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Internet 202

January 20, 2012
In my last blog, I talked about what consumers like and don’t like about shopping on the Internet. From there, I visualized the ideal outdoor/casual furniture web site which would have the following features:

It would always be available and offer as wide a range of products from all of the vendors in our industry. The product information would include pictures, written information, and video demonstrations. A brick and mortar location in the consumer's area would be associated with the site.  that would allow customers to see exactly what they are buying before they buy it. If they didn’t want to go to the physical location, they could order actual frame and fabric swatches from the site for free. The site would also offer access to a live person to help with design. An area of the site would be devoted to Community discussions to help consumers make decisions. Prices would be very competitive. Products would be available for immediate delivery or pick up from the associated brick and mortar store.  Returns could be made back to that same store. Delivery would be through reasonably priced “white glove” delivery services. The seller would have a brick and mortar presence along with an A+ Better Business Bureau rating, a liberal return policy, and a spelled out information privacy policy. Warranty concerns would be handled by the site or the brick and mortar store.

In that same blog, I said such a web site would require a partnership between retailers and vendors. Here’s why. Let’s look at a web site and business that is the epitome of success: Apple. Their web site offers everything a tech nerd could want, as long as it is an Apple product. They have videos which describe how all of their products work. If you have a question about a product, they have web communities on their site which can help a buyer make informed decisions. They do traditional e-tailing or you can order on the site and pick up the product at any one of their almost 400 physical locations throughout the world. Finally, no matter how you bought their product, their stores and customer service phone centers are there to help you work out problems. I ask you, is there a specialty casual furniture retailer in our industry that can do all of this? Or, is there a casual furniture vendor who can? The answer is a resounding, “no.”

However, let’s assume a retailer or vendor existed who had the resources to do this. What obstacles would they face? If this were a site run by a retailer, vendors would have to give it the right to sell outside of its trade area. Vendors on the site would have to agree to provide services such as sending free swatches to consumers or drop shipping at no extra charge. These are big hurdles to overcome.

If this site were run by a vendor, they would have to have brick and mortar locations where consumers could sit in the furniture before their purchase. Those locations would have to able to assemble and deliver furniture sold on the site as well as repair product damaged in transit. Also, there has to system that allows for returns, even if for not other  reason than, “I don’t like it.” I’ve seen lower hurdles at Olympic track events!

In my mind, this web site requires so much from the retailer and so much from the vendor that it has to be a joint venture. There is no one retailer with physical locations throughout the country. There is no one vendor who offers the breadth and width of products that consumers demand. Imagine a web site that combines the marketing areas of all outdoor specialty retailers in the country with the resources of all of the manufacturers that sell into that market. It would have the largest selection of products of any web site on the Internet. It would also allow consumers to go into a local physical showroom (if they want) to see products in person.  Or, if it more convenient, they could deal with a trained sales consultant over the phone and/or Internet.

Sounds ideal to me - - - but who can even begin to count the hurdles it would have to surmount to exist. First and foremost, which store does the web site partner with when there are several competing retailers in a trade area? How does the retailer in the consumer’s trade area profit when a purchase is made over the Web? If a retailer works with a consumer who then buys from the web site, how does that retailer get paid? I could go on and on.

Let’s, then, approach this from another direction. Suppose one vendor tried to do this. I realize they couldn’t offer as many products as a group of vendors; but, if their line was long enough, it might satisfy many consumers. Their e-tail web site would be differentiated from their existing web site. Consumer inquiries would be handled by an in-house staff of specialists and the vendor’s existing retailers. Order fulfillment would be through participating dealers. If there are no participating dealers in the consumer’s area, the vendor would fulfill the order from their factory. Participating dealers would be rewarded with a percentage of the sale. That percentage would probably be based on the costs of handling the order plus whatever profit the vendor would have made on the sale.

Sounds reasonable. One problem, this has been tried before (Gloster comes to mind) without success. Retailers never really like vendors going into competition with them. No matter how is it explained, if it walks like competition, smells like competition, and talks like competition, it’s a duck!

So, problems, problems, problems everywhere. As the Pollyanna of our industry, I have always thought that problems are there to be solved which, in turn, allows us to excel. I truly believe if we don’t solve these problems, we will have “met our enemies, and they are us.”*

Yours in confused retailing, Bruce

*Walt Kelly, The Pogo Papers, June, 1953