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The social distancing requirements are currently accelerating the consumer shift to online buying in all categories, and the furniture and home improvement retailers are also seeing significant increases in their website traffic. Since February, the Australian internet traffic has grown by up to 70% and, for example, online browsing of furniture increased by more than 200% (V12).  

Even though the rapid shift in consumer behaviour creates an immense opportunity to pivot to online and omnichannel sales, many interior product retailers face the industry strategic inflection point ill-prepared: Their current online customer experience l is based on inspirational images and product inventory and the ‘sales’ approach is highly similar to the traditional catalogue marketing – with the paper forms just replaced with web-pages and a shopping cart. As a result, the retailers fail to build a sales engagement with the customer and end up competing only with the constant Sale-events and prettier pictures.  While this may be OK in the transactional consumer product categories, it does not suit well the highly emotional, high-value, product categories like furniture and home improvement. What is called for is a personalised online customer journey.

Why Product Catalogue Is Not Enough?

When the consumers start interior product purchases online, they typically go through three different stages and want to achieve three objectives. In the first stage the consumers want to find ideas for products and styles and tend to browse through multiple social media and retailer sites. As they keep narrowing their selections the nature of the online engagement also changes and, in the second stage, the consumers focus more on envisaging how the products would fit their homes and refining the selection details, like options and material choices. Finally, the selection(s) made, the customers – once again - visit multiple sites to find the best prices for the products. In fact, based on online shopper studies, over 90% shoppers state that they compare the prices from multiple vendors to reassures them that they are getting value for their money.

The retailer’s goal, on the other hand, is to get the customer to the shop and, at each step of the conversion funnel, move her/him closer to purchase. To achieve this online and to help the customers achieve their objectives most retailers have been focusing on their website visualisations and product information. However, while implementing inspirational image and product visualisations are an excellent way to attract customers, they still are more akin to advertising and catalogue-marketing than selling; As the customers move through the purchasing stages they bounce back and forth between numerous sites and tools, and may leak out from the retailer’s conversion funnel at any point. To make things even worse, the potential customers go through the critical funnel steps all by themselves without the retailer’s salespeople being able to connect with them and assist the customers in their selections process. Not surprisingly the process typically ends in price comparison and zero brand loyalty.

Key To Conversion - Integrated Customer Journey

To truly sell products online the retailer needs to move beyond the online inventory and create an online sales conversion funnel with a connected and personalised experience at each customer touchpoint. This means that, instead of approaching the customers’ online experience as an optimised click-path, the retailer has to consider each step as part of a sales engagement and focus on understanding what the customer wants to achieve at each stage. Based on the objectives, the retailer then needs to provide customers at each stage the information, tools, and advice they need to move to the next sales funnel stage in the retailer online shop, i.e. align their sales funnel with the online customer journey.

The integrated journey begins with the customer researching products having a strong incentive to move to the next stage of purchase with the retailer. The retailer can best achieve this by offering the customers interactive online tools, such as visual product configurators, room-planners, and augmented reality-applications, which link the initial sales stages effectively together and allow the customers to move seamlessly from seeing a product idea to trying it as part of their own home. The entry point into the tools should also be made as effortless as possible, for example by enabling the customers to move from inspirational photos and social media sites directly to visualising products without having to start the selection again (See ‘Avoid The Empty Room -Syndrome’ below). Any friction in these transitions is likely to cause funnel leakage.

Helping the customer to research products and visualise them as part of their home builds a valuable connection between the customer and the retailer’s products. The product selection, however, is only a part of the customer journey. To ensure that the customer continues on the retailer’s site, also the other purchase steps need to be integrated into a seamless online experience. This means that, while the customer is selecting and configuring the products, they should have the necessary product, availability, and pricing information also available, and be able to complete the purchase at any time with ‘a single-click’. Without this integration the customer, facing the task of re-entering the product data, is likely to shop around for the best price and may as well complete the purchase somewhere else (though happy with the useful design tool provider by the first retailer).

Leverage Your Sales People Also Online

In addition to building a seamless online customer journey, the retailer should seek to transfer the in-store buying experience to online. This means that, while the customer is selecting products and creating designs with the retailer’s tools, they should be able to contact the salesperson at any time also online. Equipped with solid expertise in the products the salespersons can assist the customer to decide what to buy, suggest alternatives, and explain why certain design choices make sense. For example, when the customer is researching products using the interactive tools, she/he can request assistance from a salesperson by clicking salesperson-button on the application, the salesperson join the session by sharing the screen, and the salesperson and customer continue to choose the products for the customer’s specific situation together. At the high-end the retailers can even provide online interior design services and offer high value consultation services to their customers.

Avoid The 'Empty Room'-Syndrome

Consumers are fundamentally lazy. Although most consumers will state that visual design tools are of high interest to them, the reality is that they still are unlikely to use them if any significant effort is required. To make things even worse, while most people know what they like when presented with choices, many of them find it difficult to start a design by themselves: Not being interior designers they suffer from an "Empty Room". -syndrome

A retailer can avoid the syndrome by enabling the customer to transition seamlessly between the different touchpoints, like inspirational images, social-media, product pages, and the customer’s own design. The retailer’s online tools should enable the customer, for example, to

  • Start a design by clicking an inspirational image and modify the automatically created design to her/his liking
  • Add products to the design from inspirational room and product images
  • Change colour schemes and materials to a specific theme with a single click
  • Share designs with friends and followers in social media like Pinterest (See blog post 'What's Is Your Social Object? for more)'
  • Start new designs based on images seem in the social media and other media sites, etc.

As the customer’s effort is minimised and she/he is presented with ready-made starting points and ideas, the customer is more likely to engage in designing with the retailers products and a sales connection can be made.

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