With so many changes taking place across technology, ecommerce and consumer trends, it can be hard for furniture retailers to know what customers want – let alone how to provide it for them – says Daniel Whytock …

Working with so many brands, doing research into the retail space and promoting DownYourHighStreet has given me a unique perspective on what consumers value most, and how retailers can offer it to them …

1. Convenience 

Ecommerce has spoiled consumers for choice, but delivery has always been a sticking point. A product may be slightly cheaper online, but once you add delivery charges, the cost can end up higher. This can easily be the case with large items such as furniture. And since the customer can’t try the product before they buy, there is less trust and far more returns.

However, websites like Amazon have spoiled customers with their free next-day delivery, and companies like fashion giant ASOS are dominating in their sector with their easy returns policy. While it is very difficult for smaller brands to compete, it should still be possible to find a middle ground, where shipping costs are kept to a minimum and arrive within a few days of placing an order.

There are now comparison sites for couriers, for example, dramatically reducing delivery costs and opening more online retailers to competitive delivery options.

Local retailers are in the perfect position as they can offer free in-store returns, as well as allowing customers to touch and feel the product, and compare colours with samples from home, before buying. This can increase trust, reassure customers that they can get support or return items, and open independent retailers to more click-and-collect options. The challenge for local retailers is getting found.

2. Cost

One of the main drivers of ecommerce has been the cost benefit to consumers. Not only do they often cost less, but consumers can quickly and easily compare prices across multiple brands and websites to find the best deal. There are even shopping assistant browser extensions to alert users to the best prices found online.

This puts smaller retailers in a difficult position. They may not be able to offer the same price point, yet don’t want to miss out on being listed on an online marketplace. How can you benefit from being part of a marketplace without being compared to cheap (and potentially nasty) versions of your products?

One answer is to carefully pick where you list. Not all online marketplaces are created equal. Amazon, for example, suffers from an influx of overseas retailers offering sub-quality items for much, much less. 

Consumer shopping habits are changing, however, with a preference for local goods that both support the local economy and lead to fewer product miles. Finding a marketplace for more local goods means you are being compared to LFL products and services, not cheap imported goods.

Another answer is to create your own audience of engaged brand fans using your social channels. Creative marketing through platforms like Facebook and Instagram connects brands directly to customers, allowing you to build a relationship like never before. This is contributing to a re-emergence of brand loyalty which, in a marketplace of cheaper goods, can be the deciding selling factor for smaller brands!

3. Local search

There has been a big trend towards purchasing from local businesses. Buying local supports the local economy, is more traceable, and is often perceived as being higher quality. Truly local retailers also benefit from being able to offer something unique – an evermore important quality shoppers are looking for, especially in the Instagram generation.

However, the trend towards local doesn’t excuse local businesses from having an online presence. Customers still want to be able to search, compare and complete purchases online. They’re just happier if the product is local, they can touch and try it, and they know they can pick it up/return it quickly and easily.

One solution to this competition of needs is the creation of Business Improvement Districts (BIDS), where local businesses get together and chip in to create a combined ecommerce presence. Local retailers list their shop and products, allowing customers to find and compare products online before coming in-store to complete their purchase. The customer is happy that they’ve got the best product at the best price, while local retailers gain more business for a lower cost than setting up and managing their own web presence.

4. Surprise

Something customers miss from in-store experiences is the element of surprise and delight. When in a physical shop, there may be videos, imagery and of course the opportunity to try out furniture. There may be something fun to do or an experience to be had that is almost entirely missing from the online shopping experience.

These experiences connect people to brands and generate customer loyalty. The good news is, online retailers can benefit from surprising and delighting customers just as physical stores can – perhaps even more so.

Customers typically don’t expect much from a delivery. They want it to come on time and in good condition. That’s about it. So, the bar is pretty low. Going one step further and thinking about how to surprise and delight your customers with their deliveries can supplement in-store experiences and generate that same brand loyalty.

It could be something like a hand-written note thanking the customer for their purchase, or a small gift or sample (perhaps a furniture polish).  Connecting these experiences with your online presence, via your social media pages, for example, is a great way to capitalise on the feelgood factor and keep the connection going.

Whether you are an in-store or ecommerce-only retailer, there are some things you can do to offer your customers what they value most. And customers will appreciate your effort if it is genuine.

Find innovative ways of delivering to meet your customers’ needs. Small businesses can be more adaptable and try out different approaches. That way, you’ll discover what works for you, and delight your customers – bringing them back to you in the future when they next need a perfect piece of furniture.

Daniel Whytock is CEO of DownYourHighStreet.com, a free-to-join, low-commission online marketplace on a mission to create the world’s longest high street by connecting community with commerce and giving the Great British high street an online presence.