28 May 2024, 10:48
By Furniture News Mar 25, 2020

Kate Hardcastle's wake-up call

Having just landed at the January Furniture Show on the back of NYC’s NRF conference, business and consumer expert, industry veteran and ‘Customer Whisperer’ Kate Hardcastle talked candidly to Paul Farley about her perceptions of today’s trade, and why the industry needs to look forward, not back …

You should see the concept stores in New York. There are some real eye-openers.

Camp (the Family Experience Store) launched in 2018, and there’s already five branches. It’s a toy store with a difference – kids are encouraged to play and learn, and the staff are all actors employed to play with them. Apart from being a bit of a parent guilt trip, there’s no hard sell. They don’t have to make the store transactional – they cover their basic costs through savvy brand partnerships and alliances with tech, home and F&B brands, reaching out to parents while their kids are playing. 

Of more relevance to the furniture industry is Casper’s Dreamery, a hotel-like space that offers workers and travellers a retreat from the bustle of the city. You make a reservation in your preferred timeslot, and avail of their toiletries and pyjamas in your own sleep pod. Again, there’s no pushy salesmen, just wonderfully subtle brand reinforcement.

What can UK retailers take from these experiential examples? In short, if your consumer is being exposed to shopping experiences like these, their expectation level will grow (like it did when your rivals started offering next-day delivery).

Like a toddler’s wish-list, retailers are constantly being told they need to deliver more – but the more consumers are given, the more they want. And when it comes to meeting these varied demands, from fulfilment to sustainability, a lot of businesses (even the most robust of brands) are being stunned into silence, because they don’t feel they can ever provide everything that’s asked of them.

But it’s better to give them something than nothing. You have to stand up and be counted. You have to say something. 

I was last here at the NEC furniture show a decade ago, in 2010. Today, I’m looking at an industry so hurt it’s gone back into its shell – and the more it does that, the further it’ll retreat. It definitely needs more clarity of purpose.

Every sector of the trade has something to offer. Beds are eminently relevant – from health to lifestyle, there’s so much more you can do with them to engage the consumer. But while beds are potential water-cooler conversation fodder, we still haven’t really got to the point where people name-check their preferred brands. 

“You have to stand up and be counted"

I always thought cabinet and upholstery were an easy sell because of the ability to focus on the showcase when promoting them. The consumer’s home is their castle, and these products can really address the house-proud – more so than ever, in our social media-driven world of influencers, ‘shelfies’ and Mrs Hinch. There’s more demand for personification, and that’s where the benefit of these products can be sold.

The industry is still so price-oriented. What it really needs to do is better understand the consumer.

Whether you’re selling B2C or B2B, you need to know where your product’s going. What type of house will it end up in, how will it be used, and why should people want it? How much will they pay for it? The furniture trade seems to be so detached from what the consumer actually wants for their home – it’s a bit like a car parts supplier not caring what the driver thinks.

For suppliers, it’s not enough to speak and listen to the end-consumer through the retailer. They need to take ownership of that conversation and learn from it. They need to carry on giving people what they want – but also take them somewhere new. 

To that end, consumer research is crucial. On top of sitting down with stockists to know with confidence what their customers want, there’s so much deeper you can go – profiling, focus groups, geographical data, qualitative and quantitative – and it’s a lot cheaper than it used to be.

Of course, research can be wrong (when Birdseye surveyed housewives in the Seventies, they were told the ready meal would never work). And you shouldn’t use data to support an existing argument, so be prepared to be hurt by your findings. But knowing your numbers is the most stabilising asset you can have. 

We live in a progressive society. Our social networks are global, with myriad influences. The popularity of avocados, unicorns and llamas doesn’t make any sense when looked at in isolation, but each springboards an emotional need to buy – and people are driven by this more than ever. 

Can you imagine a cereal being invented without testing it with a child? Suppliers will run their new models past key stockists, so why not past consumers? Conducting research in partnership with retailers tells them that a supplier cares, that they’re invested in their product’s success.

But suppliers shouldn’t neglect their B2B activities. These should always factor into a supplier’s budget. B2B is vital – it’s your megaphone, it’s where the knowledge base is, and its figureheads offer a vital third-party point of endorsement.

You just have to tell the same marketing story, but in a different way. Your brand’s identity, service promise and place in the marketplace should be crystal clear – you’re just tailoring that message towards a different audience. And there are more similarities than you might think. 

Fundamentally, it’s about confidence. A sofa will be with you for weeks, but it’ll be in the consumer’s home for years. It’s not just a SKU, it’s where people sit, spend precious time with their loved ones, where their guests sit. The same with a dining table – from homework to dinner, it’s part of the scenery of someone’s life. 

And I’d love it if more suppliers and retailers made that consumer connection and spoke with some of that passion.

It’s hard to find many great examples of furniture retail in the UK. Go into John Lewis, and the chances are the first message you see will be about price. And Dreams stores still look like a sea of cream, despite their efforts to change. Even the best-established indies haven’t moved forward too much, and still just feel like furniture shops when they should be pushing the boundaries.

IKEA has so many of the experiential qualities nailed – a creche for the kids, cheap F&B, a loyalty scheme – and they shouldn’t have been allowed to get such a head-start in the sector!

The truth is, many of these brands could be blown away very quickly if foreign companies turn their eyes to the UK, or another sector gets hungry. Just look at the number of fashion companies moving into the home sector (H&M, Zara, etc) – they’re on-trend, fashionable and connected, and will take what business they can because online retailers and the supermarkets are taking theirs.

Furniture showrooms can be pretty staid. They’re often clinically laid out, and far too price-led. Do retailers expect a consumer to sit on a product for three minutes then say they’ll be fine with it for the next 10 years?

Retailers need to bring the product to life, in a relaxed environment. Yes, the consumer wants to know if they can afford something, but they’re more interested in how well it will work in their home.

Retail needs to prove itself to be of use to people’s lives. If I look at my phone or TV, I see so many examples of people curating their own experiences. Whether it’s sketching, baking, pottery or sewing, I see the pendulum swinging from AI and technology back to comfort, and a desire to learn and safeguard against change.

And I’d love to see the furniture sector really capitalise on this somehow.

If you don’t have the budget to reach the consumer, you have to be inventive. Like that toy store I mentioned, if you’re a retailer you’ll have to trade with what you have, and that might end up taking the form of brand partnerships and alliances.

Perhaps you could bring selected home tech partners like Hive (smart thermostats), Ring (home security systems) or LG (electronics) into your store, and talk to the consumer in a more holistic way? If you want to reach more people for less, you have to be creative.

In 2007, when I was working with Halo, I could already see the impact of social media, and the consumer’s desire to share images and experiences. I created the concept of a partnership with a Hollywood movie that fulfilled the demand for more natural family photo shoots – which culminated in a brand tie-in with Stardust, the fantasy film based on Neil Gaiman’s novel.

We wanted to grow brand awareness and drive traffic in-store, so we conceptualised the film’s themes of making a star of yourself in your own home, and the journey back there. 

How could I captivate an entirely new audience that wasn’t thinking about buying furniture? We couldn’t compete with Coca Cola on spend – but in terms of consumer hours spent in-store, furniture trumps FMCG. Executing the campaign through some 1500 stockists, we delivered more minutes of people connecting with the film than any other partner. 

We furnished the dressing rooms and hospitality areas at Manchester Arena, which presented so many celebrity photo opportunities, and, at the premiere, the furniture industry hit the red carpet with De Niro and Pfeiffer. 

You really have to think outside the box. If you can make the connection between your product and something completely different, people will remember it for years.

“You need messages that reach people when they’re off-guard and don’t expect to be tackled"

You need fast campaigns and slow-burners, and messages that reach people when they’re off-guard and don’t expect to be tackled. 

It’s a shame there haven’t been many examples like this in the last decade. It feels like the industry is entrenched, when it should be confident. 

I can’t see the end consumer represented anywhere here at the January Furniture Show. Over a decade ago, you had a team from BBC Breakfast roaming the halls, and a rich presentation programme. I gave a speech about retail theatre to a packed audience – it was standing room only. 

“If you don’t have the budget to reach the consumer, you have to be inventive"

As a sector, we pushed ourselves forward. Today, it looks like it’s holding itself back. Although many tried to ignore it, the online genie is out of the bottle, and few businesses really know where they stand any more.

The furniture industry needs to wake up. You are good enough. You are valid. Don’t see what’s big and brave as scary. 

If you have a defeatist mindset or are close to retirement, you probably don’t need to listen to me. But if you want to be in business beyond the next five years, you should probably take another look around.

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