Over 152 Years of Service to the Furniture Industry
 Furniture World Logo

Gamifying Design Choice

Furniture World Magazine

on

Interview with Laura Khoury

The language of furniture styles has become nuanced and complicated. This presents a challenge for furniture retailers.

From 1960 through the early ‘90s Furniture World published many thousands of “History of Furniture Styles” sales training guides for furniture retailers. These 16-page inserts categorized furniture designs into traditional, transitional and contemporary categories, then further, into styles including Chippendale, Sheraton, Empire, French Provincial and others. This made sense at a time when purchasing matching sets was the norm, and when so many people owned Early American or Queen Anne-styled dining sets.

Since then, the language of furniture styles has become nuanced and complicated. Some customers shop to find products that reflect their own personal style. Others have eclectic tastes or can’t tell the difference between style categories that often incorporate subtle design influences.

This presents a challenge for furniture retailers who need to collect information on shoppers’ style preferences, either online or in-store.

Fortunately, when shown a product image, furniture shoppers know whether or not they like it. This reality presented an opportunity for Laura Khoury who founded Shoptelligence, a product selection tool that helps shoppers identify furniture items and make suggestions based on relevant click data. Furniture World spoke with Khoury to get her views about how retailers can help their customers put together rooms that meet their needs.

“Most furniture shoppers start their purchase journey online,” Khoury explained, “and every item a shopper clicks on leaves evidence of what their style preferences are.”

Seven Foundational Styles

In 2015 Khoury decided to leave her big corporate job to found Shoptelligence. It was a project she’d been thinking about for several years.

“Earlier in my career,” she recalled, “I focused heavily on B2C strategies, using the internet to generate leads, drive shoppers into stores, retain them and grow customer lifetime value. From there I became an attorney. It was a short detour into practicing corporate and technology law before going to work for KPMG, heading up their advanced solutions practice.

“The idea for Shoptelligence grew out of a terrible experience I had shopping for apparel. I was pre-judged by a salesperson and it occurred to me that their opinion of what I should purchase had no relevance to my personal style preferences or shopping objectives.”

From that spark of inspiration, Khoury and her team started to look at ways to combine consumer behavioral analytics with style reasoning to produce home furnishings purchase suggestions. Khoury explained that defining furniture styles in a useful way was challenging.

“At that time,” she recalled, “furniture styles seemed to be so much more intangible and unstructured than data. “We brought in a team of designers to get their thoughts on what differentiates the look and feel of a traditional style from contemporary or rustic.

“Thankfully, in almost all verticals there are foundational styles. For furniture, we found seven: contemporary, transitional, traditional, mid-century, rustic, craftsman, and industrial.

“There are derivatives of these seven styles. Farmhouse chic is a blend of contemporary and rustic. Many styles are related. Today, retailers might be selling farmhouse chic. Tomorrow, a derivative style might be sold as farmhouse glam. It’s just another combination we call a secondary style.

“Decorating with furniture is complicated,” she added. “Furniture can be mixed and matched in various creative ways. A rustic-styled room may include contemporary or craftsman-style pieces. Furthermore, retailers may merchandise an accent chair as a living room item that may also work well in a bedroom or a home office setting.”

To be useful, any algorithm needs to be able to identify furniture and accessories that are appropriate suggestions for individual shoppers. “That,” she said, “required the tracking of relevant product attributes independent of style. The last piece of the puzzle we had to address was the most complicated. Our algorithms had to be trained to output correct combinations based on how products are used, the styles and inventory a retailer has available, and the attributes of each item.”

A Million Choices

“The goal for any retailer,” Khoury said, “is to make decisions simpler for consumers by helping them to visualize multiple items altogether. That by itself helps drive up consumer engagement and yields as much as a six-time increase in engagement plus 30 or more percent increases in average order value. Imagine trying to show a million products, one by one, it would never work. But if you can show them six, 12, 18, 30 products at a time, in an engaging way, where it’s gamified, it becomes fun.

“The object of the game from the consumer’s standpoint,” Khoury observed, “is to achieve their objectives. This is difficult for people as they scroll through websites that present hundreds of SKUs. Let’s say a shopper wants to purchase a chair, rug, sofa, coffee table, lamp and a piece of wall art to put above that sofa. If there are 10 selections in each category, they end up with a million choices (10 to the sixth power). That’s why consumers are so overwhelmed when shopping online for furniture.

“If a shopper searches for farmhouse style online, there will absolutely be a bias as to what items they’re clicking on,” she explained. “But when considering the style or look of an entire room, there is a chance that something from another style category will work perfectly to complement the design. And so, it’s in a retailer’s best interest to initially expose that shopper to more farmhouse styled items, but along the way, suggest additional pieces that work together in the context of the room that the shopper wants to create.

“The beauty of looking at consumer preferences by offering choices and keeping track of where they click is that a consumer profile can be created. This profile can take into consideration every click a shopper makes, and all of the product attributes associated with each item a shopper looks at. The objective is to show them more appropriate choices—and fewer items that they probably won’t be interested in—to narrow the selection field.” This process mirrors what creative design associates might do when working with clients in stores to put together rooms.

Style surveys are highly effective at engaging shoppers who want to collect personal style information and move shoppers forward into an online or digital sales funnel. “But,” Khoury said, “retailers run up against limitations when presenting lifestyle images. These can inspire, but what happens when items go out of stock? It becomes more like a magazine experience than an interactive digital experience.

“No matter how a retailer approaches the issue of choice, the goal is to help move the shopper down that funnel, from ‘I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for in this room’ to ‘I found one item,’ and then to, ‘I found everything else I need to finish that room,’ whether it’s one more item or 10 more.”

Getting Them Into the Store

A primary goal for most furniture retailers is to engage shoppers on their websites to get them to either purchase online or convince them that it’s worth visiting a brick-and-mortar location. “The idea is to increase average order value on-site,” said Khoury, “and capture lower funnel leads to get shoppers engaged with products enough to provide retailers with an email address for follow up.” Another goal is to convert store traffic into sales.

“Information collected from website interactions where consumers share information on style preferences via surveys or for those retailers who use click data, can help sales associates to make more relevant suggestions. The better that retailers understand their customers’ style preferences and serve them in the way they want to be served, the greater the likelihood of success.”

Omnichannel

The advantage of offering interior design services to dramatically increase close rates and average sales is well documented. Furniture World asked Khoury if making design suggestions online can work against stores that work hard to offer these in-store services.

“Even if a retailer with an established clientele has designers on staff, the concept of omnichannel is still relevant,” she replied. “Home furnishings are the third largest purchase in a person’s life behind housing and automobiles. It’s high-ticket and therefore high consideration. Whether or not a customer is working with a designer, they want to go online and be able to do research, experiment and interact with products outside of the in-store experience.

“While many retailers have started to adopt omnichannel practices, others have fallen behind. Omnichannel creates a seamless experience throughout the entire consumer journey across all channels. Not only does it allow retailers to serve their customers in a convenient and effective manner, it is individualized, leveraging consumer behavior as well as style data and analytics. This can be used to serve up more recommendations to increase average order value and engagement. It also allows retailers to fully understand where each consumer is along their purchase path so tools and marketing efforts can be applied when they make the most sense.”

Post COVID

“During COVID, there was more demand than there was supply. So instead of just merchandising what looks best, we were able to add a bit more weight to show items that were in stock. Now, as the economy is swinging back and people are talking of a possible recession, the situation has changed.

“The objective is to show them more appropriate choices and fewer items— — that they probably won’t be interested in—to narrow the selection field.”

“It is time for retailers to focus on getting the most out of every shopper in terms of closing sales and raising average tickets. And that’s true for first-time shoppers or returning customers.

“Retailers that are still looking at their websites as online brochures are at risk, frankly, because the consumer is expecting more.”

More Suggestions From Khoury

Sales Education: When a consumer visits a store, they may have already spent hours online looking through different products and weighing the pros and cons of each. Be aware that shoppers are often more informed than sales associates regarding information found on their store’s website. It’s important for retailers to stop treating their websites like separate businesses, almost completely siloed and sometimes a second thought.

Not only does omnichannel help sales associates understand where each shopper is along their journey, continued sales education will ensure that shoppers are given the right information, in the right place and at the right time.

Product Data: Many retailers need to put more focus on updating their product data. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but at a minimum, every item needs to have a least a couple of lines of well written copy.

Lead Data: Make sure there is an email capture on every website page. Collection of email addresses and phone numbers, whether or not a shopper purchases, is increasingly important. Shoppers won’t randomly give you their email addresses; there has to be a quid pro quo. For example, if an undecided customer decides to leave the store without purchasing, the sales associates might ask, ‘Would you like me to email you a report of the items we looked at together that you showed interest in today?’ That’s a value-add exchange that recognizes that the shopper isn’t just shopping in one channel. They want that portability, which can and should be built into the sales process.

Other Data: Third-party cookies will become almost irrelevant going forward. The emphasis has shifted to collecting first-party data through cookies. It’s the only way retailers can get demographic insights about shoppers who visit their websites.

Access to high-quality data has become increasingly important for every home furnishings retailer. Consumer behavior analytics offers better visibility into shopping trends and preferences. Using it wisely improves customer experiences, increases sales and boosts customer loyalty.


Questions about this article can be directed to Laura Khoury care of editor@furninfo.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.