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The same old way doesn't work anymore PDF Print E-mail
Written by Joe Carroll   

ImageOne of the most rewarding things I've done for past 10 years or so is chair the Home Furnishings Advisory Board at High Point University. Made up of leading manufacturers, retailers and suppliers, its purpose is to keep the faculty informed about what's going on in the industry and to suggest how current marketing methods and business innovations might be incorporated into the academic curriculum.

Hgh Point University is one of the few schools in the U.S. - and probably in North America - to allow students to combine courses in both home furnishings marketing and interior design. Marketing reports to the School of Business and Interior Design to the School of Art & Design.

The university has the unique advantage of being located only a few miles from the High Point Furniture Market - our industry's largest single trade event. Students often work in the showrooms during the market and intern with local manufacturers and retailers throughout the year.

One of the board's goals is to attract more students to the furniture industry. The program has been very successful; and graduates are now working all over the U.S,

At a recent meeting, members looked at areas where a young person should acquire knowledge to successfully compete in today's environment. Here are the topics we discussed:

Consumer Behavior. We all know today's consumer has a different perspective when purchasing furniture. She has different needs from those of her parents and a different outlook. For example, today's generation wants their furniture now and they want it their way. This most likely reflects their desire to personalize their surroundings. Consumer psychology should be a required part of today's home furnishings curriculum.

The term "EQ" (emotional intelligence) has replaced "IQ" (intellectual intelligence) as a key factor in determining how to sell today's consumer. As a friend told me recently, after asking his children which pieces of furniture they would like to be left in his will their reply was: "Dad, we don't want to hurt your feelings but we aren't attached to furniture like you and mom. We just want to buy something we can enjoy for four or five years then throw away and buy some more."

Throughout my career I've been asked time and again: "How do we get people to buy furniture more often?"  This may be this is our dream come true.

Marketing.  Today's student responds well to interactive learning - essentially the Harvard Business School technique of using case studies to teach what worked and didn't work for a particular company.

Fortunately, High Point has many companies which volunteer to help students. A local manufacturer hired a recent graduate and knowing she had good computer skills put her to work building a profile of the categories of furniture, styles and price points his retail customers were carrying in their stores.

The student simply went to each retailer's web site and acquired the information - a process she refers to as "data mining."

Traditionally, a manufacturer would rely on his reps to provide this intelligence. The rep doesn't enjoy taking time away from selling to do this task; so the data was often incomplete and all that usable. By using data mining, the manufacturer can not only determine what's selling but build a profile of prospective customers. He can demonstrate how he can fill the voids in a store's product line-up.

The key to successfully using statistical data mining is to present it to both staff and customers in a simple, interesting and convincing format. It also provides the manufacturer with an overview for product development.

Communications. Both manufacturers and retailers want to hire young people with strong communications skills. Today's student has to not only demonstrate good presentation skills but embrace the latest communications technology, i.e. social media.

Once the student has studied the psychology of the consumer she must learn the variety of ways to connect with her. One retailer on the board said women are particularly good at connecting with the customer but many young women are not aware of the career possibilities of going into retail. The long hours at retail scare many away but, as those of us in the industry know, home furnishings can be rewarding both personally and financially.

Knowing how to connect and engage with the customer is our industry's most valued skill. The objective is to bond with the customer to help close the sale or add on additional product by engendering her trust and loyalty. This involves coursework in psychology, advertising, public relations, and writing and communication skills. All of this now has to be combined into one voice - what is now referred to as "brand management".

Design Fundamentals & Product Development.  Today's home furnishings professional should study a basic history of the industry. I urge you to read Furniture Retailing 101 by Jim Green. Someone entering the industry should have an understanding of how we got to where we are today. This precedes the all-important issue of where we are going next.

For example, the furniture industry in the United States has a history of moving its factories to locations that provide cheaper labor and ready access to raw materials and supplies. I once heard an industry expert say that one of these days, when we will have searched the ends of the earth to find the cheapest source of labor and raw materials that we will finally achieve a "level playing field".

At that point, the factors determining which manufacturers will be the leaders will be those who offer the best quality and design (these two go hand in hand - competition is going to be so fierce that poor quality will not be tolerated) and who can get it to their customer the fastest.

Ashley Furniture realized the importance of fast delivery 20 years ago and we see the results.

Both our marketing and our interior design majors should study design fundamentals. I suggest you read Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life, and Maybe Even the World by Warren Berger. Manufacturers used to drive the design process. Then it was the retailer.

Today, it's the consumer who drives retail sales. We are already seeing a trend of moving from standardization to customization. This trend is responsible for the return to custom manufacturing in the U.S. It's an area where Asian manufacturers cannot compete. Cost, however, is still such an essential factor in selling product to the mass market that no one I have spoken with believes we have ever see a complete return to "the good old days" of furniture manufacturing in the U.S. Supply chain logistics is now an essential part of the home furnishings curriculum.

Next month, I'll discuss the importance of visual merchandising, the retail store experience, how to attract students to our industry and how to train them in sales. If you have any ideas you would like to share I would enjoy hearing from you.

Joe Carroll, formerly publisher of Furniture/Today, is an international marketing consultant based in Greensboro, North Carolina. He can be reached at .

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