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Our Competition Is Hiding In Our Mailboxes

April 9, 2011
In the background there is a cove with blue/green water lapping gently at the shore. The sand is the color of a sweet cup of coffee au lait. Beyond the water, mountains shrouded in a morning haze rise into the air. This is the view from your private terrace with the marble floors and stone balustrades. The gentle sea breeze blowing across the terrace makes your furniture on the terrace even more inviting. And the furniture, oh, the furniture, everything you have ever wished for, looking so comfortable, so perfect - - -oh, wait, it’s not real, it’s a beauty shot.


Now imagine, that and 203 more pages of beauty shots just like it landing in your customers’ mailboxes over the next few weeks. That’s what one large brick and mortar retailer is doing this year. Look around your showroom, is there one, much less 203, settings that look as good as the pictures in this catalog? What about the depth of your offerings? Do you have plants, planters, table top accessories, carpets, lighting, art work, fire tables, gel fire columns, outdoor heaters, outdoor fans, all of which are featured throughout the catalog?


My guess is no. Then again, neither does the retailer who sent out the catalog. Instead, they have files of jpgs, warehouse shelves full of cartons, and manufacturers who are willing to drop ship for them. Regardless of what they have or have drop shipped, the consumer doesn’t see that. Instead, they think the retailer is a wonderful stylish place and they will be too if they purchase from the catalog.


Tough competition, huh? Used to be, specialty retailers pooh poohed the idea that anyone would buy something as expensive and big as furniture from a catalog. “After all,” we said, “people are going to want to sit a chair to be sure it is comfortable. Look at it for fit and finish. See the true colors of fabric and frames by flipping through swatch books. Get all of the after sale service we can offer.”


If you still think specialty retailers have a comfortable niche that is protected against competition like this, talk to anyone who is between 20 and 40. Last week, I was talking to a friend my age about how technology has changed our lives and how hard it is for our generation to keep up. She told me her daughter sends about 2,000 text messages a month on her cell phone but uses less than 200 talk minutes a month. In addition, her daughter buys everything over the Internet or from catalogs. She NEVER shops locally. That daughter and all of her friends are our near future market.


If you are asking yourself, as I am, how do I compete against this, I have a few ideas.


First, I think it's like Walt Kelley’s Pogo Possum said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Too many of us don’t appreciate or understand that our competition has changed from the specialty/department/furniture/nursery store down the way to high-end catalog retailers. Remember, this particular catalog house and its brick and mortar stores does anywhere from 5 - 10 times moreOUTDOOR business than any of the largest specialty retail stores/chains in our industry. That’s about $100 million at wholesale. That’s competition.


Second, look at your store with an objective eye. Do you have at least a few of the accessories the catalog companies are showing? At a minimum we should all be showing outdoor rugs and tabletop accessories. Fire tables are a big think right now - - - got any? What about outdoor fans or infrared heaters? I know we can’t have as big an offering as a catalog house because they don't have to inventory as much, but we need to have some of it.


Third, look at your pricing. We did. We display the same set as shown in that huge catalog we are talking about. Our prices are about $600 less before you add in any freight. What a relief that was and, now that we know, we make a point of it with any customer who might be thinking about ordering from a catalog.


Fourth, what image does your advertising convey about you? When the catalog houses run sales, their pages still look stylish and inviting. When you run sale commercials or prints ads, do they tend towards schlock? If so, reconsider. Our clients are not looking for that.


Finally, what services do you offer your client that a catalog can’t? Does your sales staff go to the client’s location on a design call? Can your sales staff do a computerized layout of the client’s outdoor room to show them how their furniture will fit? Do you have enough stock to satisfy those clients who think it is only gratification when it is immediate?


Yours in confused retailing, Bruce