Furniture For The Home, launched online in 2011 by Simon Foster, has seen sales soar to £1.15m since it launched its first physical store last year. Furniture News investigates the opportunities – and challenges – facing the now-multichannel Black Country independent …

“There has been a lot of talk recently about the high street being a thing of the past,” says Simon, “but we’re disproving that theory by demonstrating you can be successful both online and in-store.”

Against the tide of established retailers fighting to establish successful online footholds, numerous ecommerce players – Amazon, Made and Loaf among them – have made the jump to physical retail, establishing showrooms to help raise their credibility and revenues.

Headquartered in Dudley in the West Midlands, Furniture For The Home, which operates a nearby 8000 sqft warehouse, invested £75,000 to transform a building outside Sedgley into its first showroom. 

Work on the store began in 2016 and took six months to complete – resulting in a 4500 sqft of open-plan space which houses 15 living/dining room settings, plus a dedicated bedroom department. 

Simon has quickly seen the benefits of this two-pronged approach to retail. “We use our experience of ecommerce and buying power to source products/suppliers, giving us a huge advantage when selecting suitable items at the correct price,” he says, before telling Furniture News more about how Furniture For The Home is striking that multichannel balance …

What led you into furniture ecommerce?

You could clearly see a growing shift in consumer purchasing habits towards buying more online, so in 2013 it seemed an ideal time to put my keen eye for product selection into a formal business.

By initially starting online, it gave us the ability to keep overheads down due to not having premises and associated costs. This in turn meant we could provide our customers with fantastic quality furniture at the best prices – prices that the high street simply can’t compete with. 

How has the online landscape changed since?

Since 2011 the online furniture market has become a lot more competitive. Developments in websites and new software providers gave people the chance to make money quickly, so there’s now a huge choice of companies that are offering very low-cost start-up websites.

In essence, being an online retailer is very accessible and doesn’t come with a major financial outlay. 

What’s proved the greatest challenge to date?

The biggest challenge for Furniture For The Home is maintaining our online presence and fighting off new competitors. We have managed to do this by continuing to offer a great customer experience and after-sales service, which in turn builds consumer confidence and loyalty.

We also carry our own stock, so this means dispatch, delivery speed and after-sales service is 100% within our control. Many new start-up companies rely on selling products and then ordering them to be delivered direct from the supplier to the customer. This can mean that the service the customer receives is in the hands of the supplier rather than the company/online seller they have paid the money to. 

There have been countless examples where this approach has led to major issues with delivery times and people getting annoyed when it takes a long time to resolve after-sales/product issues.

Opening a store is a huge commitment – what were the drivers (and obstacles) involved in doing so?

We were confident that the research we had cultivated over the years as an online seller, and the products we were able to source, gave us the perfect platform to launch our first retail store. 

Over the last seven years we’ve built up strong partnerships with our suppliers, and can often sell the products in our showroom at the same price as we do on the website – all from a newly-refurbished showroom that has many living environments so that people can come in and view, touch and try.

The high percentage of returning clients buying from us online gave us confidence that not only do we choose the correct products but we back these up with fantastic customer service and satisfaction -the perfect recipe for a successful retail store.

The main obstacle was choosing where and what type of premises was most suitable. We didn’t want to be in a major town centre, and we didn’t want to be at an out-of-town retail park. In the end, we managed to secure an iconic building in between Sedgley and Dudley, which has lots of passing traffic and gives us lots of space to put our stamp on things.

Why did you select the Dudley Road location in particular?

We have been brought up here, so automatically have a good local knowledge of the demographics of the area and what products would suit the customer base.

The actual building itself becoming available reinforced the decision for us to open a store within two miles of our warehouse. It offered an ideal main road location, and plenty of space. It is also a historic building locally, being previously an old picture house and then County Wallpapers for 55 years.

We feel like we have bought an historic building back to life with the renovation, and maybe prevented another landmark site being demolished for housing.

Has the opening meant changing the scope of your product offer?

The products we source and stock online have also proven very successful in-store. However, the showroom has enabled us to move into selling beds, mattresses, upholstery and home accessories. These are often products consumers prefer to see, feel and test out before having the confidence to purchase them, so it has opened up new avenues and significantly increased the range we offer.

Can you point to any differences in demographic between your online and in-store customers?

Online, our most popular age category is 35-44 years. However, in-store it is slightly older, at 45-54. Also, from a price point of view, our most successful products online would fall into the low- to mid-price range category, whereas in the showroom the products fall into the mid- to high-price range and quality. 

This shows the increased chance of customers parting with money once they have physically tested and touched the product.

What is the balance of digital and traditional advertising you’re engaged in?

At present, we rely approximately 75% on digital advertising and 25% on traditional press. This was 100% digital prior to opening the store.

We do find digital advertising to be more successful, and it is easier to monitor the success rate. However, there will always be a market for traditional advertising in newspapers and leaflet drops. Not everyone uses social media and search engines, so the only way to reach this significant amount of potential customers is by more mainstream routes.

What technology have you employed to ensure a more seamless operation?

Up until recently we’ve used our website alongside some manual processes/software to manage orders and stock. However, we are launching a brand new website in the next few months, which will include software to manage orders and inventory, all in one place. 

This will improve back office efficiency significantly, and will also enhance communication with the customer.

Other than the new website launch, what plans are in place at Furniture For The Home?

We’re looking to create a drinks area where shoppers can relax and enjoy hot and cold drinks whilst planning their purchases, and we’ve just started to explore the introduction of new premier brands.

Fundamentally, we’re expecting to grow sales across our whole showroom and online operation – we’re aiming to grow our sales to £1.5m by 2020.

This article was published in the July 2018 issue of Furniture News magazine.