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Focus on selling your customers

Several CFR board members and casual furniture executives got together last year and discussed what can we do for our industry and who would be best qualified to address the issues facing each of us ... I'm one of several industry vets who will try to shed some light on the ever changing, yet familiar issues that can affect the way we do business. They are: the Internet, mass retail, imports, containers, sales/training, displays and follow-up with customers.

Boy, have things changed from when I started in this industry 20 years ago. Just 10 years ago there were 237 exhibitors, showing at the September Casual Show. Industry sales were 1 billion; average sales were below $1,000 at specialty retailers.

Five-piece sets made up the majority of those sales — I remember we all gasped when mass started offering five-piece sets for as high as $399.

Today, there are 277 exhibitors showing at the September market. The industry has grown to $2.3 billion, single retail sales over $20,000 are fairly common and mass retailers have doubled their average sales price and now sell seating and accessories.

The Internet

This is a growing entity that is here to stay. Today's consumer is busy and the Web offers the convenience of shopping without leaving the comfort of your home. Change your approach in advertising. Run an invitation to your store to experience, to learn.

Extend your hours to accommodate the busy — the working spouses that would otherwise go to the Web because it's always open. Use the Web saavy to grow your business — teach value, be invaluable to the decision-making process. The Web is nothing more than a tool to create awareness, as do the shopping channels, design channels and catalogs, if that is how we choose to use it.

Mass retail

They're stepping up, are you? They're chasing you, which makes you the leader — don't forget that. Mass has always been around. How many of you remember why you got into the casual furniture industry knowing there were places to buy casual furniture cheaper?

Everything around you has changed; do you still know your customer? Who are they, what do they want or need? Maintaining or stepping up price points while up-selling quality is a value for consumers and insures our growth. Trade up, not down. Demand for better outdoor furnishings is growing fast; if you're still here, growing, and can remember why, you'll be here next year. Before offering cheaper, think deeper. Figure out products and services you offer or can offer to create more value for your customer while affording opportunity to generate higher gross dollars.

Sales

According to 20 recent studies conducted by the NHFA, consumers don't really see a lot of differences between stores. Everyone claims to have the best price, quality and service — don't forget the free interest until doomsday. Most furniture brands are not well known, "Made in the USA" is simply not as important today in a global market.

Consumers don't trust sales people — they compare them to a used car salesman out for the money at any cost. Asking a consumer, "Can I help you?" is terrifying — they don't know, they just walked in the door.

Most companies make salesmanship the last step in a training regiment. Most companies are wrong and are missing out on potential sales. All companies should qualify if someone can sell at the early stages of an interview. If there is any doubt to whether they have sales ability, don't hire them. Have the candidate sell you on any object in your store, let them pick and close you. If they can't close you, don't hire them.

Nothing happens until someone sells something. If you haven't conducted a sales consultant training, do so. I'm not talking about product training, though certainly important. Product knowledge has never scared someone out the door, unless you get in a debate with a rocket engineer. You must find out what the customers' needs are and you can't do that without watching and listening. If you don't, both of you are uncomfortable and you're not closing anything but the door behind the customer you just lost. Invite them in — thank them for coming in, make them feel at home.

Train salespeople to be the person you would buy from. Sell relationships and sales will take care of themselves. Don't let your sales people go through a sale in a hurry and leave a mess behind. The customer, your customer, is trying to relax. A hyper sales person who's racing around tossing things will get no results except maybe a thinner waistline. It's not aerobics, it's connecting with your customer, getting them to relax, be comfortable, trust their environment and feel they're in a relationship making a sound decision.

Do you offer a design consulting service? Do you have a designer? If you don't have a designer, get one. If you can't afford one, barter for discounts, work on a commission or sale bonus. Have events to teach your potential customers how to express themselves, how to create their special place that meets their functional needs and expresses who they are. You need to effectively communicate so you better understand their needs and offer a key service — listening.

Offer free design consultation events after typical work hours — remember in most cases both spouses work and in the late evening warming up to a special event is much more gratifying than a computer screen. When you have a customer visiting your store, have them fill out an entry form for a gift certificate. Let them know you have a drawing once a month for customer appreciation. This is referred to as Low Hanging Fruit. It's already been planted and cultivated, why not harvest it?

Display

Make sure your store offers the right canvas to work from. Investing in a beautiful store, beautiful product, and not investing in a display worthy of those efforts will reflect in your bottom line. Remember consumers view many stores alike — stand out. Be fresh and exciting — create the ultimate experience.

Create a complete environment that your customers can visualize as a part of their lifestyle. Most people can't visualize what they want — show them. Exceed their expectations, creating a shopping experience — by design. Color should be pulled throughout, going beyond the vignette — color should not be confined to an area, it should define the whole store. When setting up a group, use coordinating color in the line of vision, instead of making everything within the single display match. It's subtle, subliminal, but effective. It also makes your displays mature and far-reaching, drawing them all around your store.

The vignette is not a hard line or a defined barrier; it is one part of a complete canvas, and an intriguing visual experience you're trying to create. Get out of the box and onto the canvas. Integrate your surroundings to pull your customers' eyes throughout the store, increasing your choices and chances for closing. If something creates a warehouse backdrop like stacked cushions and umbrellas, disguise it, remember you're creating a backdrop not an abstract. Change the store, move displays. Customer-return, is that not what you're trying to achieve? By all means, make sure your store is clean; nothing says, "don't buy me" like cobwebs and a mummified display.

Follow-up

After the sale is the opportunity to create a long-lasting relationship. Send your designer on the delivery and make sure it is set up as visualized when it was sold, make sure they get the experience. Always deliver with competence and on time. Send a personal handwritten thank you. What do you do now? Is it over? No.

After a few months pass, contact your new customer again. For example: Dear Mrs. Smith, Thank you again for purchasing your new sofa from us. All of us here at Got Patio hope everything is to your liking. I just had to let you know, we just received a conversation table that would be perfect in front of that sofa on your veranda.

If your focus is only on new customers, you are missing the chance to cross-sell and all the low hanging fruit you'd been cultivating. Here's another thought. Send a coupon to your customers at the start of each season for $100 – $150 based on their cumulative purchases to bring them back into your store, investing more in their lifestyle. Keep your customer yours by keeping them thinking about your store and not your competitors. Increase your sales the same time you are intensifying their loyalty.

Be imaginative, assume challenges, create new opportunities and find a new way to win. This industry has been a very important part of my life for more than 20 years. I'm sure you agree, there are not many jobs this rewarding and offer this type of friendship and enjoyment. It is our obligation to preserve this opportunity for generations to come.

Dale Campbell is vice president of sales for Lloyd-Flanders. This article is excerpted from his speech at the CFR Forum held in February.

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