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Are You Marketing Like It’s 1987?

Furniture World Magazine


by Michael Winicki

Remember 1987? That’s the year that the stock market crashed almost 23% during the October High Point Market, the drug Prozak made it’s debut in the US, “Walk Like An Egyptian” by the Bangles was the top song and we were still using audio casettes, and those huge 1.4 MB floppy disks. Back then, when I was a young “pup” my father opened a retail store. Having recently been laid off and unable to find work in the oil and gas industry (can you believe a barrel of oil was $15 back then?), I decided to join him.

Though I’d worked in a couple of retail businesses while going to school, I quickly discovered I didn’t have a clue about retail advertising.

A family friend who owned an established home furnishings store gave me this advice: “Mike, don’t worry about it The ad reps will be more than happy to help you out.”

He was right—once a week the daily newspaper ad rep would poke his head in the door. The reps from the free weekly newspapers would show up next. The three local radio station reps would stop by every now and then. On top of that, once a year the Yellow Pages rep would visit. And of course ad reps for billboard companies, restaurant placemats and grocery store cash register receipts would be by periodically.

When it came down to it for our area—like many areas back then—marketing was all about the daily newspaper, the radio stations and the Yellow Pages. That’s where most prospects came from.
So the reps were there to help me out—right! I knew they were there to spend our money! Little did I know, however, that they didn’t know much more about marketing than I did. But at least they knew something about it from being in the business for a longer period.

And that’s how it was back in 1987. At the time I thought it was complicated, but advertising in 1987 wasn’t much different from advertising in 1977, 1967 or even 1957. If you had a retail business you pretty much focused on advertising via the same three venues: in the daily newspaper, on the local radio stations and in the Yellow Pages.

Changing Times

Little did I know how much more complicated it would be to market a business in the coming decades, especially after the internet went from an amusing toy to a “must-have-access-to” medium for almost everyone. Since then, of course, the rules for marketing your business have been turned upside down.
And although there are several areas that might appear to be just as they were in 1987, once you wipe the dust off, it becomes clear that even the old and reliable channels have changed.

Back in 1994 I did a study of our store traffic. By then I was fully immersed in this marketing stuff as I tried to find the “golden key” that would unlock the floodgates to more store traffic. Here’s how things broke out:
  • Daily newspaper-34%
  • Weekly newspaper-13%
  • Radio-22%
  • Yellow Pages-10%
  • Unknown-14%
Keep in mind that these percentages reflected new customer traffic only; they did not include customers who had shopped in our store previously.

Twenty years later in 2014, a store could have similar percentages but end up attracting significantly fewer customers. How is this possible?

It all has to do with the number of potential customers who aren’t:
  • reading the daily newspaper
  • listening to local radio
  • pulling the Yellow Pages off the shelf to look up a phone number
Readership of newspapers has plummeted. Listenership of local radio stations has plummeted. The percentage of people using ink-on-paper Yellow Pages directories has plummeted. I don’t think these are revelations to anyone. I’ve had one store owner after another tell me the same thing.

That’s not to say it makes sense to give up on using any of these “old school” marketing tools. Yes, fewer people are reading, listening to or using them, but these marketing tools aren’t dead yet. The question becomes how do we continue to use them not just to close the gap between the customers we have and the customers we want, but also to grab gobs of market share from competitors? In this age of online marketing, why bother to continue to use them at all?

New Frontiers

The fact is it has never been easier to take market share from competitors as it is right now in 2015! And here’s why:

Back in 1987 every store out there competed using the same marketing tools I’ve already mentioned: newspapers, radio stations and Yellow Pages.

So in order to acquire increased market share back in 1987 you had to:
  • Place bigger ads than your competitor
  • Place more ads than your competitor
If they were placing a half-page vertical ad every week, you needed to place a three-quarter-page vertical ad every week. If they ran two ads a week, then you ran three ads a week. That’s how you captured market share in 1987.

And while you can still do that today, it isn’t the only way of doing it; nor is it necessarily the smartest way of doing it.

I’m sure you’re thinking that I’m going to offer the internet as a good way to bypass your competition in 2014. Well, I won’t disappoint you. Yes, the internet is a great way to sneak around your competitors and get those prospective customers before they do. Simply look online and you’ll find all sorts of tips on how to do this. However, if I left my advice at that I would be doing you a great disservice.

Mobile Component

Let me ask you about the last time you went out to a restaurant.

While you sat there waiting for your food, did you look around? What were many people doing around you?

I know what I see quite often when I go out to dinner that I didn’t see in 1987: everyone around me looking at the screens of their cell phones, reading or scrolling or texting as though they’re possessed. Hardly any face-to-face conversations going on. Instead, it’s one person after another in his or her own little world with the latest iPhone or smart phone.

Now we can lament that as another sure sign that the world is going to heck in a hand basket (and maybe it is), or we can accept it as life in 2014 and use it to our advantage as retailers. The fact is that most brick-and-mortar retailers aren’t using mobile technology to their advantage. One study I read recently states that 90 percent of all people who search for something on their phones end up buying that item (or something similar) within the next 24 hours. That’s a powerful statistic, no matter how you view the fact that people are married to their phones nowadays.

When you plan a digital retail campaign, it had better have a mobile component to it or you’re going to miss out entirely. Not only do you need a regular website (if there is such a thing as a regular website); you also need a website that is designed for mobile users.

Website Errors

Another point that should be obvious but is too often ignored by furniture retailers: the quality of your website speaks volumes about your business. I still visit too many retailer websites with blank “About Us” pages or other pages that are “Under Construction” or contain cold-as-a-frozen-fish verbiage. Such content (or lack of content) can be posted by just about any furniture retailer out there. YOUR website needs to reflect what’s special about YOU and your business. Which is why my next point is so important.

A “Pretty” Niche

Furniture retailers are lucky to be in a “pretty” niche. Because what we sell is considered “pretty” or “decorative”, our past, present and future customers talk to friends and family about the products they’ve purchased or want to purchase from us. It’s a wonderful niche to be in.

Think of how the furniture retail niche is different than, say, the dietary supplement retail niche. People don’t go on Facebook or Pinterest to share stories about products that help prevent yeast infections. They don’t talk about how product “A” cut down their acne problems. Dietary supplements are in an “ugly” niche. It’s extremely difficult to get traction through social marketing if you’re stuck in an ugly niche.

But furniture is comfort, and beauty. Someone will go on Twitter and devote 140 characters to the wonderful night’s sleep they’ve had on their new mattress, or they’ll go on Pinterest and post a pin on their “wall” showing their new china cabinet. They want to share their good experiences when it comes to furniture, and it’s the furniture retailer’s job to fan the flames of that conversation.

The internet is also the place where a retailer can talk about its products as desirable additions to a home or lifestyle—products that provide comfort, beauty and elegance. It gives the retailer a chance to break out of the “commodity” rut in which other business owners find themselves trapped when it seems all they can really promote is price.

The internet isn’t just about our inventory either. It presents endless opportunities for retailers to talk about themselves in a way that establishes them as an “authority” when it comes to furniture. It also allows you to present yourself as a “real person” to your prospects. When it comes right down to it, people still buy from people. The internet offers up powerful opportunities to connect with potential customers by showing that you’re “real”. Furniture retailers who take the time to identify what makes them different and then post content online to that effect are way ahead of their competitors already.


Beyond allowing us to talk about products in a non-commodity way or to talk about ourselves and our businesses in a unique way, the greatest attribute of the internet and digital marketing may be the ease with which it allows us to communicate with our current and prospective customers.

Email in 2014 is still a powerful marketing tool that far too few retailers use to their full advantage, if at all.

My wife and I are empty nesters and we go out to eat A LOT! We visit franchises, independents, diners, fine dining establishments…. As a matter of fact, we have a list of about 30 local restaurants that we visit on a semi-regular basis.

How many of those restaurants do you think have asked for my email address in exchange for something worthwhile? One!

That’s it. Just one restaurant out of all that we visit has come out and requested my email address. I hear from that restaurant every three weeks or so through simple newsletter emails that list upcoming specials and events. I don’t consider these emails “spam”. They can be read quickly and then off to the electronic trash bin they go. But they keep that restaurant near the top of our list.

Getting an email address out of a current customer is usually no more complicated than offering a simple enticement…or simply asking them if they’d like to receive discounts or news delivered directly to their inbox. Yet most furniture retailers hesitate or don’t even consider taking this simple step, even though it could help keep their businesses “top of mind” with their customers.

Just recently my wife and I purchased new carpeting for our bedroom and a new chair. These purchases were made from two different retailers. In neither case was I asked to give my email address in exchange for, say, a $10 gift card or whatever. So I can’t pick on the furniture retail niche for being the only ones asleep at the switch when it comes to aggressively putting together an email list of customers and prospects. But most of us are guilty of this.

Combining Tactics

Now let’s circle back to “old school” marketing. Even though it’s not as effective as it was simply because there are not as many potential customers paying attention to its outlets, that doesn’t mean we can’t use it more effectively than ever. Better than we did 10 or 20 years ago. Definitely better than we did in 1987. And often with surprising results.

First off, regardless of the platform you choose, do NOT run institutional ads. These ads provide basic info but don’t attempt to sell anything. I’m sure you’ve seen “business card-sized ads” in your local newspaper or on restaurant placemats. They usually start out with the name of the business at the top. They may say something like “Joe’s Furniture, In Business Since 1978”. Then they give the address, the phone number and the hours the business is open—that’s it, and it’s a total waste of money.

Every ad you place needs a headline that attracts the attention of the reader or listener. And no, putting the name of your business up at the beginning of an ad is not a good headline. Your headline should include a strong offer plus a call to action that directs the reader or listener to do something; call the store, visit the store…something!

The takeaway from all this is to not neglect your offline advertising opportunities and not neglect your online advertising opportunities, but to combine them. To ignore one just because you don’t understand it or because you haven’t had success with it in the past is not a good plan. If you want to grow your market share or simply avoid stagnating sales, you need to roll up your sleeves and work hard to ensure all your marketing efforts—online and offline—are not only effective but innovative.
As business guru Peter Drucker says, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

Let’s get to creating!

Mike Winicki is president of Big Noise Marketing. His goal is to make the business life of every furniture store owner as easy as PIE: Profitable, Interesting and Enjoyable. To get a free Marketing Opportunity Report for your business simply call his toll free number 1-800-495-8308 anytime, 24 hours a day, and leave your contact information. Or email your request to info@bignoisemarketing.com.

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.