JACKSON, Miss. — There’s no doubt 2022 is turning into a correction year for furniture retailers. They recognize business was at an artificial high, and now they’ve adjusted budgets to account for the slowdown.
But more importantly for the really nimble stores, it’s not strictly about adjusting budgets and sales projections to match today’s lower demand. It’s about rethinking marketing strategies and in-store approaches to make the most of this new reality.
The seven-store Miskelly Furniture has done all three, and because of it, on the sales front, the retailer is finding itself in a better position than most. Sales through June are down single digits from the record year before, said Alan Vonder Haar, director of strategic development and growth for the Jackson, Mississippi-based HNN 125 company.
“To be single digits down, from what I hear from other retailers in the industry, is actually pretty amazing,” he said.
What’s more, during a three-day July Fourth holiday promotion, sales were flat from the year before, thanks largely to stellar results in the mattress category. To be flat in this economic environment — neither taking or giving up ground — can’t be described as anything less than a win, Vonder Haar added.
So how did Miskelly get here? While there are a lot of moving parts, the company highlights two that, perhaps, play an outsized role. First, marketing was tweaked to address consumers’ new reality and to build the kind of excitement needed to bring them through the door more often than they would otherwise. Then, once they’re in, the approach to serving the customer didn’t change, necessarily, but it was refocused with greater intention on something Miskelly has aimed for all along.
“Our strategy has been kind of like what it’s always been, but we amped up the understanding that each guest experience is more important than ever,” he said.
It all goes back to the mainstay principle of relationship selling, he said. but because Miskelly, like so many other retailers, had such high traffic counts over the past two years, its relationship focus may have veered slightly — to one of efficiently taking care of the immediate customer and then quickly moving to the next in line.
“Now that we’re seeing traffic slow down, we are trying to make sure we really take the time to connect with them, really find out what their needs, wants and desires are, and then use our home furnishings as a way to fulfill them,” Vonder Haar said.
To make the most of each consumer visit, Miskelly has put increased focus on training its RSAs to connect with guests in a way that positions the retailer as their primary home furnishings provider, he said. More on this below, but first a recap on the retailer’s marketing and how things have shifted there, too.
“We try to walk a fine line between aggressive and tasteful,” said Betsy Tabor, Miskelly’s director of marketing. During what she calls “the bountiful times,” the emphasis was a little more on brand building, as consumers rushed to buy just about anything without waiting for a deal and with less concern about the price. Miskelly’s commercials back then tended to be more brand-oriented, but it would throw in a special savings offer or something similar before the spots concluded.
Now it’s the reverse. Miskelly is still building the brand, but more often, it’s leading with the offer.
“We are definitely promoting more one-day sales,” with the kind of offers a retailer wouldn’t want to put out there for more than just a few days, Tabor said. “We’re doing more special offers, trying to generate more excitement midweek than we probably did during the bountiful times.” She wouldn’t call the shift “full-blown aggressive,” but she is emphasizing spots that are attention-grabbing and interspersing them with the softer brand-building ads now.
Miskelly also is trying to be more sensitive to consumers of different means, as inflation and tougher economic times have stretched some folks more than others.
“People are struggling just to put food on their table and gas in their car,” Tabor said. “The dichotomy between lower and middle class — or even lower-midde — has gotten even more defined.
“So we’re stressing our financing, but also things like how you can get two rooms of furniture for $50 a month. We’re not trying to sell them stuff and create more debt, create more harm,” she said. “We’re really trying to keep them within their budget, and if they need furniture, we want to make sure that they can get it for a low monthly payment.”
Both approaches appear to be working. Tabor said she’s been amazed at just how well the midweek, one- and two-day sales promotions have performed since the slowdown.
The marketing gets them in the store, and once there, the customer-relationship training kicks in, helping Miskelly make the most of each visit. To illustrate exactly what Miskelly is doing to better connect to its shoppers, Vonder Haar points to Miskelly’s bedding business, the retailer’s best category last year and the one that continues to best defy gravitational pull this year.
In May, the company ran a sales contest in the department. The reward for the top 30% producers was an invitation to a special one-day mattress training program led by Vondar Haar and other Miskelly leaders.
“When you teach, you have a tendency to teach to the lowest common denominator. But when that lowest common denominator is high, you can dive deeper and really get into some skill set training,” Vonder Haar said, explaining why the retailer chose to set its sights on an elite group.
So for eight hours during the third week of June, the top 30% were treated to sessions that dove deep into the science of sleep, the differences between light sleep, deep sleep and REM-sleep cycles. Vonder Haar taught about how these stages connect back to mattresses designed to provide comfort, support and temperature management.
“We taught about how to increase the communication away from what I call ‘spec and tech’ and more towards how a person falls asleep, stays asleep and feels the next morning,’” he said. “We taught a series of skills to connect deeper with the guest, more on a personal basis, on how they actually sleep and, more importantly, on how the product we carry can help them fall asleep easier, stay asleep longer and wake up feeling great the next day.”
In other words, he skipped all the stuff about pocketed coil counts and other dry facts that manufacturer reps reel off in training to try to encourage RSAs to include their mattress in the four or five that the consumer will try out. Instead, Vonder Haar changed the conversation to one everyone shopping for a new mattress cares about — one that’s not just about comfort, but about how a comfortable, heat-regulating mattress leads to those deeper, critical stages of sleep that heal and restore.
“And as a result, I now have influencers on the floor,” Vonder Haar said. “My best are even better than they were before.” They’re teaching others, “and we’re seeing those results come in.”
2021 was a record year for Miskelly’s mattress category, so it’s already up against some particularly tough numbers. During the Fourth of July event, Miskelly’s overall results were flat, but the mattress business was way up — 15% ahead of last year, while upholstery sales were down 3% and case goods slipped 8%.
Vonder Haar contended part of that strong bedding showing is a direct result of that one-day specialized training that informed and reminded RSAs of what they’re really there to do — connect to customers on a level that gets to the heart of what they’re truly after
Yet another company-wide effort, now that things have slowed down and Miskelly is rebalancing its inventory, is to make sure it gets customer orders filled and into homes as quickly as possible. In June, the retailer’s delivered sales were substantially higher than its written business. While this was partly the result of the slowdown, it was also intentional, Vonder Haar said.
“As soon as we can fill a customer’s order, now that new product is coming in, we’re making it a priority to keep those lines of communication open and get it into the house,” he said. Among other things, Miskelly has been offering extra delivery days on occasion. (It typically delivers five days a week — Tuesday through Saturday — but more recently the company added some bonus Monday deliveries to the schedule.)
And just as it has been trying to improve the guest experience in the mattress department by changing the conversation away from spec and tech and reconnecting on a human level, Miskelly is thinking this way for all categories — with its training, with its marketing. The focus, Vonder Haar said, is on the customer and being intentional in all of its activities.
“Now that we have the slowdown and it’s not quite as fast paced as it was, we feel like our time with that guest is even more important,” he said. “This is not a case where we just want to finish up and run to the next up. This is where we really want to take the time and develop that relationship.
“We changed our core values this past year and one of them is ‘Winning our customers’ hearts.’ We’re very serious about that.”