In this opinion column from the pages of Furniture News magazine (March issue), furniture sales & marketing professional Gavin Boden explains why embracing the internet is the only way forward for furniture retailers …

Back in a computer lab on January 1st 1983, Arpanet adopted the TCP/IP. From there, researchers began to assemble the network of networks that became the modern internet. The online world then took a more recognisable form in 1990, when computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web.

From there, Yahoo was created in 1994. Amazon sold its first product online in 1995, and eBay held its first online auction. Google was founded in 1998, eBay acquired PayPal in 2002, blah blah blah …

All this information is irrelevant – all you need to know is that your customers are buying from the internet, in huge volumes, right now.

I’ve been in the furniture industry since I left school (about a million years ago), so I know that it has always been a very traditional sector, usually behind the times and on the whole ignoring how technology can improve it. 

The internet was thought of by most as a way of buying ‘specialised products’ (if you know what I mean!), and in the early days was never considered as a serious platform for furniture sales. “Customers like to come into shops and sit, touch and test the furniture before buying,” retailers used to say. 

The resources were never in place to sell a big ticket item online and get it safely to the consumer – until businesses outside the industry started making these resources available. All of a sudden it was actually possible to sell a 100kg sideboard and get it delivered in one piece – expensive, but possible. 

As more and more logistics companies realised the potential growth within the online furniture industry, they started being more competitive and driving the prices down, and now a recliner chair can be delivered for around £15, sometimes less.

Back in the late Nineties the predictions for online furniture business were being mainly ignored by furniture retailers. But a small proportion of the few who actually had computers were starting to employ web developers to build them basic websites – mainly as a display window for anyone who was searching online for furniture shops.

Inevitably, ecommerce website software was getting cheaper and much more affordable, which led to everyone being able to develop their own site without much investment. 

So, in the early 2000’s we saw a huge growth in Spare Room Salesmen, who built their website for pennies, sold furniture for ridiculously low margins and paid the manufacturer/wholesaler to deliver the product direct. This not only devalued the product, but also alienated the retailer, discouraging them from selling the same product on their shopfloors. 

Thank goodness this has slowed down now, and there are more and more suppliers refusing to deal with retailers who don’t have a showroom or real business premises.

As the more prominent internet furniture companies were born, furniture retailers started to take notice – but by the time they could develop their own ecommerce sites, the bigger players already had their roots well and truly planted. Now it’s commonplace for bricks-and-mortar retailers to have slick, warm and inviting ecommerce websites, from which their customers can purchase furniture from the comfort of their own homes.

But let’s be serious – suppliers cannot afford to ignore companies who only deal online. The internet is here and it isn’t going anywhere, so they need to embrace it, be clever and find a way to deal with both online and bricks-and-mortar retailers. Any suppliers who have a no-internet policy will surely fall behind and eventually disappear.

I personally remember the time before mobile phones, online sales, Just Eat and Amazon, and I will confess that I loved it. I remember going out as a rep, selling furniture, coming home and faxing my orders off. Never did I then have to deal with complaints, late orders or service problems – retailers always called the office. But these days, no matter how much we hate change, we have to work with online businesses, not against them.

I am good friends with several very successful internet furniture companies. Yes, they have a small showroom, but 80% of their business comes from the web. These retailers have found a niche which suits them, and they do it very well.

And let’s face it, any company who wants to be serious on the internet has to do it properly, or face the wrath of Trustpilot and Facebook. If you start your internet business with poor feedback, you may as well put Jack back in the box and leave him there – the general public are not a forgiving bunch, and bad reviews can ruin an online business overnight.

In summary, get a professional to look at your business from the outside, make the changes necessary to deal with both bricks-and-mortar and ecommerce retailers, and, most of all, embrace the internet. Don’t push it away – it could be your saviour and best friend.