Marketing Toolbox For Furnishings Retailers


One of the great marketing controversies today regards the use of digital media. Digital media is a broad term and includes much more than the ads you see on Facebook. It is a comprehensive marketing toolbox that includes SEO, SEM, Display, Retargeting, Affiliate, Video, Social, e-mail, and your website. To do it right, it requires a lot of skill and intense analytics. Very few people are doing it right. Long ago I learned not to trust people who told me that I wasn’t smart enough to understand, so give me your money and I will do the heavy lifting for you. There is an old marketing maxim about this, “When we started out, I had the money and they had the experience. Now they have my money and I have the experience.”

But the goal of this Point-Counterpoint article is not to get into the weeds. Rather, Bill and I want to use our combined 80 years of marketing experience to articulate how we would allocate our marketing budget if we owned a retail store.
We have varied backgrounds, but each of us has spent a considerable amount of time in retail. And, both of us are data geeks. I was vice president of marketing for Krause’s Sofa Factory and Expressions Custom Furniture: multi-store chains in 13 markets. As a consultant, I’ve had numerous retail clients, but most relevant for this article was a year-long stint at Calico Corners. What all of these retailers have in common is multiple stores across broad geographies. This allows one the ability to test different things in different areas and measure what moves the needle. The obvious advantage of retail is that you have the ultimate sale as the dependent variable. You know who bought when and what and how much they paid for it. You start with the purchase and you correlate that back to the antecedent that caused it. This is both a science and an art. If you have enough data, you can use a statistical tool called regression modeling. The art comes from guessing which hypotheses to test to measure statistically if there’s a relationship.

I recently read an amusing but accurate definition of marketing by Allan Dib, in “The 1-Page Marketing Plan.” Let’s say, the Circus is coming to town. “If you paint a sign saying, ‘Circus Coming to the Showground Saturday,’ that’s advertising. If you put the sign on the back of an elephant and walk it into town, that’s promotion. If the elephant walks through the mayor’s flower bed and the local newspaper writes a story about it, that’s publicity. And if you get the mayor to laugh about it, that’s public relations. If the town’s citizens go to the circus, you show them the booths, explain how much fun they’ll have spending money there, answer their questions, and ultimately, they spend a lot at the circus, that’s sales. And if you planned the whole thing, that’s marketing.”

Marketing is the whole shebang. And when money is tight, you have to out-think and outsmart rather than outspend your competition. Unlike the circus, you have a lot more to think about including signage, website, and floor salesperson training that comes out of the same budget. So, let’s cut to the chase.
#1: Training
Hands-down, this is the wisest place to spend your money. The greatest short-term path to profits is increasing the closing ratio, and the greatest long-term path is to increase the lifetime value of each customer. Training is not just for the floor salespeople. Invest in yourself. Managing people is hard. Leading people is even harder. Furniture is a people business. The people are every bit as important as the furniture on the floor. Customers don’t buy just goods and services. They buy relations, stories and the promise of a beautiful home.

Your salespeople need to believe in you and your story. This should be so deeply inculcated that it is second nature. When they have confidence in themselves and what they’re selling there’s practically no limit to what can be achieved.

The store manager is the single most important variable. I have plenty of experience in moving a store manager from one location to another. A store can have bad signage, poor access, and no advertising… but somehow when you bring in a manager from a high-performing store, sales increase dramatically.

#2: Signage
Time and time again, statistics show that the stores with the best signage and access outperform other stores. Here is why. It is your most consistent messaging anchored to a geographic location. Unlike groceries, people don’t shop for furniture every day. They shop when they have a need or a desire. Every time their car passes your store, they subconsciously associate it with a place to shop once they are ready. There are limitations to signage based on local ordinances. However, I would not lease a new store without the first consideration being signage and access. And, I would buy the biggest sign allowed. If you have a sign that is old and worn, and connotes a shabby rundown store, change it immediately!

#3: Public Relations
Bill Gates famously said, “If I was down to the last dollar of my marketing budget, I’d spend it on PR.” If my point of view for this article wasn’t that of a retailer, I would probably put public relations at the top of my list. Be careful not to confuse publicity with PR. Seth Godin says it best, “Publicity is the act of getting ink. Publicity is getting unpaid media to pay attention, write you up, point to you, run a picture, make a commotion. Sometimes publicity is helpful, and good publicity is always good for your ego. But it’s not PR. PR is the strategic crafting of your story. It’s the focused examination of your interactions and tactics and products and pricing that, when combined, determine what and how people talk about you.”

Unless you have a compelling story about why you are different and better, any money spent on marketing is wasted. You must start with a strategy before you can even think about tactics. In the Art of War, Sun Tzu writes, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

#4: Website
Nearly all customers do research on a website before they come to shop. And here’s an important thing to remember. Unless you’re actually doing e-commerce on your site (and 98 percent of you are not) the sole goal of your website is to get the person into your store. I would always look at my website through that lens. The website can be an enormous time and cost sucker. Every dollar I put into my website would be prioritized with the question, will this motivate someone to get in the car and come see me?

#5: Consulting
This is going to sound self-serving and it is. They say a consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you what time it is. And that may be true. However, if you have a watch and you don’t know how to tell time, it can be very useful to have someone who can teach you. It’s the same reason you hire a guide when you go fishing. The good ones know where the fish are. Once you learn, you don’t need them anymore. In the meantime, you don’t know what you don’t know. The amount of money they can save you can be staggering.

#6: e-Commerce
Experts predict that as much as 30 percent of all furniture purchases will be conducted online in the near future. You need to have a strategy for this. It could be as simple as adding a line of DTC furniture or even a few items to your website.

#7: Retargeting
Retargeting, also known as remarketing, is a form of online advertising that can help you keep your brand in front of bounced traffic after they leave your website. For most websites, only two percent of web traffic converts on the first visit. If someone has taken the time and effort to find your website, and they have looked at a product up close, they are interested. In the old days, you would pay attention and call the customer back. Today, you can send a targeted message that shows up in their Facebook feed or when they’re browsing the web.

#8: Direct Mail
This seems to work for almost everyone. Again, remember the goal is to get them in your store, not to make a sale. This does not have to be a complicated message. And the beauty of this is that it is the most measurable of any variable. You know who you sent the postcard to. You know who purchased. You know the cost of the mailing, and you know the gross margin from the sale. I think that it’s very interesting that even online companies like Wayfair send me about three postcards per month. I have never seen a study where the ROI from digital was higher than with postcards.
#9: Pop-Up Stores
America is overstored. But this can be good news for furniture stores who may be able to launch lifestyle-based pop-up stores on a temporary basis in high traffic places without a long term lease, and on-the-cheap.

#10: Social
Here, I am lumping together Facebook, Instagram, Houzz, Pinterest and the like. It works when it is genuine, the same way that old-fashioned Word of Mouth used to work. When somebody writes a positive review, especially about trust, reliability, above and beyond service, it can be valuable. When it’s fake, you’re just shouting in the wind. And since businesses and individuals get mixed together on these sites, there is a lot of clutter. Social should be viewed through Seth Godin’s definition of PR which bears repeating: “PR is the strategic crafting of your story. It’s the focused examination of your interactions and tactics and products and pricing that, when combined, determine what and how people talk about you.” What do you want people to think or do after they see your social media content? It better be “come to my store” because that’s the only place where a transaction can take place.

#11: e-mail Marketing
I have mixed feelings about e-mail marketing. It is cheap and easy. But I get so much spam from so many people that I mostly just ignore it. This only works when it is personal, and you have permission. In other words, if it’s personal, people are expecting it, and it is part of a dialog, it is great. If it’s not, it’s spam.

#12: Newspaper
This was once the mainstay of retail furniture marketing. And I have spent millions of dollars on newspaper advertising over the years. I now believe that the newspaper is almost dead. It is OK for that boomer who has made a decision to go furniture shopping and is looking to see who has a sale. If they don’t already have your store in their consideration set, you are in trouble. Few people under 60 read a newspaper.

#13: Display Digital
This seemed to have so much promise, but honestly, I have never been so disappointed in anything in my whole life. What makes display digital seem so compelling is that it is dirt cheap compared to conventional advertising. The argument is that you get millions of impressions. And, you can measure when someone clicks on it. And, if you’re really scientific, you can tie that IP address to a street address and compare it to sales at the register. I personally have put thousands of hours into this and have never been able to make it work. This is especially true when you set up a control cell and subtract out the people who would have bought anyway. Full disclosure. I know a lot of marketing people and none of them have been able to make this work. The digital agencies are excellent salespeople. But they’re selling vapor or rather pixels. They can inundate you with data, but I’ve never seen it work in driving traffic, increasing sales, average transaction amounts or lifetime value.

#14: Television
If you’re a store like Nebraska Furniture Mart or Mathis Brothers, and dominate your market, television can make sense. It’s is an expensive medium, but it reaches a lot of people. And if you’re a massive store that sells everything for everyone, or you have multiple stores in the same trading area it should be part of your mix. If not, I recommend against it.

#15: SEO SEM
What a joke. You will never be able to afford the keywords of generic furniture. The keyword you want to own is your brand-name. And you want it to stand for something distinctive. I have also seen people buy their competitors’ brand-names so that their store shows up in the search. Personally, I think that’s dishonest and immoral.