March 31, 2006, 12:00 AM

The Past is Prologue

(Page 2 of 3)

Lots of description

Where other apparel may rely more on the picture to sell the product, work clothes need a lot of description in terms of durability, material and construction quality and the functionality of the apparel, Antisdel explains.

Also important to selling work clothes is the call center. “Our call center is critical because customers often have a lot of questions about the clothes and we need a call center staff that understands the product and can address the customer’s questions while respecting their intelligence,” he says.

Use of such techniques as search to bring consumers to the site falls largely in the hands of Steve Antisdel’s brother Jeff. Jeff had worked in the technology industry as a partner and leading research analyst for a biotechnology hedge fund company. He later joined Steve in getting FurnitureFind.com off the ground, focusing on the marketing side.

But while the sales of furniture and work clothes may have their differences, there are a lot of similarities, Antisdel says. “It dawned on me after we introduced our FurnitureFind.com web site that the Internet would be for the 1990s what catalogues were for rural consumers in the 19th century,” he says. “There, you had a growing consumer base who had limited access to merchandise from stores. Today, you have time-strapped customers who don’t have time to drive all over to view merchandise and receive a wide selection of merchandise presented to them in a way they can understand.”

With FurnitureFind, Antisdel found the customer base to be “a lot of soccer moms and busy professionals who wanted to view a wide selection, but didn’t have the time to drive to four or five different stores, which are typically not located near each other. And they need someone who understands the product well enough to help them with their selection. You have to be able explain to them the difference between the high-end brands and the lower-end ones and help them sort through the brands.”

The distribution conundrum

Additionally, Antisdel found customers like viewing furniture without the pressure to buy. “Most times in furniture stores you either get commissioned sales reps who pounce on you trying to get you to buy, or you get uninformed sales clerks who just take the orders and could care less whether you buy or not. We offered trained online sales personnel who understand the market but were not under pressure to sell.”

While Antisdel is not able to reveal the exact size of the business he grew at FurnitureFind.com, he did say it was “north of $10 million and still growing.”

One of the obstacles to selling furniture-and one that Antisdel’s successors are still struggling with-is distribution. “We’re still trying to find the best model for delivering furniture direct from the manufacturer,” says Ken Kwit, current president of FurnitureFind.com whose primary prior Internet experience was selling wine online. “You don’t want a retail store as an intermediary and when we went from delivering from a central location to delivering directly from the manufacturer there were a lot of problems we needed to overcome.”

Antisdel explains the original shipping model was to consolidate most of the furniture into a central warehouse and then aggregate orders and ship to consumers within a region.

“This was a build-to-order business model with very little inventory stocked in advance but it meant it took longer to fulfill our customers’ orders,” Antisdel says. He concedes that the current direct-from-manufacturer model looks promising. “It would appear that Ken’s new method will result in faster delivery times; and that’s a good thing.”

Distribution aside, Kwit accredits Antisdel for being “a great visionary” for believing that furniture could be sold over the Internet at a time when most retailers believed consumers wouldn’t want to buy that way. “Steve has a lot of insight into what consumers want and can foresee how things will shake,” Kwit says. “He also has a great understanding of technology and has a strong marketing sense.”

Word of mouth

But if distribution is a major struggle for online furniture sales, it is less an obstacle for work clothes, which are easier to store and ship from a centralized warehouse. “We stock 60,000 line items for immediate shipment to our customers,” says Antisdel. “While this involves the usual inventory management challenges, it allows us to fulfill customer orders very quickly. Fortunately, Eric has a deep understanding of our customers and a great deal of experience managing the merchandising and buying cycles so inventory problems have been almost non-existent.”

With distribution not such a major challenge then, Antisdel and WorkingPerson.com management plan to expand fulfillment and distribution systems this year and to integrate systems.

They also will focus on the concept of getting workers to think Internet when they buy their work clothes. While much of WorkingPerson.com’s traffic comes via word of mouth or even referrals from the shoemobile, the site also advertises via search engines such as Google, Yahoo and MSN, Antisdel explains. And while the site’s prime customers typically do not have online access during work as professionals who work in office environments might, they still generally have access to a home computer or have spouses who can shop for them from work computers.

Also, while just a few years ago, WorkingPerson’s customer base would not have consisted of a lot of active online shoppers, Antisdel says that is changing. “Our analysis shows that while our target market is not made up of early adopters, we’re at an inflection point now where these folks are also discovering the Internet as a convenient shopping channel. We find our customers to be generally web savvy.”

The right time

In fact, Antisdel says, the company scaled back its search engine marketing in November and December to allow its fulfillment staff to keep up with orders. The company has shipped as many as 600 orders a day from its Lakeville, Ind. (population: 350) store.

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