The casual industry gets connected
Jamie Sorcher -- Casual Living, 2/1/2012 2:00:00 AM
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Technology has a way of transforming us - how we live, work, relax, and, increasingly, how we shop. At no time of year is this more evident than at the annual International Consumer Electronics Show, the largest trade show in North America, held each January. This year's event - the biggest one on record - featured 20,000 new products from 3,100 companies spread out over 35 football fields. Throw in 150,000 technology geeks like me walking around and it's sensory overload.
While the products grab most of the spotlight, it's the bigger picture that many find so valuable - the technology mega trends - that ultimately give us a glimpse of the future.
2012 is all about connectivity. There will be lots of talk this year about cloud computing - which simply means that personal content is stored out there on the Internet, not on hardware like a computer or TV (think Gmail accounts or Netflix). What consumers want now is to have their content with them wherever they go and on whatever device they are using. The cloud is likely to be a game-changer for how consumers store their content going forward, and it will likely transform how businesses operate in the near future.
The new, connected consumer is equipped with a smartphone, tablet, or nowadays, both. Today's users are placing a greater emphasis on this smaller screen - the one in their hands. Not only are these devices becoming more important for staying connected socially, but for business, entertainment and, as previously noted, shopping. Indeed, many folks consult their smartphone while they're in a store to check prices, to find an item, or for a quick recommendation about a product or service.
"Consumers are quickly embracing a mobile lifestyle," said Shawn Dubravac, an analyst for the Consumer Electronics Association. "This trend will become more pronounced in 2012 when smartphones outsell all computer categories combined."
TAP THE APP
According to a recent Motorola Solutions study, a total of 63% of shoppers surveyed with smartphones said they had downloaded some type of shopping app. There are more than 500,000 apps available for the iPhone these
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days (90,000 are optimized for the iPad). In the Android market, which is quickly catching up, there are close to 400,000 apps. Lifestyle, news, weather, gaming and shopping are just some of the many categories in which apps are available for download.
This represents a huge untapped area for many manufacturers and retailers to talk to consumers. Not surprisingly, several in the casual furniture industry have already taken note and are developing their own versions.
Pride Family Brands, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is working on an app that will be ready by the spring/summer time frame, said President Steve Lowsky. Designed for all mobile devices, the app will allow people to look at the company's different collections, variety of frame finishes, as well as other options, and then make product selections for a room to see how it all comes together.
The company's website (pridefamilybrands.com), said Lowsky, is also getting an update and will have its re-launch by July's premarket, or sooner. "It will be much more interactive, just like the app, and will allow the consumer to design online," Lowsky said. "Consumers are very cognizant of the Web. They go home after a shopping experience and then do additional research online. They are focused on buying from reputable companies that have a history and stability."
According to Tim Newton, managing director of Leader's Casual Furniture, the Largo, Fla.-based 19-store retailer, is currently working with a third party to develop its first app with an iPad version in beta right now and with a possible Android version slated for later in the year as well. The app will offer shoppers room-planning options with customized products featuring the company's specific SKUs and dimensions.
"Generally when you think of an app, you think of Angry Birds or a restaurant guide," Newton said. "We're pretty excited about having this because our app will allow people to dream about their space, create the room environment that they want, and then share their vision with someone in a meaningful, informative and immediate way."
The retailer's website (leadersfurniture.com), which has been up and running since the mid-1990s, is also an effective tool for shoppers, Newton said. "It shadows our Leader's showrooms and lets our customers pre-shop and pre-qualify. It has done a solid job of getting the company's name out there."
LIKE US; FOLLOW US
Getting your company's name out there is what it's all about, according to Brian Offenberger, a professional marketing speaker, who last month hosted the ICFA-sponsored webinar, "How Furniture Retailers Can Increase Sales and Profits with Facebook and Social Media."
"The reality is that when someone is looking for what you sell, if you're not accessible and you're not on page one of Google, then you're not in the game," he said. "Social media does just that with search engines like Google Maps, Yahoo!, Yelp and others."
Still, the impact of social media and the Internet is relatively new for a lot of casual furniture companies, Offenberger acknowledged. Facebook, he said, is suitable for everything from promoting coupons to getting consumer feedback while allowing companies to do targeted advertising and build a following for their brand. "And there's no charge to interact with all of these people," he said.
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The numbers seem to back up the boom in social media. Facebook, according to various reports, is expected to have 1 billion active users by August 2012, which represents 14% of the world's population. Twitter is on track for 500 million total users by the end of March with a projected 250 million active users by year's end.
Eric Parsons, president of Gloster Furniture, based in South Boston, Va., and chairman of the ICFA, is keenly aware of today's tech-savvy shopper. "When the consumer walks into your store, they have already done their homework electronically," he said. "We're trying to be as forward as we can related to social media. What it comes down to is that we see ourselves as a brand first and as a manufacturer second, third or fourth."
The company, Parsons said, was planning a soft launch of its new website (gloster.com) late last month. "What we're going for is more of a magazine format; more tabloid-style and more contemporary," he said. "We did our last revision on the site four or five years ago so this brings it up to date."
Gloster is also rolling out a new strategy with its e-blasts. The company has been successful with e-blasts to its dealers, but now for the first time this month, Gloster will be sending out e-blasts to consumers. Over the last eight years, the company sent out about 8,000 product catalogs annually. "We're reaching out to the consumer, but then we are redirecting them to their local retailers so they can make the purchase."
Acoustic Research's Bluetooth Wireless speaker, available this spring, is ideal for the new living room - the outdoor one - with its UV- and waterresistant exterior. It is compatible with iPhones, iPods, iPads, and works with Android platform devices, too.
With Gloster being a global company - 55% of the company's volume in North America and the remaining 45% making up the rest of the world - Parsons said there is no doubt that social media has become increasingly more important in letting people know about the company's large presence both here and internationally.
"It allows us a way to communicate and interact," Parsons said. "Facebook is used primarily by our designers. We use Twitter less. We use it as a notification to advise that we've sent out a press release. But we're learning how valuable Facebook can be and trying to figure it out just like everyone else."
According to Gina Wicker, design and creative director for Glen Raven Custom Fabrics, the company's social media strategy is quite comprehensive. It includes Faceboook, Wicker said, which has proven a key channel for the interior designers to communicate with one another to post comments about different projects, for example.
Other outlets are Google+, a Youtube Channel, a blog, and Twitter. "Twitter is used as a table of contents," Wicker said. "We use it to announce what we're doing online. This is where you speak about everything. From there we direct you to our Facebook page or our blog, depending on what it is we're talking about."
The only thing missing for now is an app, which Wicker said the company has considered. "But we're adamant that it's got to do something that we're not doing already on our website or with another service."
QR (Quick Response) codes, those black and white squares that are showing up in stores, in advertisements and on business cards, are also an outreach tool that the casual outdoor industry appears to be embracing.
Many consumers are still relatively unaware of what QR codes are, but they tend to know what they do. They're becoming hard to miss, even for those without a smartphone. The challenge, said several industry executives, is proving that there is valuable information in store for the person who scans the QR code, be it a coupon, exclusive content or a giveaway.
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"There has to be some value," Wicker said. "There has to be a meaningful message or the consumer won't come back again to use it." Glen Raven started using QR codes in 2010 and continued those efforts last year. They will be featured in this year's marketing efforts as well.
"For our 2012-2013 Sunbrella fabric book, which is the largest one we have ever produced, we have put a QR code on the back of every swatch," Wicker said. And with the company's recent Galatea boat makeover that was on display at Seattle's Boats Afloat show last September, Wicker said QR tags had been added to all the Sunbrella products that were on the boat so consumers could quickly access information about items that they saw.
Pride's Lowsky said QR tags have become another critical part of the company's marketing message. "The QR tags on our print ads will take you to the homepage of that particular collection or it will take you to our ‘Attention to Detail' video," he said. "We see the importance of doing this and will continue to look at all the options that make sense."
"We're in the infancy of how and where to reach folks with social media, but we're learning," Parsons said. "As an industry we've been slow to embrace this new kind of marketing effort. Just 10 years ago it was all print, and now there's more on the shelf to choose from. It is costly to establish yourself as a brand, but those that are brand-focused will be the ones recognized by the consumer."
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