Retailers talk post-pandemic challenges in IMC webinar

Retailers discussed product delays, hiring difficulties and offered insight into what it takes to welcome in-store shoppers back post-pandemic.

HIGH POINT — During the recent Market Insights webinar, “Back to Business: Attracting Buyers Back to In-Person Visits,” four retailers discussed ways to bring the consumer experience back into stores — including information about how they have maintained and increased in-store buying, merchandising tips, and more.

The panel, moderated by Home News Now Editor in Chief Clint Engel, featured Ron Bailey, owner of Bailey’s Furniture based in Anchorage, Alaska; Randy Coconis, president of Zanesville, Ohio-based Coconis Furniture; Donna McCollough, co-owner of Dove Christian Supply in Dothan, Ala.; and Paul Zang, retail manager of The Cook’s Warehouse in Atlanta.

Coconis, started out by saying that even though the four-store retailer had to close down for six weeks, the company came out of the pandemic a much leaner, cleaner, and better company. 

“We’ve been so fortunate to do more business than before, and it’s been easier,” Coconis said. “We’ve focused our staff and they are able to do things better.”

McCollough said the biggest thing for her was to change her mindset. “Rather than thinking about all the things that we couldn’t do, we had to focus on what we could do,” she said.

Ron Bailey, who leads the six-store Bailey’s, found that his everyday low prices enabled him to be in a better position than those who constantly have to change their prices on their websites. He laid off all but eight employees (out of 150) back when the pandemic hit, and then hired most of them back, and he said business is up 30-40%.

Coconis was among the panelists learning how to bridge the lockdown gap via social media. 

“While closed, my son came up with the idea of virtual sales, where we’d videotape a sale that lasted 30-45 minutes and feature some items and then show it on social media, our website, and in our e-blast, and that started to really work,” Coconis said. “We created sales while we were closed, and it worked so well we continued to do it after we reopened.”

After seeing success, the store then started on a series of commercials for private in-store shopping, and Coconis said that their first full month back was a record month for the company. Since then they’ve had two more record months.

Part of his strategy was to end radio advertising and shift all those dollars to social media, and he said that’s been something that’s catapulted that’s his business. 

“We have some unique numbers,” he said. “We track new customers, and prior to the pandemic all the way through now we’ve been tracking how many new customers we have per month—it’s about five times more the last eight to 10 months than we’ve ever had. In 2020, we had 1,800 new customers sign up from January to March, and we had 2,700 new customers in those months this year.”

However, all of the retailers agreed that now that stores are back open, marketing isn’t necessarily needed to drive customers to the store—they come in on their own.

Bailey said he’s always had a semi-healthy advertising budget, and when they were closed they increased their digital advertising. 

“Once the stores opened again, people came in like crazy,” Bailey said. “We’re at 50% capacity in Alaska, but our store is 100,000-square-feet, so that’s a lot of space.” 

And luckily for Bailey’s, he had about 60 containers waiting in a port in Seattle for him, so when they reopened he had plenty of product in stock.

“I started advertising that we were in stock, and I was the only one that had something to sell,” Bailey said. “We did a lot of ads about it. Once we did that, people started coming in like they had just discovered furniture.”

However, with supply chain issues across the industry, it’s hard for all retailers to get product right now. So how do you merchandise your store with such little stock?

“When we merchandise we try to make it look full and pretty even though I can see the holes,” McCollough said. “Usually customers don’t notice.”

Coconis said it’s an even bigger challenge now than it was a few months ago. 

“Things aren’t getting any better,” he said. “Some of our top companies are out until late fall and into 2022….We’ve opened up business with new companies that are shipping. We try to be 80% in stock usually, and we’re at about 30-40%.”

Zang of The Cook’s Warehouse said for his store, product is still coming in from 2020 and buyers are working to manage backorders.

“When something is available, we buy everything we can, at least to get us through the year if not further,” Zang said. “We’re combing new vendors for backup options for things we typically have high velocity for that just arent shipping right now. We’re also looking at new categories and growing new ones we haven’t focused on before. The buyers have been busy.”

And Bailey — possibly the only person in the furniture industry to be in this situation — said he has 130 containers at the port and that his warehouse is 95% full. 

“I have more than I can even handle at the moment,” Bailey said. “When you go to a market and find something you like, you get a container and then you get another one every 45 days, so you expect them to follow your direction. But not in a pandemic, The factories do whatever they want, and so instead of sending me one container they would send me three or four.”

That also worked out for Bailey because of how high container prices are now.

“In 2020, it was $1,500 a container and they’re up to $10,000 a container right now, and people are fighting over them,” Bailey said, adding freight can cost more than the goods in the container nowadays and that he’s raised prices in part because of that.

Coconis has also raised prices where he can. And while the retailer can’t go up on goods already ordered by its customers, it is making up that margin shortfall in other ways.

“If we have something in stock and it goes up eight percent, we raise our price that much, and we’re making better margins on stuff we already paid for,” Coconis said. “But I will say price means nothing to the customer anymore. We have sectionals that were $2,299 are selling just as well as they were now for $2,999.”

And not only is Coconis surprised by how customers don’t blink at price increases but also by how understanding the customers have been about wait times.

“We’ve had some cancellations, and we tell them we’re going to keep the product on the order because we have customers right now we can sell it to,” Coconis said. “Then we have them call back and say they couldn’t find any better and want that merchandise they ordered. They left thinking they could go find it, but they can’t.”

Bailey said he’s been training his sales staff to educate customers in a nice way about the wait times. But he said sometimes they don’t believe it. “They’ll usually be back,” he added. “There is a learning curve.”

And speaking of employees, all four retailers expressed how hard it was to find dedicated workers today. Many of them are actively looking to fill three or more positions, and Bailey said he doesn’t think unemployment benefits are helping.

“They did a study on the news here that the average person in Alaska right now on unemployment is making $23 an hour,” Bailey said. “So why come to work?”

With that, McCollough said it’s important today not to put out all-calls anymore because you don’t know what you’re going to get. “It’s difficult to find workers who can work in our environment,” she explained.

Zang adds that the quality of retail salespeople is down, and it’s going to take more time and energy to find few good employees than it did before the pandemic.

And while the lack of workers may be a problem for retailers, consumer demand isn’t. Customers are often coming into the store to get out of the house or find something new for their home, and retailers likely won’t have to compete for their discretionary dollars and attention.

“We’re creatures of habit, and we’ve had a habit of staying home for a year, so I think there will be a lot more people staying home this year more than they ever did,” Coconis said. “They’ll want their homes more comfortable. We’ve doubled out outdoor sales already this year compared to last year, and we haven’t even had good weather yet. People want to make the nest nicer.”

And as we look toward the future, all four retailers think business will continue to be strong through the fall and into 2022.

“One thing that gives me hope for a strong year is that the housing market is going through the roof,” Bailey said. “As long as the housing market is strong, I think it’s good for furniture guys. And I don’t see that slowing down; I think we’ll have a strong year.” 

Alex Milstein

Alex Milstein is a contributor and social media coordinator for Home News Now and editor in chief of Casual News Now. He previously served as senior editor of both Casual Living and Designers Today. Prior to that, Alex covered technology for Furniture Today, with a focus on augmented reality, e-commerce, and 3D visualization.

View all posts by Alex Milstein →

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