair area small. When repairs spiral out of control, the chance of a re-pull is high. If you have to relacquer an entire top using aerosols, be sure to use a flow-out like blush eliminator to reduce tiger striping and orange peel. Lacquers that are already thinned with these solvents have low build, so if any scuffing needs to be done before lacquering, it takes several coats to finish the job. Conversely, one coat of a high-solids lacquer followed by a coat of blush eliminator nicely levels the finish. Of course, nothing is as good as a coat of lacquer from a cup gun.

3. Edge the drawers. Edge everything. I like things to look crisp and clean. The edges of tops rarely look uniform. The back edges of drawer faces almost never look uniform. Using a marker, make sure to edge not just the top edge of the drawer, but also the two sides. Check for finish shadows as well; these are areas typically found beneath mouldings and trim that are missed by the shaders in the factories.

4. Wax wash works well. Paper finish furniture (what we call “print” finish) is notorious for two things: Glue smears, and white edges. Glue smears are so bad, that they can look like scratches, which are the kiss of death on print finish furniture since the manufacturers themselves will tell you that their finishes cannot be topcoated permanently. Wax wash removes these smears, and you should remove any excess glue along edges like the back panel, or where panels connect. Further, if the finish is, for example, weathered grey, the edges should be grey, or one of the darker colors in the finish like dark brown. NOT RAW.

5. Bounce a quarter off a back panel. Sagging or puckered fabric panels look bad. For cloth fabrics, a simple steamer will tighten them up quickly—so quickly, in fact, you’ll laugh. For polyurethane fabrics, a steamer can relax creases and dents too. Don’t use a steamer on leather, though, pull those panels tight if you have to by removing staples and adjusting the tension.

6. Velour rub-throughs are an easy fix these days. Companies like Leather Solutions offer velour fibers that you can “puff” onto a rub-through and hide almost immediately. It literally takes just a few seconds to repair something we used to spend a half-hour fixing. They even exact-match the fibers to the furniture most of us are selling these days. They sell leather and polyurethane pigmented touch-up that way, too.

7. Don’t send trash to customers’ homes. One of my pet peeves is Styrofoam, or plastic sheet, or those irritating desiccant bags being left in the drawers. Remove all trash. If you have a drawer that won’t close all the way, pull it out and look behind it—chances are there is a desiccant bag back there!

8. Fix it or not? Distressing marks are a deluxer’s best friend, provided they look like other distressing on the piece, and are shaped like other distressing marks. If a dent looks eccentric, it doesn’t count. Burn it in. Which leads me to another point…

9. For heaven’s sake, learn how to burn in. Top-notch repairs are made with burn-ins. I’ve seen guys use everything else under the sun to avoid making a burn-in. To wit: stick epoxy, plastic filler, clear liquid epoxy, lacquer drips, wax stick, wax blending stick, melting wax sticks… Properly using a burn-in means that if you do it right, you won’t have to sand. 

10. No one likes a saggy back. Oftentimes the top corners of back cushions are underfilled. Make sure to unzip the bottom and manipulate the fiberfill up into the corners so they look plump. Don’t use a regulator—they can and will leave small holes in the fabric that in some cases are irreparable.

11. Test every piece of motion. Make sure the mechanisms recline fully. Plug up and operate the massage, motors, lights, USB. Sit in the piece and listen for creaks or groans. 

12. Please use a straightedge. If you have a crushed corner, don’t trust your eyes to tell you that your repair is good. Excess sanding can destroy moulding profiles and create dipped-down corners. Speaking of corners—make sure to repair the underside of the edge too, not just what you can see. Drivers can’t hide everything!

Curse of Complacency

The basic premise is that one needs to apply urgency and a deep sense of commitment to one’s profession to produce a truly great product or service, regardless of what that product or service is. Complacency is the killer of any business. My grandfather, Bill McCloskey, used to tell a story about a farmer who wanted to save money, so in his horse’s feedbag, he would take some of the oats out and replace them with sawdust. The horse didn’t seem to notice, so little by little, he added more and more sawdust. Eventually the poor beast died. You see the point.

Peter Schlosser is a backend furniture consultant based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His focus is repair, quality control, exceptional customer service, and all things operational.  He is a contributing editor to Furniture World. To see all his articles Click Here.  Questions on any aspect of this article or furniture repair can be directed to Peter Schlossser at pschlosser@furninfo.com.