The Evolving Business of Doing Business
Thomas Lester -- Home Accents Today, 9/1/2013 2:00:00 AM
With technology advancing at a near dizzying pace, it makes sense that myriad applications can be found to streamline operations for vendor sales reps, the retail sales force and interior designers, among others.
Mobile devices and tablets bring unlimited amounts of data almost anywhere, opening the door for interactions and sales whenever and wherever the opportunity presents itself, be it on the other side of town or across the globe. Software innovations allow for customizable presentations - whether in a store or through the vision of a designer - that allow consumers to see how furnishings could fit into their lives.
In order to get their product in stores across the country, it's essential that vendor sales reps get in front of retailers in order to tout their companies' latest and greatest product. As time becomes more and more precious, many are finding that while nothing beats a face-to-face meeting, technology can offer a "next-best" opportunity.
Technology solutions provider Brandwise launched a revamped website earlier this summer to accompany the five tenets it feels will help serve its customer base: Play, vision, reward, reach and stream. Todd Litzman, Brandwise's president and co-founder, said the initiative will provide clients the best technology over mobile platforms with a dedicated team available in support. "The Brandwise product studio gives retailers a chance to turn products faster and make more money," said Greg Ford, vice president of sales and marketing for the Lakewood, Colo.-based company.
Ford detailed each of the five categories. Play, he said, allows reps to create brilliant product presentations and share them.
"The concept of play came from how the iPad was originally a toy before it was adapted into a business role," Ford said. "It's about fun. The interaction between a sales rep and a customer should be fun."
Vision includes analytics, customer relations tools, route optimization and more to empower salespeople and to give sales managers a real-time look in the field. Reward automates the commission process, which simplifies end-of-the-month bookkeeping and frees up office staff and resources.
Reach is a business-to-business platform that includes a self-service model, virtual showroom and product presentations.
"The retailer's time has become more and more squeezed," Ford said. "They have less and less time to spend with reps and their buying habits are dramatically shifting."
Ford said stream automates the order submission process with greater accuracy and speed vs. manual methods.
Litzman said he believes the initiative will help Brandwise and its partners achieve stronger footholds in the industry.
"We're extremely excited about where we're headed. It's something we plan to do for many years to come," he said. "We're excited about where the new brand is going to take us. The future looks bright as far as we can tell."
As new product debuts, something has to be done with closeouts. Whereoware came up with a solution, helping vendors and retailers capitalize on the last days of popular trends.
In July, the Herndon, Va.-based online solutions company earned an ICON Award for its innovative use of new database technology to help Creative Co-Op move items it was closing out to make room for new product.
Company president Eric Dean said Whereoware tapped into retailers' past buying histories to customize each closeout message.
"We love this industry because there's lot of creative product and you see all kinds of new things when you go to market. The side effect is a lot of product turn means a lot of closeout product; it's an inventory issue. We wanted to use some new database technology and apply specific users' buying histories to a large amount of inventory that's turning over," Dean said. "
What we did was instead of listing, ‘Here are hundreds of items that are closing out, come and get them,' we looked at specific items that you as an individual bought; you already decided these are right for your store or customer. We're giving you a chance to buy them at a discount before they get closed out to a general audience. It's preferential treatment for those who already bought the product. We're telling them about the eight (items) they specifically bought vs. the hundreds."
Dean said he feels the sun is setting on the days of the one-size-fits-all message.
"We're huge believers in technology should adapt to meet the business. Each person we work with has a different business. Trying to fit the technology and jam it into every business doesn't work," Dean said. "This fit the need Creative Co-Op had. With some tweaks, we've been able to do it for others as well. The basic premise and trend is personalization. Each of those email messages is personalized at the account level."
Once the vendor reps do their jobs and the product is in stores, technology exists to help salespeople move the goods to the end consumer.
During the summer Las Vegas Market, Furniture Wizard showed its touchscreen kiosk inside the North American Home Furnishings Assocation's Retailer Resource Center. The Windows 8 platform is designed to help level the playing field for independent retailers.
Chief Creative Analyst Evan Faller said the Chula Vista, Calif., company's touchscreen application is the perfect way for salespeople to add accessories to a sale.
"The key to home accents and accessories is a lot of retailers are missing out on these categories and consumers are going to third parties. We've allowed retailers to take a nine-panel suggested tile on the side," Faller said, selecting a bedroom to highlight an example. "With this bedroom, we said these rugs sell well with it. You can automatically add items to it. For mattress lines, we assume they're going to put sheets and top of the bed on here."
Faller said a number of furniture stores lose accessory sales because they don't know how to package them.
"We're helping drive all those accents and accessories right in the store instead of letting (customers) walk to competitors; we're keeping them in these independent retailers and making sure they can give that customer a great, complete experience," he said.
Feiss-Monte Carlo, which manufactures lighting, lamps, mirrors and ceiling fans, has a fully-customized dealer application for the iPad, which the company says is a first for a lighting manufacturer.
The app was platformed from the reps' Feiss-Monte Carlo eCat app - which was earlier customized specifically for the company - to use on iPads. The app sorts products to fit customer needs and to upsell, creates wishlists, checks stock in real time and shows details that aren't as visible in catalogs or on digital images.
"We aimed to help our customers in closing the sales deal in a challenging retail environment," said Feiss-Monte Carlo President Maria Scutaro. "Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and more are adopting this app technology as they see how it benefits others. We constantly look for and present ways to help our retail partners." Feiss-Monte Carlo's next step is to introduce a mobile, consumer-friendly web app for all smartphones early next year.
But with the ability to purchase product from anywhere across the globe with a click of a mouse, what will keep consumers coming back to their local retailers? MicroD says having a modern website that can level the playing field helps.
"We know e-commerce is the wave of the future, and it's the equalizing and stabilizing factor between the big box store and local retailers, to really attract their market," said Leah Kirkland, MicroD director of sales, who was in Las Vegas to tout the ePiphany website platform to retailers. "We think the independent furniture store in the local area is poised to take the most advantage of this."
Kirkland said the ePiphany websites created by the Charlotte, N.C.-based company instantly fit any screen - be it a large monitor, a laptop screen or mobile device - to give the smaller stores even footing with national and international retailers. "No matter what kind of device you're using to find the Internet, whether you're using it in a store - like a retail store has it displayed on a large monitor and they want to utilize their website - it can perform great on that or on a mobile device," she said. "It gives them a fresh, modern look. We know how judgmental shoppers can be and if they don't like the homepage and they can't find what they're looking for, there are a lot of other sites they can go to."
Kirkland said a number of manufacturers incorporate minimum advertised price policies in order to curtail price wars among retailers, which helps smaller merchants compete. A user-friendly website for the smaller store, with competitive pricing and easy-to-use purchasing tools might help cut down on the practice of "showrooming," or the practice of buyers visiting stores to see pieces in person that they then purchase online from larger retailers.
"They might want to see it in the store and if they don't make a decision, they want to be able to go home and at 9:30, once they've thought about buy it," Kirkland said.
Websites, apps and suggestions help in telling a product story, but what about helping the end consumer visualize the product in her home?
At the unveiling of Furnitureland South's new 17,000-sq.-ft. Design Center in its Jamestown, N.C., home, Jason Harris, executive vice president, said the impetus to do so was partly based on the belief that apps are rapidly replacing catalogs as the medium of choice for delivering product images.
"We don't need printed catalogs anymore. I can't say that for my colleagues, but I was doing the math and I was talking to Josh Piersall (vice president of sales and marketing) of Huntington House (about) what they spend on catalogs every year. He said probably around $300,000 to $500,000. That's one company," Harris said. "If that's the average for a Top 100 company, that's $30 million a year that our biggest companies are investing in catalogs. We would rather use the trees for furniture, not catalogs."
Harris said with mobile applications on an Apple platform, design consultants can better display images on plasma TVs in the design center to help move the process along.
"We're huge proponents of technology at Furnitureland South. That's evident in this Design Center. We have 22 television screens in the new Design Center, two of which are 80 inches and are constantly playing videos from our brands and from Furnitureland South," Harris said. "The other 20 are at the peninsula workstations and every one of them has an Apple TV device connected to it. That allows us, with an iPhone or an iPad - instead of everyone crowding around a small screen or a printed catalog - we can stream and mirror images to the larger screen."
Harris said Furnitureland South's stated mission is to create a world class shopping experience for customers. He said incorporating technology helps foster the creativity that nurtures the mission.
"We wanted to leverage technology. This is the point of impact for our business, for our sales. This is where big money decisions are made," he said. "We wanted to hav e a great environment that could foster that decision-making process and enable creativity."
Brandsource has recently partnered with Classic Home Furnishings, Legends Furniture and Rizzy Home in order to appeal to younger consumers.
It offers a free mobile app that will showcase the new home furnishings, allowing shoppers to plan ahead and/or search any time and filter by price, manufacturer, color, depth, width and height. Information and photos can be shared with friends and family via email, Twitter or Facebook as they furnish their homes.
Whereoware's Spotlight application takes advantage of advances in tablet technology. "We saw the tablet, the iPad, in particular, as a game-changer," Dean said. "It's a 10-inch, high-resolution window to pass information and help interaction between a salesperson and customer. We now have a designer element in that to help designers work with their customers."
Dean said the ability to customize presentations with a drag or a click makes tablets indispensable tools in finalizing sales.
"We wanted to get the right product in front of the right person at the right time. We wanted to make it easier for the people on the front line, salespeople and designers, to take information and create presentations to further the business. The new, high-resolution screens only make it better," Dean said. "Better preparation leads to a better presentation. A better presentation leads to more sales. You're adjusting to questions and can follow up in real time. How do we improve the core interaction? We saw this was a unique tool and we've been developing Spotlight to make that customer experience really sing."
Chris Harrison, chairman and CEO of Christopher Guy, said he noticed a void in technology as it pertained to the interior design industry, so he decided to do something about it with one basic question in mind.
"When it comes down to the website, the way I designed it was ‘What do I need? How do I make something simple and invaluable to have?'" Harrison said. The end result is the Christopher Guy Design Lab and an online program called iBuild that renders product and designs to customizable scale, giving an accurate depiction of what a project could look like when complete.
"If you're an interior designer, you don't want to have to redraw your whole plan. What if you could take a picture or import it into the software?" Harrison said.
"On that software, you need to know the measurements. You can mark a 15 (foot) wall and it rescales the whole plan according to our scale. When you drop something in, it drops in the same scale as the plan. That only takes a couple of minutes to do that."
Harrison said the program is intended to allow designers to create personalized presentations. While the entire array of Christopher Guy products are available for incorporation in the designs, Harrison said as a practical measure, designers are also able to bring in other companies' products to create distinctive and individualized plans for the end consumers.
"When you're doing such things, not everybody goes out and buys from one company. We developed it so you can import third party product," he said. "The designer can create their own price list. We give them a price, and from that, they're able to establish their own markups. When they're offering their customer the project file, it will reflect the price list they wish to represent. They're able to give discounts or surcharges on products. They're also able to add their own monogram to the project. We are making tools that empower the interior designer. We know the interior designer is working with various companies. The more attractive we can make the website so they return to us, even if they don't use any of our product, the main thing is they return to our website."
Thanks for including Brandwise in this article! This is a great topic to address and I'm sure many sales reps will find this valuable! In fact, I would love to hear what sales reps have to say about compensating for the lack of one-on-one time.Brianne Houck - 2013-09-30 15:27:03 EDT
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