May 13, 2014, 2:10 AM

A U.K. furniture retailer gets comfortable with B2B e-commerce

After selling through its own retail stores for decades, upholstered furniture designer and manufacturer DFS recently saw an opening to sell more broadly online to business customers.

Lead Photo

Russell Harte, head of multichannel development and delivery, DFS

For 44 years, DFS has been designing and manufacturing plush upholstered couches and chairs, and selling them to consumers in retail stores across the United Kingdom and Ireland. It also started retailing online nearly a decade ago. But it wasn’t until this spring that it realized, along with partner Curtis Furniture, that it could build on its e-retail expertise to also be a player in online business-to-business sales.

Russell Harte
head of multichannel development and delivery, DFS.

“We have lots of retail experience in how to reach and engage customers,” says Russell Harte, head of multichannel development and delivery at DFS. With the wholesale furniture market across the British Isles served mostly by small, regional companies, he adds, “We believe it’s a great opportunity for us to bring our experience and quality to it.”

DFS and Curtis Furniture, a manufacturer specializing in cabinetry and other areas outside of DFS’s expertise, have spent the last year developing a new line of furniture that's both attractive and sturdy enough for office buildings and hotels.

Last month they worked together to launch DFSContract.co.uk, a site where business customers like these can log on to see product content and pricing based on their contract terms, and use features like re-ordering commonly purchased items. But because the new B2B site shares the same e-commerce technology platform as DFS’ new retail e-commerce sites, which launched last summer, DFSContract.co.uk also has plenty of the features, such as rich product images and videos, that make shopping easier for all kinds of customers, Harte says.

The new B2B site, he adds, includes “inspirational“ images and encourages business buyers to browse so that they, like consumers, might find new products they might not have otherwise considered.

DFS, based in Doncaster, England, operates 100 retail stores across the British Isles, including two in southern Ireland and the rest in the United Kingdom. Although it has also operated a retail e-commerce site for nearly a decade, it traded in its original internally built site last summer for a new e-commerce site running on IBM Corp.’s WebSphere Commerce technology and developed with U.K. web design and development firm Salmon. The WebSphere Commerce platform initially supported two new e-commerce sites: DFS.co.uk, for the United Kingdom, and DFS.ie for Ireland.

DFSContract.co.uk runs on the same e-commerce platform, enabling Harte and his team to manage the three sites from a single online administrative interface. In addition, the three sites share the same toolset integrated into WebSphere Commerce, including Mediacom for search engine optimization, ForeSee for customer experience analysis, Amplience for managing dynamic imaging and online video content, Google Analytics for internal web site activity, and Cubit analytics for gathering and analyzing customer data across external web sites as well as DFS sites.

The new web sites were designed to render well on tablet computers; the company developed  separate mobile sites for smartphones. The smartphone site for DFSContract.co.uk, for example, features a home page with constantly rotating central images and a subset of rotating images under a “Best sellers” category; all content fits the smartphone screen without requiring the user to slide content side to side.

Harte says the B2B site has more improvements to come as DFS makes use of more of the features on the WebSphere Commerce platform. For example, DFS will eventually deploy built-in personalization features for business buyers on DFSContract.co.uk, applying what it has learned on the retail sites about customer buying journeys and how to use personalized content more effectively.

DFS, which reported total sales last year of 670.8 million British pounds ($1.13 billion), doesn’t break out online sales. But it says its new retail e-commerce sites have increased the number of unique monthly visitors to its sites by 36% since the consumer-facing sites launched last summer.

Although it’s too early to report traffic or other performance metrics for the B2B site, Harte says he expects to get an early return on investment. “We’re excited about this concept” of online B2B sales, he says.

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