What a year it has been. I am sure the first-quarter numbers were fantastic for most of you. And here we are, looking at changing business models, changing designs and trends that will certainly be impacted by our new world. Managing cash flow, extending your hours, modifying staffing and delivering an omnichannel experience is a difficult challenge these days.
The world has shifted from “Why should I buy it online?” to “Why shouldn’t I buy it online?” For those who are delivering a clean, contact-free shopping experience, it has never been a busier time. My friends in the higher-end showrooms, appliance dealers and lighting dealers are seeing record sales and finding it tough to get product fast.
Here are a few of my observations.
Flaunt Your Sanitation Processes
Everyone’s mind is on sanitation. While showroom design has been at the forefront for the past several years to create more open, fluid showrooms with experience centers, the concept will likely evolve.
It’s as if sanitation is the new experience center. People are coming back into the market with real trepidation, so they’re going to be hypersensitive to small signals about cleanliness and sanitation; they’re only going to frequent places where they feel safe.
This is where “sanitation theater” comes into play. It means showrooms will not only be practicing a higher level of sanitation but also showing the public in a more overt way that they are doing these things. It is a brilliant strategy. Sanitation is not something you should hide anymore — it should be front and center. When one associate is selling, the other associate should be nearby, actively cleaning the space.
Consumers will be more aware than ever. Anything out of place on the sanitation front is going to stick out like a sore thumb. Whether it is a messy outfit by a salesperson, a cluttered desk with lunch sitting on it, or an overflowing trash basket in the restroom, anything that smacks of a lack of cleanliness or diligence on the sanitation front is going to send people running for the exits.
Showrooms are going to need to hire or cross-train employees to be full-time cleaners and sanitizers in the operation. This is probably the area where showrooms could alienate their customers the most.
Ownership must take an “employees first” approach with training and communications. Holding your ground on making sure customers wear masks because the health and safety of your employees is your top priority should be communicated on store signage, on your website and social media pages, and announced on the loudspeaker in the showroom. These multiple communication methods help the hypersensitive customer notice that you take sanitation seriously.
There are plenty of sources for professional-looking store signage and floor labels for foot traffic. I know many people used masking tape to set up 6-foot barriers as businesses began to open up again, but it is time to clean up the look in the showroom.
I recently visited a furniture gallery. The salesperson greeted me at the door, asked me to follow the arrows, and if I wanted to sit on a display chair or touch something, to please ask first so someone could sanitize the area afterward. I felt as if they were doing everything possible to keep me safe, as well as the other guests.
The floor had professionally made arrows and markers on it, and the pricing labels in the store were all pricing-label outward for easy shopping. Where this could have been a friction-filled experience, it was a pleasant one because of the ground rules established by the employee and company.
A restaurant I visited made sure we saw them cleaning. The waitress, while certainly uncomfortable in mask and gloves, said, “We know this all stinks, but we have to make the best of it, and we have to play by the rules.” On a 90-degree day in outdoor dining, she was doing and saying her best.
My point here is that none of this is fun, and while you may not believe the consequences of not wearing a mask, your customer most likely is highly aware. If you aren’t taking this seriously, you will lose business.
While the world is switching over to 80 percent online and 20 percent in-store (my best guess right now), I still firmly believe there is a price point where a consumer wants to see the product in person before hitting the “buy” button. This means showrooms have the chance to capture the business for better products. The lower-end products in a showroom are a thing of the past.
Creative retailers such as Restoration Hardware are continuing to grow by reinventing retail. They are offering access to interior designers for $100 a year, creating club-like experiences both online and in-store with a discount for members.
Membership programs work great, and I would strongly suggest you create a designer’s club or membership club of some sort. It is a great way to engage those in your community who love watching trends and update their homes often or work in the design field. Maybe you should have an on-staff interior designer at hand for your customers? Perhaps you should offer installation? Great companies reinvent themselves; there is no better time than now to do so.
Consumers are coming to showrooms with purposeful shopping. They already have done the research online and just need the affirmation that what they want will work. It is the showroom’s responsibility to upgrade, cross-sell and educate the customer on what could be a better solution for them, and expand the profitability of the sale by driving the business away from commodity brands that don’t support the independent showroom model.
We all know which brands these are. I will continue to rail against them because they have trapped so many showrooms into believing they are a necessity to display.
Another observation regards the supply-chain issues in the marketplace. If you step into a large retailer of any sort these days, there are empty shelves, stock-outs and long lead times. The ability of showrooms to know where to source alternative products will be critical in the months and years ahead.
I was recently in a marine supply store, and the owner mentioned the influx of reps stopping by with American-made substitute products to try. He was convinced that a wave of domestic products would help solve the problems with stock-outs. While I hope this is the case, I am pretty sure we will still need a global approach for our business. Having your employees learning the scope of new suppliers will be necessary for your success.
It is never a bad thing to have friends at the competition to help with sourcing. I hope you all chat with your local showrooms and help each other. Remember, the online world is much more of a threat to your business than the local independent showroom.
So, practice the theater of sanitation, coach your employees on safety for all and capture the opportunities of the moment. The business is there for those who want it.