Executive addresses how investments in new tech platforms have helped retailers stay relevant amidst a rapidly changing consumer base
HIGH POINT – During the past two years, technology has not just been a tool for retailers to understand the changing consumer environment. It’s also been a way for them to connect with those consumers in more meaningful ways. Whether its offering real time information on product availability on their websites or communicating directly with consumers through online chat forums, technology is making it easier for consumers to shop and for retailers to close the sale.
Over many years, Unified Commerce Solutions provider Storis has helped its clients navigate the path of technological solutions, offering retail partners the right services at the right time. In this exclusive interview with Home News Now, Storis President and Chief Operating Officer Doug Culmone talks about how many retailers have embraced technology over the past couple of years, effectively making 10 years of progress during that short window of opportunity. He also shares some thoughts on the importance technology plays in the hands of Retail Sales Associates particularly as they work with a younger customer base that expects a simple and seamless shopping experience both in stores and online.
Home News Now: How would you say the retail furniture segment has adapted to the pace of technology based solutions? Has this changed during the pandemic?
Culmone: They have certainly done a great job, and for us it starts with ensuring there is an alignment of retailer needs and our engineering efforts. All of that – as you might imagine – is driven by changes in consumer behavior. The pandemic created a necessity to fast track the pace of technology almost overnight, and that was a scenario that was more challenging for some retailers than others depending on their starting point and also their infrastructure. And what we saw in certain functionality, like e-commerce, self -service, appointment facilitation and supply chain communication, suddenly became must-haves versus nice-to-haves. So strategic efforts of our retailers kicked into a new gear, and for many of them, it hasn’t slowed down. I think what this proved, which is important, is that this industry can and will adapt the furniture-buying experience to align with changing customer expectations. They also can do so at an accelerated pace. It’s almost as if home furnishings retailers hit the technology fast forward button. For many of them, I think they made 10 years of progress in less than two.
What would you say has been the biggest demand in services that Storis has seen during the pandemic?
Culmone: At this point, it’s all about seamless order management across channels. And fortunately for us, this was a core capability within Storis pre-pandemic because our Unified Commerce journey started several years back. When the pandemic hit, we were positioned to give our retailers what they needed when they needed it. And now what we see is that retailers are accepting orders in store, online, on mobile devices and on marketplaces and we have a consumer out there that expects a shopping process that is fluid from both the customer experience as well as the retail fulfillment perspective. That second part has become extremely important. To deliver that, it requires a unified data management approach. Understanding product availability, lead times and fulfillment schedules has become foundational to a home furnishings retailer’s success. That information also has to be real time, it has to be accurate and it has to be readily available without having to jump through hoops in order to get it.
Based on the large menu of services you offer, is there a particular technology that you are seeing is having the biggest impact on the consumer?
Culmone: Technologies around sales enablement are getting the most focus currently, and I think having intuitive mobile solutions in the hands of every retail sales associate is really critical. They need to be able to use these tools instinctively because it comes down to convenience – customers value their time. So accessing product information, including real time pricing, fulfillment data, scheduling information and promotions as you browse the showroom, it needs to be a natural, frictionless experience because today’s consumer doesn’t want to have to wait for relevant information or deal with a lengthy checkout process. If you subject them to this, the momentum of the sales process is lost. So having mobile information readily accessible with professionalism builds trust, and when you build trust, you earn loyalty. Our goal at Storis is to provide RSAs with a one-stop selling tool kit so they can nurture enduring customer relationships, facilitate an exceptional guest experience and convert their pipeline into sales.
Our team was on the sales floor at one of our customer’s stores during the launch of our mobile POS (point of sale) solution and they watched one of our retailer’s top writers exceed their million-dollar goal well ahead of their projection. This individual attributed his increase in sales in large part to our NextGen Mobile POS (point of sale) solution and specifically its relationship management capabilities. We all know that if you have an outstanding closing ratio of let’s say 35-40 percent, that still means that most customers that are shopping in your store are leaving without buying. That represents the biggest opportunity for sales growth, and I see it as that unmined pot of gold that retailers often overlook. So technology exists to elevate the performance of the team. And even the strongest members can raise the bar by nurturing those relationships with customers that decide not to buy. But you have to be willing to put in the work and you have to be supported by a technology toolbox that makes it easy for you to succeed.
We are seeing a lot retailers and others in the industry bring in the next generation of young professionals. Are you seeing a difference in the acceptance levels of technology among your clients as they bring these young professionals into the ranks?
Culmone: We feel like it is extremely important because as the next generation of furniture professionals are entering the retail environment, so too are the next generation of home furnishings shoppers. Understanding their expectations is a first step in figuring out how to deliver the type of experience they want and specifically the role that technology needs to play in support of that effort. It makes logical sense to have this generational alignment particularly in leadership roles at retailers who are looking to leverage technology to meet evolving customer requirements. And we see this in our own business and we feel like the healthiest approach is to strike a balance between the value of experience and wisdom that the older generations offer with that fresh perspective and out-of-the-box thinking that seems to come so naturally to this next generation of professionals.
Website development is a key area of your business. Would you say that retailers in general are effectively using their websites? If not, what is the biggest thing they need to improve?
Culmone: Website integration was the most implemented technology initiative of the past two years for obvious reasons. But pandemic aside, it makes perfect sense with the rise of pure e-commerce sales through most, if not all market segments. Many of our retailers have been very successful at integrating their in-store and online channels with seamless inventory management and a consistent order processing experience, which is what customers are looking for. In terms of improvement, I would say the first is an effort we see being made to improve this scope of product imagery using enhanced visualization to enhance how customers shop online. I think you and I would agree there is never going to be a simple substitute for sitting on a sofa or sliding open the drawer of a night table, but there is definitely a need to bridge the gap that exists between that and what you experience during an online purchase.
And the second thing is the expansion of self-service opportunities. Our retailers are considering their websites now beyond the sale as a place for customers to get their questions answered through online order information, managing their accounts and doing all the types of things that they are accustomed to doing on all the major e-commerce sites that have been offering these capabilities for years. It’s a little bit of a game of catch up.
Are there any technological services that you believe retailers need at this point to stay competitive?
Culmone: I would start by calling out business intelligence, which has really gone from something that is cool to have to something that needs to be part of any retailer’s strategy. If we think back to your very first question about the pace of change and the market, the best way to stay ahead of this is to leverage the intelligence that you can glean from data analytics. And we have seen an evolution in business intelligence where many retailers are now thinking about it across channels because cross-channel conversions and customer lifetime values have become critical. And even though segmentation is always going to be important, analyzing your brand and customer engagement holistically can help you identify trends early. If we look at this as a race to capture the customer, you want to be the first one out of the gate; and as is always the case, information is power.
The second part of that is the effective mobilization of the retailer’s sales team, and we have talked about this a little bit already. Recruiting RSAs is a major challenge now in this industry, and I think everyone is probably aware that hiring good, qualified people is problematic across the country in almost every business. And doing what you’ve always done is just not good enough. So home furnishings retailers need to start by understanding what will motivate an RSA in 2022 to join their team versus the team across the street or the team down the road. We believe a big part of this is to create and implement a modern approach to selling, relationship building and pipeline management with an intuitive user interface. And this is the essence of our NextGen mobile point of sale product offering.
Is there a next big evolution you see in terms of software or technological solutions that you are offering?
Culmone: From a technology perspective, our NextGen platform represents the future of retailing in home furnishings as well as the future of our organization. We are investing heavily to leverage our 30 -plus years of experience running the operations of industry leaders into a reimagined web-based, device agnostic, fully mobile solution. To be clear, this is already deployed in the field at some of the nation’s most progressive retailers like Broad River in South Carolina, Wichita Furniture in Kansas and Factory Direct Enterprises right here in New Jersey. We are adapting work flows and channel integration to complexly align with how today’s consumers shop. And while we’re super excited about what we’ve already done, we are just getting started because for us this is not just about providing technology, but also about participating in the process of helping our retail community leverage this tool and to succeed. We see ourselves being joined at the hip with our retail partners, and we approach everything with the philosophy that their success is our success. We are extremely motivated not just to develop amazing technology, but also to see that it is helping our retailers differentiate themselves from the pack and achieve their goals. And that is what we like to call the Storis difference.