Custom Furniture, Custom Experience
The furniture industry is often seen as old-fashioned and perhaps a bit stodgy. But that isn’t stopping Smart Furniture from applying leading-edge technology to provide a highly personalized online means of browsing, selecting, purchasing and even designing furniture.
T.J. Gentle, president and CEO of Smart Furniture, which primarily functions as an Internet retailer but also runs a flagship store in its headquarters town of Chattanooga, Tenn., said the idea of using technology to personalize online furniture shopping goes all the way back to the company’s founding in the late 1990s.
“We wanted people to go online and design and customize their furniture in a way that suited their specific needs,” said Gentle. “We manufactured our own products in the beginning and offered a drag-and-drop user interface that let customers design their own shelving.”
However, as the years passed, Smart Furniture realized the concept of customer design was larger than a single product line. So in late 2008, the retailer partnered with office furniture suppliers Herman Miller, Steelcase and Knoll to provide individual customers and small businesses with the same access to made-to-order furniture that traditionally had been restricted to large businesses.
“We selected manufacturing partners based on the ability of their supply chains to handle mass customization,” Gentle said. “We launched an in-house-developed customer interface called Design on Demand that lets customers make a couple of choices on the design of a product and visualize what they look like.”
As the popularity of Design on Demand grew, Smart Furniture started considering how to make the online furniture shopping experience even more personalized and customized.
“When people buy furniture, they want to know if it will look right in their space,” Gentle said.
To that end, in July of this year Smart Furniture launched the beta of an in-house-developed customer-facing application called Smart Space that uses 3-D tools to help customers visualize exactly how a product will look in the dimensions of their personal space. The retailer used a responsive design strategy to allow Smart Space to automatically optimize its visual display for the customer’s Internet device. According to Gentle, Smart Furniture is working on applying responsive design to the rest of its site. The retailer uses a .NET development environment, having updated from a Classic ASP environment.
In addition, Smart Furniture uses a pricing tool from sister company PriceWaiter that allows customers to name their own price for a selected item, which the company can then evaluate for acceptance or rejection.
In one more move toward customization, Smart Furniture plans to roll out a customized site experience by the end of this year. Existing customers have been placed into one of 66 segments, based on factors such as style and budget preferences, using a Nielsen database. New customers are being segmented through an optional “Style Quiz.” All customers will have the ability to turn site customization on and off and also to adjust their segmentation settings.
“We’re solving a problem that can’t be solved without using technology, in or out of the store,” Gentle said. “The customer can get a color swatch, but can’t really see what it will look like in their own space.”
Hointer Inc., a Seattle-based denimwear retailer, may be new (the first store opened in April 2012) and small (two branded stores in Seattle plus a pop-up inside a Levi’s store in New York City), but its goal is impressively large.
“We want to build a different store experience of the future,” said Nadia Shouraboura, founder and CEO of Hointer. “The store is divided into two parts, a showroom and a microwarehouse in back. We took traditional piles of clothes out of the showroom and into the back, where they are packed like sardines. That leaves a massive floor space where we can present the product in great detail.”
The first major encounter customers have with technology is the Hointer mobile app, compatible with any Android, iOS or Windows device. Customers without a mobile device are provided with a Nexus tablet.
Customers with NFC-enabled devices can tap products to bring up a page that works like the product page of an e-commerce site, offering a product description, Instagram photos and even competing prices. Customers without NFC-enabled devices can scan a QR code to load the page. If a customer wants to try on a product (mostly pairs of jeans), they can add it to their shopping cart and type in specific colors and sizes.
“It works like mobile site shopping,” Shouraboura explained. “You shop with a mobile device while everything flies around you.”
As customers add items to their shopping cart, the cloud-based “software brain” running the store sends a signal to the microwarehouse to prepare their delivery to a dressing room. Store management software runs on a public Amazon Web Services cloud, but everything else is proprietary.
When a customer is ready to try on merchandise, they are either assigned an open fitting room or wait to be notified by a buzzing sound on their device that a room is ready. An automated system provided by a German manufacturer picks items and delivers them via chute to the dressing room within 30 seconds. Shouraboura could not divulge specifics of how the system works, but employees with tablets can also manually pick items and send them through the chutes if needed.
Customers place unwanted items in a return chute for automatic return to the microwarehouse. Different sizes or colors of items they return can be automatically requested for delivery with the app.
“There’s no need to leave the fitting room,” Shouraboura said. “The system finds the item in the size and/or color requested and delivers it.”
To check out, existing shoppers can simply leave the store with selected items and have an account automatically charged. New customers or those who do not want to register with Hointer can also check out using in-store kiosks or by entering credit/debit card information into the app.
“Returns are almost non-existent because the customer can try on so many items with no wait,” Shourabora added.
Future plans include a current pilot of personalized suggestions offered through the app, with features such as Instagram videos of models displaying the product on a runway. Hointer is also experimenting with in-store stylists who can recommend items to customers based on their preferences and add items to their shopping carts with mobile devices.
“We’re a technology incubator,” concluded Shouraboura. “We run daily experiments.”
Coldwater Creek Connects with ‘The New Fifty’
In August, women’s specialty apparel retailer Coldwater Creek, which operates 402 stores in 47 states, announced it had landed Deborah Cavanagh as its new chief marketing officer. She is charged with leading the multichannel brand’s marketing and creative services. One of Cavanagh’s first orders of business? To re-engage the Coldwater Creek core customer, as well as connect with new ones.
Cavanagh is uniquely in tune with the Sandpoint, Idaho-based chain’s current — and desired — customer. She came to Coldwater Creek from Ann Inc., where she served as senior VP brand marketing, Loft, and successfully transitioned Ann Taylor Loft to Loft. Cavanagh’s fashion roots run deep. Prior to Loft, she was with Vogue magazine as associate publisher, creative services. She also has held marketing leadership roles at Harper’s Bazaar and Self magazines.
“I’ve always been drawn to brands that are anchored in an authentic idea that transcends the product they sell and allows them to forge a deep, enduring, emotional connection with their customers,” Cavanagh told Chain Store Age senior editor Katherine Boccaccio. “My responsibility — and the thrill of my job — is helping that brand ‘unlock’ its power, attract new customers, build deeper relationships with existing customers and drive exponential results in sales.
”At Coldwater Creek, Cavanagh said, she and her team will connect with a target customer they call “The New Fifty,” and leverage the opportunity to move beyond a demographic to fully understand what shapes this customer’s values, her aspirations and her priorities.
Who exactly is “The New Fifty” customer?
Obviously she’s a boomer. But this woman is at a point in her life where she wants to confidently say, ‘This is who I am.’ She’s an empty nester (or almost), has a nice disposable income, is interested in living a rich life (versus a life of riches) and wants to live her life with meaning. And she places a renewed priority on looking and feeling great. But here’s the awful truth: She is generally ignored and vastly underserved when it comes to fashion and retail brands that she loves and is loyal to.
How do you view your role at Coldwater Creek?
The way I look at my responsibility is more holistic. I believe I’m responsible for delivering a vision, leadership and concrete strategies to deliver growth — in our client file, in traffic, and in sales and profitability.
That includes projecting a strong, differentiated brand image and voice that breaks through to create awareness and affinity, and contributes to client file growth and traffic. Strategies around engagement, retention and loyalty are critical to our success, and we will continue to build on the successful platforms we have and make them even more compelling.
How has the brand evolved?
Our brand has always been about engaging our customer on a more personal level, inspiring her with both new ideas and trusted favorites. As our business model evolved over time, we might have behaved as more of a retailer than a brand. I believe you have to cultivate both.
One core strategy we will embrace as a brand is to listen to our customers. We want to understand some of the universal truths that define “The New Fifty,” and those insights will inform our brand campaigns and the overall way we engage her and empower her.
We have a great brand story to tell and the ability to connect on a genuine, human level. I think as a leadership team, we’re all aligned on the fact that we need to “stand for something to stand apart.” Our reason for being will infuse everything we do — from the products we create, our vision for a season, to how we express our aesthetic and our voice, and the way we build our brand based upon community.
What marketing vehicles will be most valuable in the driving of the brand message?
I believe fundamentally that the powerful vehicles a brand has to leverage begin with the assets they own — windows, the store experience, website, catalogs, digital and social media. Our focus is going to be developing a clear and concrete brand platform, aesthetic, voice and contact strategy that improves awareness and creates brand affinity to attract our target customer.
I think our catalogs have the opportunity to become something even more powerful than a selling tool if we start to think about engagement and content. At the highest level, we want her to immerse herself in our brand, our collection, empower her with some style currency and inspiration around what to buy and why, and inspire her to act.
The experience of print can be immersive. We’ve been invited into her home, and it’s our responsibility to ensure that she wants to keep us on her coffee table and share it with her friends.
Our windows are owned real estate that can be leveraged to improve brand perception, cultivate affinity and make her want to come into the store.
Our marketing strategies will also focus on the idea of “disruption” — introducing ideas that resonate with the consumer and help us become part of the cultural conversation.
As we focus on behaving as an omnichannel brand, we have to recognize that digital has revolutionized the way people shop and communicate with each other. Our approach to customer engagement, social tools, mobile and online experiences are a very important focus.
In general, what trends are you seeing in retail marketing?
I think there’s a lot of predictability and sameness. Most retailers are fighting to drive traffic and sales with promotion, and it’s resulted in a numbing sameness. On a positive note, it’s exciting to see retailers like lululemon athletica focus on cultivating community by becoming destinations to engage around things that their customers want to be part of — from yoga classes before store hours to branded apps that serve a real value.
As retail brands, we need to challenge ourselves to think about how we can play a meaningful role in our customer’s life.
Describe your first day on the job as Coldwater Creek’s CMO.
It was the best first day ever. I got to join a team of the smartest, nicest, most passionate and invested people who live and work in a stunning environment. How good can it get?
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe it is my responsibility to create and articulate a compelling vision of the future, along with strategies to achieve that vision and results. I surround myself with the best and brightest people — and push them to grow, to be their best while working as a team. I expect people to do their homework and challenge conventions to develop the best plan of action. I’ve learned over the years that it’s not only important to set a direction, but it’s critical to help your team internalize that vision of “future state” so they can constantly ideate against it and work toward it daily. That’s when the magic happens — in both morale and business outcome.
At the end of the day, I try to create a culture where our journey to fulfill our brand’s potential is both fun and rewarding.