More telling, less selling

HNN contributor Joe Carroll says stepping back from the mundane facts and figures and, instead, making an effort to romance the product, makes all the difference in inspiring consumers

One of the recurring complaints I’ve heard in the 40+ years I was in the furniture industry is, “How do we sell furniture by emphasizing its benefits instead of by price?” 

We reprimand ourselves for treating furniture as a commodity. We know we should be selling features such as style, comfort and its ability to enhance one’s home. After decades of selling by price, we have conditioned the consumer to expect to buy furniture only when it is on sale or at a discount.   

We play the blame game. We complain about not getting “our share” of the consumer’s disposable dollar. This excuse is beginning to wear thin. First of all, no one has ever explained to me how big a share we are supposed to have. I only know that most manufacturers and retailers don’t feel we are getting enough of it. I don’t think we can compare the consumer’s urge to run out and buy a new iPhone every time a newer model is released or a new flat screen TV every time a new feature is invented, to how often they purchase furniture. I don’t think we necessarily choose between taking a vacation or buying a new piece of furniture. These just aren’t apples-to-apples comparisons. 

I was prompted to write this column following lunch in High Point with an old friend, who told me that a major furniture manufacturer had decided to eliminate its sales representatives. He did not know the reason behind this decision. Several manufacturers have tried this approach over the years although none recently that I can think of. Most did it because they felt their profit margins were so thin that the only way they could run their business profitably was to sell direct to their dealers, thus eliminating the sales commission they paid their rep. Each manufacturer I can think of who did this eventually saw a decline in sales and returned to using sales representatives.

Almost every time I visit a retailer, he will tell me that the most important role his manufacturer’s sales representatives play is his ability to teach the store salespeople how to get the customer over the price barrier by getting them excited about the furniture itself. Today’s retail salesperson is facing more competition from more channels of distribution than at any time in our history. He needs not only superior selling skills he needs to gain the customer’s trust. One of the most important ways to do this is not only by displaying in-depth knowledge of the product he is selling but by being able to “romance” it as well. Romancing is a term that describes the technique of telling a story about the product: how it came to be designed, what purpose it might have originally served, what exotic materials might have been used in its construction. This personalizes the furniture and transforms it from being solely attractive or utilitarian to an item of interest – to one that has a story to tell. It now becomes a conversation piece.    

I recall a retailer telling me that when he was presenting a dining room group to a prospective customer, he was telling her the height, width and construction features of the table when she stopped him and said, “I just need to know how many people it will sit.” 

Here are some examples salespeople tell me they have used to pique the customer’s interest and add value to the product:

Did you know that the canopy bed we proudly display in our master bedroom dates back to medieval times? Peasants and country folk lived in stone or wooden houses that had thatched roofs. As a protection from the elements, the tightly packed thatch was as much as a meter thick. Insects, field mice and birds would burrow into the thatch. Even dogs and cats would make their way up into the roof for food and warmth. As you can imagine, over a period of time, the straw and grass would crumble, break and fall into the dwelling, bringing some of the insects and other inhabitants with it.

Soon, these four-poster beds were being covered with light, cloth canopies that would keep the constant drizzle of straw, insects and mice from falling on the bed. On occasion, when extremely harsh storms came along, the cats and dogs that had burrowed into the thatch would fall from the ceiling. Thus the expression, “It’s raining cats and dogs.”

I don’t know for sure that this story is true but doesn’t it make you more interested in the canopy bed because it has a story behind the design?

The use of wicker as a material to make chairs may have originated in Rome when the emperor would have his attendants lower him into his Roman Bath on a throne made of wicker. The reeds had been harvested in Egypt, which was then part of the Roman Empire. Woven, reeded (wicker) furniture became popular in England’s Victorian era after the Adams brothers saw pictures of wicker chairs at the Roman ruins in Bath. They figured out how to weave wicker on a loom so that it could be mass-produced during the Industrial Revolution.

Would it be easier to sell a club chair if you told the customer it was inspired by English tavern furniture? The use of nail heads, leather and overstuffed cushions creates the relaxed, clubby atmosphere the English pubs are famous for.

The high-back wing chair. Who would have guessed it was designed in medieval times to give the occupant protection against someone sneaking up from behind and administering a sword slash to his head?

Couch or sofa? What do you call that piece of furniture in your living room or den that seats two or three? In the United States, you will hear various words. The most common is probably “couch,” which comes from the French verb coucher, which means to lie down. In the 17th and 18th centuries it resembled what we would probably call a daybed. Industry professionals say “sofa.” The quickest way to spot an outsider is when they call a sofa a couch.  When I was a child many of our friends used the word “davenport.” I thought they were saying “diving board.” The word “davenport” was coined by a Boston upholsterer who made luxurious, overstuffed sofas.   

Furniture styles and the names we give them are constantly evolving. They reflect the influence of many cultures, the reign of many monarchs (do you know of a bedroom manufacturer who doesn’t have a Louis Philippe in his line?) as well as the individual artistry of furniture designers and craftsmen. This is our heritage.  

Today’s consumer can find almost any style at any price they wish to pay. The best styling no longer has to be expensive. Today’s furniture offers more design features at the best value we have ever had.  

When we moved to our new home several decades ago, we purchased a beautiful server for our dining room. It was made of yew wood and quite expensive. My wife, Hodges, made it the focal point of the room by changing the decorations on the server to reflect the changing seasons or holidays. She had just decorated it for Christmas. As usual, her creation would have been worthy of a picture in one of the home decorating magazines. Hodges had placed two tall paper mache angels on either side of the candles in the centerpiece. Before we sat down to Christmas dinner, I lit the candles. I must have held the match too close to the angel’s gown as it went up in flames like a torch. We quickly put it out, noticing that it had left a circular burn mark on the server. I could see Hodges with tears in her eyes lamenting what I had done to our beautiful piece of furniture. Thinking back to the story of the headboard I told her that our server would always have a story to tell: the night the Christmas angel caught on fire. 

The next time you want to remind yourself why you love this industry, spend an hour or so in a furniture store or showroom with a salesperson who knows furniture and has a passion for romancing it.

Joe Carroll is former Publisher of Furniture/Today. He was inducted into the American Home Furnishings Hall of Fame in 2009. 

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