Furniture rose and fell pretty quickly as an Internet retailing category. Now it’s rising again. Premier home furnishings retailer Crate & Barrel, for instance, plans to expand furniture on its web site next year. “We hear from customers that they want to be able to buy more furniture online,” says Joan King, Crate & Barrel’s Internet manager.
CrateandBarrel.com will be joining other retailers in Internet Retailer’s Best of the Web. Bombay Co. recently adopted a new web strategy that features online sale of all furniture in stores. And pure-play Bellacor has built a profitable online retailing organization selling furniture and home furnishings from 700 manufacturers. The difference between the success of today’s online furniture and housewares retailers and those that failed a few years ago is that today’s retailers are either leveraging an offline presence or adapting offline techniques to the web, but in such a way that they are more powerful online than they are offline. Bellacor, for one, stresses that its selection is far beyond what a store could stock. “There are thousands of home furnishing and lighting vendors and manufacturers, and in a traditional system it’s impossible for customers to be aware of even a small fraction,” says CEO Jan Andersen. “At Bellacor they can access the universe of home furnishings. We are creating a level of connection between customers and suppliers that is not possible offline.” Ditto for Cooking.com, which stocks 4,500 mostly high-end products from almost every major and niche manufacturer of better cookware.
Or take Barewalls.com. The art poster site stocks 250,000 posters, a number that would overwhelm a store shopper. But sophisticated search functionality breaks those down to manageable bites. Shoppers can search by genre, subject or price.
And then there’s the brand issue. It was tough for the start-ups to create a brand, especially on a considered purchase like furniture or high-end cookware. But for some housewares retailers, the web site floats effortlessly on the brand. “Fortunoff.com is wildly profitable,” says David Fortunoff, president of Fortunoff.com and CIO of parent Fortunoff, the small, upscale New York department store chain. The brand is so successful that the chain gets a steady stream of requests from displaced customers to open Fortunoff stores in their new areas-pressure that Fortunoff has been able to resist because it has a great web site. A full 25% of Fortunoff.com sales are to customers outside of the home turf of New York.
Walk into an art poster store, and the 1,000 prints in the bins can overwhelm. But at Barewalls.com, online shoppers find it simple to choose from more than 250,000 posters, thanks to a search function engineered to mirror shoppers’ natural thought processes in browsing for art. Five years in the industry have taught Barewalls it’s a different process than looking for books or a sweater online. “We used to think people know what they want; give them a keyword, and they’ll find it,” says CEO Lorne Lieberman. “The truth is, you need to get into consumers’ mindset to figure out how to help them. So we’ve tried to break things down into every category possible.”
No kidding. Barewalls wrangles its quarter million SKUs with a powerhouse search engine that serves the shopper browsing beach scenes or Minimalist prints as speedily as it serves one on a hunt for Monets-not to mention the shopper who knows only that she wants to fill a spot over the mantel. The engine, built in-house, lets visitors shop by art genre, subject or price.
Supporting the engine is a cataloging system that bridges art history and information science. It’s built on controlled vocabulary, a concept from library science that limits the words used to describe items. “Without that consistency, you get different results over time. You can browse our site associatively, and that’s one of our unique aspects,” says co-founder Dan Spira.
On-target merchandising also helps narrow the collection in a multitude of ways, with features such as an ever-growing number of Top 10 lists. Barewalls spreads its online gallery into the corporate world-its second-biggest customer audience after the first-time apartment dweller or home buyer-by setting up dedicated web sites that let branch offices select wall art from collections pre-approved by headquarters.
It’s a strategy that’s delivered customers. The privately held company reached profitability in 2001 and is looking at sales up 20% year over year, Lieberman says. Barewalls gets 1 million unique visitors per month, and serves up 10 million pages per month.
Significantly, 50% of first-time site visitors now arrive by typing in the URL directly, a reflection, says Lieberman, of the shopper-to-shopper buzz that he considers some of the company’s most important advertising. “The number one way we used to attract customers was Internet marketing,” he says. “But in year five, we’re riding on brand recognition and consumer confidence. Whether you’re searching by your own demographic type or by topic or genre, we want to make it as easy as possible to find it.”
in-house, Deepmetrix Corp.
FireCash Ltd., VeriSign. Inc.