From home visits to over-the-counter sales, furniture care and repair specialists fulfil an important role in the industry, offering purchasers peace of mind alongside the potential of salvaging items that might otherwise end up in landfill. September's Furniture News looks at some of the issues affecting the sector, and how its leaders are making a difference right across the supply chain …
According to the Furniture Industry Research Association (FIRA), consumer expenditure in the furnishings, household equipment and routine maintenance sector exceeded £60b for the first time in 2018 – and this figure is only likely to have grown since, despite consumers increasingly adopting less wasteful habits and embracing furniture repair and reuse.
Yet while demand for home goods soared during the pandemic, so too did the challenges facing the sector’s specialists on the ground, and the delivery of ancillary care products. House calls became a social distancing minefield, and consumers soon became less tolerant of delays.
For now, challenges remain – notably a shortage of specialist repair skills – yet the sector has evolved and adapted to meet the demands of today’s ‘new normal’, providing the industry with support to help minimise returns and keep consumers satisfied, while offering retailers valuable add-on sale opportunities.
This issue's feature panel comprises: Ben Staerck, MD of cleaning, repair and restoration product provider Furniture Clinic; Gill Finch, MD of Stroolmount UK, which offers flooring and furniture protection products; John Bowater, MD, and James Lane, owner, Homeserve Furniture Repairs – an on-site repair service for leather, soft furnishings, beds and cabinets, voted Best Furniture Care/Repair Provider in Furniture News’ 2021 Readers’ Choice Awards; and Martin Napper, CEO of Castelan, which offers services that help prepare products for sale and resolve pre- or post-delivery concerns.
Furniture News first asked them how the events of the last 18 months have changed the way they operate …
Ben Staerck: I think the changes we’ve made as a result of Covid-19 are better for the business, and also better for our employees’ work-life balance. All staff who were previously office based are all now set up to work from home, so we’ve adopted a new working week where some time is spent in the office, and some at home.
All staff are much happier with this arrangement as it allows them more time to spend with family and friends. We’ve also noticed an increase in productivity and customer satisfaction as a result.
For technicians based on the road, or in one of our workshops, the changes aren’t so rewarding! We’ve changed shift patterns, even adding a nightshift at our main production centre, and put measures in place to reduce contact with customers, reduce overcrowding of break areas, and all the usual safety measures associated with Covid-19.
Brexit hasn’t had a direct impact that we’ve noticed yet – although almost every week we’re currently being notified of new price increases from suppliers, but whether that’s from Brexit or Covid-19, I’m not sure.
Gill Finch: Covid has put life into perspective for me. I now spend less time at the office and more time working from home. So, my work-life balance has changed as I’m not charging around so much, plus I’m saving money by using less fuel, which makes me feel good as I’m helping to do my bit for the environment.
Brexit has also dramatically affected us, but this time it’s our bottom line. Importing is a problem, with longer delivery times and larger costs.
Plus, we no longer export our protection products now. We had some customers in Ireland, and exporting has been a nightmare with more customs and excise regulations, forms, delayed delivery times and lost parcels, etc. At the moment, any profit is not worth the problems – but hopefully in time it will become smoother and we can begin again.
John Bowater and James Lane: We have all had to adapt over the last 15 months, and at Homeserve Furniture Repairs we can now switch our office support operating model from head office to working remotely overnight to provide continuous support for our clients.
Our 150-strong (and growing – we’re still recruiting!) team of furniture technicians have all the PPE and health and safety processes in place, to ensure they and our customers are safe.
Time is very important to all of us, and in some cases where we would inspect the furniture first, we have expanded our technical preview team so we can preview issues from the images provided by our clients – rather than carrying out an inspection, we can look at the images supplied, and in some cases address the problem more rapidly.
For example, if we can see that the fabric arm of a sofa has been damaged, we can pre-order the new part from the supplier, and simply replace the arm on the first visit – so the customer only has to have one visit and the issue is resolved.
Martin Napper: As with many businesses, the abrupt nature of the instruction to ‘stay home’ and ‘work from home where you can’ meant that we had to take decisions at speed and make investments in remote infrastructure in order to continue offering the service that our clients, and their customers, expect of us.
The fact that we had already made huge strides in our online capabilities meant that we were able to fulfil our main commitment – to continue offering a full claims service to the end user.
We still operate a mix of people working from home for those who are usually office based, but our network of furniture technicians are, by nature of the job, required to visit customers’ homes. We quickly developed a full PPE kit for our technicians ,and put in place rigorous protocols to fully check that our customers were happy for us to visit their homes.
In line with the FCA guidelines, we placed particular attention on vulnerable customers, and made absolutely certain that all vulnerable customers were dealt with quickly and with all due care and attention. Because of these firm protocols, we were able to continue servicing our customers throughout the pandemic lockdowns, and we are committed to continuing to do this in a way that reduces risk and keeps both our technicians and the customers safe.
Read September's issue to discover more about how these specialists' products and services have evolved, and what they make of changing consumer demands …