Lights! Camera! Sell! Learn from Disney.

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What can Disney teach us about customer experience?

Later this month my wife and I are taking the kids to Disney World. If you’re keeping score, this will be our third trip in nine years. Here I should note that my daughter Kate is 15, my son Riley is 18, and my wife Marcia is … well, that’s not important.

What is important is that four different people with very different tastes and in very different places in their lives are looking forward to a week of rides, mouse ears and Dole Whips (look it up). We aren’t the only ones making a repeat visit to Disney World. Of the 21.2 million visitors expected to attend the Magic Kingdom this year, nearly 15 million of them will be repeat visitors.

A 70 percent return rate for first-time customers to your furniture store might be hard to imagine, but it’s very much a reality at Disney World. Doug Stephens thinks he knows why, and it has nothing to do with magic. Stephens is the founder of Retail Prophet, a group that advises retail brands big and small. These days, the retail world is abuzz about customer experience — how customers perceive their interactions with a brand — and few brands do it better than Disney.

“From the time you book your trip to the time you pack up and head home, nothing is overlooked,” says Stephens. “It’s as though you are immersed in another world. The question furniture retailers should be asking of themselves is, ‘How can I be more like Disney?’ ”

Walt Disney himself once said, “Whatever you do, do it well. Do it so well that when people see you do it, they will want to come back and see you do it again, and they will want to bring others and show them how well you do what you do.”

Here Disney was talking about work ethic, but Stephens argues he could easily be talking about your store’s customer experience. “In today’s furniture retail economy, Disney’s advice can no longer be ignored,” says Stephens.

Stephens says there was a time when furniture stores thrived by offering exceptional value and a great product alone. “They’re still necessary conditions for success,” he says, “but these days they are simply the ante to get in the game.”

Consumers want a positive experience, not just a transactional relationship, with the brands they engage with, says Stephens. The customer experience — that is, making each of its clients feel special — is increasingly the key factor for a furniture store to stand out from its competitors.

That’s why we went looking for Home Furnishings Association (HFA) members who deliver that Disneyesque experience daily. Two stores — City Furniture and El Dorado Furniture — are right in Mickey’s backyard. Sure, they’re Top 100 Retailers, but that doesn’t mean you can’t scale what you learn from them to your store. And for good measure, we dropped by Riley’s Furniture and Mattress in Monroe, Ohio. Not exactly a Top 100, but by enhancing its customer experience, Riley’s is changing consumers’ perception of the company in a big way.

A glass of wine, and a $17,000 purchase

Selling furniture is competitive no matter where you live. But one state seems more ambitious than others. “There’s really no state like Florida,” says Andrew Koenig, vice president of operations at City Furniture, with 19 stores throughout south and central Florida. “With so many people moving here and all the second homes and third homes it makes it a lot harder to be in the furniture business because it’s so much harder to stand out. But that challenge of trying to stand out from everyone else by giving them a better experience? That’s what makes it fun, too.”

Fun for the customer, too. In 2017, City Furniture introduced a café and wine bar at its new 26,000-square-foot Midtown Miami showroom. KC Café & Wine Bar, named after City founder and Koenig’s late uncle Charles Koenig, has been around since 2001 in City’s flagship store, but company officials have beefed up the concept and are putting the cafés in all their stores. The cafes have a limited light menu as well as wine and craft beers.

Koenig says the cafés are part of City’s bigger plans of giving customers an experience they can’t get online or at a competitor’s store. “We want to break down whatever barriers are out there, whatever pain points our customers might be having that’s preventing them from doing business with us,” he says.
Sometimes that means letting customers lie down on a mattress with a glass of (gulp) red wine. Other times it means equipping every sales associate with an iPad that enables customers and associates to dress a sofa in a fabric of their choosing (no more bulky upholstery books).

City sales associates have sold more than their share of furniture to Millenials from a store parking lot, says Koenig. “They know what they want, we meet them where they are,” he says of younger customers.

City President Keith Koenig last year said the rules of retail have changed dramatically in recent years. “If a brick-and-mortar store is going to go head-to-head against e-commerce, well, we’ve seen how that’s turned out for a lot of businesses, so don’t go head-to-head,” he says. “We’re creating a better shopping experience all around — who wouldn’t want to go shopping with a glass of wine in their hands! — and I think that experience we’re offering gives us an edge.”

What kind of edge? Koenig likes telling the story of a couple who recently shopped City Furniture for a mattress. They told their sales associate they wanted to think about the purchase at home. The associate offered to buy them drinks at the cafe to let them think over the purchase at the store.

A few minutes and sips later, the couple bought the mattress as well as a new bedroom set and other furniture — a $17,000 ticket.

Beer, wine and tablets might seem like minor changes to your store — and they are — but here’s the thing: Dedication to the little details will make your store stand out from others, says Stephens. Years ago, Disney officials conducted a study that showed park visitors have a tolerance level of 30 steps for carrying around trash. That’s why you’ll find trash cans 30 steps apart throughout the park.

Carrying your trash might seem like a small pain point to endure the magic that’s Disney, but Andrew Koenig says those pain points add up.
“We’re about eliminating those pain points on a customer’s journey,” he says. “The more we can do that, the more likely we are in winning a customer — and not just a customer, but someone who recommends us to their friends. So what we’re really getting is an advocate.”

Creating a “Boulevard” experience

HFA member Jesús Capó is a patient, polite man. When he hears retail experts speak passionately about customer experience and making the mundane magical in today’s ever-changing retail world, he smiles, nods and bites his tongue. “We like to think we’ve been doing that for 25 years,” says Capó, chief information officer for El Dorado Furniture in Miami Gardens, Fla.

In 1992, Manuel Capó, Jesús’ father and the founder of El Dorado, came up with an idea of changing the way consumers in south Florida shopped for furniture. What if, instead of a massive room lined with rows of vignettes, the customer was taken on a journey through El Dorado’s showroom?

In 1994, El Dorado debuted its Boulevard merchandising concept. If Disney CEO Robert Iger ever wakes up one morning and decides to start selling furniture, it might look something like what customers see when they walk into any of El Dorado’s 14 stores. Instead of browsing the typical furniture showroom, customers stroll down a winding “boulevard” resembling an old-fashioned city street. Quaint benches and street lamps line the main street, which is flanked by towering facades ranging from 16th-century stained-glass windows to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. More than 20 themed storefronts open into specialized furniture shops.

Even the store’s front entrance was strategically designed, says Capó. While many showroom designers advocate for 10 feet of space to allow the shopper to adjust to new surroundings, El Dorado’s entrances are more than 100 feet of open space with the Boulevard serving as an enticing backdrop.

“Dad didn’t want people to walk in and have furniture in their face,” says Capó. “He wanted them to know they were somewhere different from all the other stores they visited.”
It’s not unusual for visitors to find live bands, a violinist or a jazz saxophonist playing on weekends. A few years back Capó noticed an elderly woman showing up with regularity and sitting on one of his father’s Boulevard-inspired benches. After a few visits, Capó approached the woman and asked if she needed any help with anything.

“No,” she told Capó, “I just like coming here to relax and hear the music.”

“That’s when I knew my father was on to something,” says Capó. These days it’s not uncommon for shoppers to stroll El Dorado’s Boulevard with a live band or jazz saxophonist playing. “We’re giving them something an e-commerce site will never be able to offer,” he says.

That’s the key, says Stephens. As e-commerce continues to grow, stores like El Dorado and City are evolving to be an experience first, followed by a hub for transactions second. Consumers are increasingly turning to mobile to conduct research, price compare and purchase products, says Stephens. “Brands that set themselves apart from their competition will do so not by product, or price, or even convenience,” he says. “The ultimate differentiator will be the customer experience.”

Stephens says retailers need to throw out the old role of selling furniture, which consisted of three pillars: 1. Merchandise the product. 2 Offer information about the product. 3. Facilitate the purchase.

“Those pillars are already being handled by any e-commerce site right now,” he says.

But there’s one thing Wayfair and Amazon can never provide customers says Stephens. “They can’t provide the experience your physical space can provide, and that’s what has to change. What are you doing in your physical space, your brick-and-mortar store on Main Street or in the strip mall or wherever you call home—what are you doing to provide the best possible customer experience you can offer?”

Stephens shared five characteristics he’s seen successful brands employ to deliver a memorable in-store experience.

Surprise!  “Great brands surprise you when you least expect it,” he says. “Or maybe you’re always expecting to be surprised and you are.” One example Stephens offered was Macy’s recent investment in virtual reality technology for its furniture department. The chain implemented the technology in 40 stores this year and expects that number to grow to 65 in 2019.

Unique. This one, says Stephens, should be a no-brainer. “The retail crowd is big, and everyone is packed together,” he says. “What are you doing to stand out? You need to change the script, change the language. Set yourself apart.”

Look no further than Starbucks for inspiration, says Stephens. Nobody walks into a Starbucks and asks for a particular size of coffee. The company has successfully manipulated the language from medium and large to venti and grande. “How can you do the same at your store to stand out?” asks Stephens.

Personalize. “Everyone likes to feel special,” says Stephens. “You rarely feel special on an e-commerce site. Just point, click and move on.”

Retailers need to make every customer who walks through their doors feel like that product is just for them. “Certainly special-order furniture is one way,” Stephens says, “but so is a meaningful conversation with a sales associate.”

Engage. “Stores need to be less about products and more about productions,” he says. This means moving beyond commerce to community through events—be they art showings, wine tasting or pet adoptions. The cafes being incorporated into every City Furniture? The company is making those spaces available after hours to local organizations for fundraisers or other events.

Repeat. This, says Stephens, is by far the most important goal to strive for. “The ability to execute every single time is important,” he says. “You can’t afford to say, ‘Sorry about your experience. We were short staffed.’ ” Stephens says retailers need to think of their store as a stage. “Everyone needs to know their marks and their lines. Every morning you open should be like opening night.”

Surprise, Unique, Personalize, Engage and Repeat. In other words, says Stephens, follow the acronym. “Be SUPER,” he says.

Riley Griffiths is one HFA member who’s taking Stephens’ words to heart in 2019. Riley’s Furniture & Mattress store in Monroe, Ohio, is considering the consumer in every business decision Griffiths’ company makes. Walk into the store and you’re likely to end up with not one, but two sales associates waiting on you: one to help you with your furniture questions and another to fetch you a drink or snack, watch your children or check on a fabric or price while you shop.

It’s simple, says Griffiths. “We want to make that shopper feel like they’re the only person we care about because, in a sense, that’s true. What message does it send if we greet them up front and then leave them on their own for the rest of their time with us?”

Attentive sales associates might not sound like much compared to live bands and free crafted beer, but Stephens says Griffiths has tapped in to a part of customer experience many retailers overlook.

A big part of the new customer experience in your store will hinge on your sales associates, Stephens says. As retail stores become vehicles for experiences that allow brands to connect with consumers, retailers need to expand the role of their associates to thrive in the new retail environment.

“Your associates are no longer allowed to be mere clerks,” says Stephens. “We’re moving from a place where the role is less clerk and more brand ambassador.”
Again, says Stephens, think back to Disney, which refers to its employees as “cast members.” “There’s a reason for that,” says Stephens. “They’re putting on something special for their guests. Anyone walking into a Disney property is treated like they’re the only one who matters. It’s not different for your store.”

About the Author

Robert Bell
Robert Bell is Content Editor for the Home Furnishings Association. Email or call him with any news about your store, including expansion, personnel, successful initiatives—anything of interest to HFA members. He can be reached at rbell@myhfa.org or 916-757-1169.