The web presents challenges for any retailer, including retailers of housewares and home furnishings. When shoppers can’t sit on a chair or feel the heft of a crystal goblet, some measures of what communicates product quality are missing from the shopping equation. The category’s smart online retailers navigate such issues, while leveraging the channel for what it can uniquely contribute.
Internet Retailer Best of the Web 2006
The web presents challenges for any retailer, including retailers of housewares and home furnishings. When shoppers can’t sit on a chair or feel the heft of a crystal goblet, some measures of what communicates product quality are missing from the shopping equation.
The category’s smart online retailers navigate such issues, while leveraging the channel for what it can uniquely contribute. The web sites of Waterford/Wedgwood are helping to deliver the message that the two venerable brands are upping their relevance to the contemporary home with new designs and product lines. Waterford shares the growth it’s driving online with a strategy that drives customers online for some products and to retailers for others.
Furniture.com also shares growth with retailers, providing its expertise online to the retail partners who stock in store the same items shoppers can research and buy on its site. The cooperation improves both the online experience and fulfillment for customers. At Wisteria.com, the web provides a broader reach and a different customer for the company’s distinctive home décor products, while preserving the unique voice that distinguishes the catalog.
The category abounds with retail sites that offer the beautiful and the useful. But as this year’s category winners demonstrate, the formula for online success involves strategy as well as style.
Recognizing that most online furniture retailers are struggling with how to promptly fulfill orders, Furniture.com has overhauled its business model to ensure delivery within days, as opposed to weeks. In doing so, the retailer has reinvented itself, and subsequently put greater distance between itself and its competitors in the online furniture category.
The new plan centers around partnerships with leading furniture retailers that ship direct to customers making purchases through Furniture.com, thus solving a fulfillment problem the company faced early in its existence.
Launched in 1998, Furniture.com went dark in 2000 despite hitting $80 million in annual sales, when a slowing economy severely impacted all furniture retailers. At the time, it looked as though the online furniture category might never rise from the ashes unless it could serve customers better.
Within a year, a group of former employees had found a solution and relaunched Furniture.com. Today, the retailer has relationships with such major furniture stores as Levitz Furniture, which has locations in 11 states, and the RoomStore, with locations in six states. Each retail partner stocks the same items available through Furniture.com. In return, Furniture.com shares its web platform with its retail partners, providing them with their expertise in site design and online merchandising.
“In our first life, we built a great web experience for the customer, but did not provide as good a fulfillment experience,” says Carl Prindle, president and CEO. “We are now leveraging our web expertise to build a distribution channel that is too bulky for us to create alone.”
Furniture.com’s web experience includes a room planner where shoppers can place items in a room based on their dimensions, such as a sofa, love seat, area rug, and entertainment center in a 10’ x 15’ living room. Once the items are chosen, shoppers can adjust the width and depth of each piece and position it around the room to see how the furniture will look and fit in the designated space.
“Furniture.com’s model allows for the sharing of resources in a business where each partner is stretched thin when it comes the resources the other has to offer,” says Jim Okamura, a senior partner with J.C. Williams Group. “It’s quite admirable.”
For many consumers, the Waterford and Wedgwood brands are associated with wedding gifts and Thanksgiving table adornments. But Waterford Wedgwood USA is transitioning its brands into something bigger, and its web sites are playing a pivotal role in delivering that message.
“We’ve added a lot of brand extensions and ways to make Waterford more relevant to the home on a regular basis,” says director of Internet marketing Jennifer Korch, noting the recent addition of silver, flatware, bed and table linens. While a selection of the brand’s 1,500 SKUs is available at its retailer partners, it’s virtually all available at the expanded Waterford.com. Thought the web now represents about 2% of sales, Korch says the brand sees the web as “a way to introduce those extensions to consumers.”
And to widen its reach to core buyers of its traditional products as well. Waterford Collector’s Society pieces, formerly available only through designated retailers, are this year available to members on the site, too. “Whereas all of the relationship building had come from the stores, now we are taking a greater role in that,” says Korch.
The strategy shares the growth it’s driving with authorized retailers under a system that sends shoppers to the stores for certain products and to the web for others. The cross channel approach stands to benefit both the brand and stores with more ways to keep the brand top of mind among consumers.
The goals of deepening the direct relationship and broadening exposure of both traditional and new products also are behind the September launch of WedgwoodUSA.com. With its own look and feel, the site leverages Waterford.com’s back-end structure. “The site is the best way to communicate that the Wedgwood brand has expanded, but that we have the same quality and tradition in each of those products,” Korch says.
“Increasingly, manufacturers will be using the web to try new things, and see what receptivity is to new lines, brand extensions and new products,” notes Mary Brett Whitfield, senior vice president, Retail Forward Inc. “They have designs by Vera Wang, Emeril, and products that are more contemporary than the Waterford and Wedgwood we may have grown up with. The web is a way to let customers know.”