Retail Technology - December 2007

By Brian Hamilton

An effective website is one of the most necessary and valuable tools a flooring retailer of any size can have in his marketing tool kit. It can extend a store beyond its physical location, help build credibility with customers, project an image, make shopping easier for potential customers, and provide a wealth of marketing information. It’s also clear that stores without an engaging, easy-to-use website today are at a distinct disadvantage because the web is the first place many people go to shop for almost anything, even something as fashion oriented as flooring.

Consider these statistics. According to the American Interactive Consumer Survey, 85% of the shoppers surveyed started their shopping expeditions online for a purchase they made in a store. ROI Research Inc. says 64% of women—the flooring retailer’s key customer—use a search engine to gather more information after seeing an ad. The same number use a search engine to decide what store to visit.

“The road to the store no longer starts on the pavement, it starts on the Internet,” said Michael Vogel, owner of Creating Your Space, the website development firm that works with members of the World Floor Covering Association.

“I find it interesting that a company might spend 10% of its budget on traditional advertising but almost nothing on the web, yet 85% of shoppers start their shopping by going on the Internet. There’s a disconnect—all those are the same dollars and some retailers are starting to understand that.”

Vogel believes that a business with an effective website can spend less money on traditional advertising and still draw more customers to the store. He said he’s testing out that theory with a couple of his customers and hopes to have the results ready by Surfaces 08.

It used to be, back at the beginning of this decade, that websites were extremely expensive to develop and maintain, they often didn’t work very well, and many retailers couldn’t figure out what to do with them. Back then, investing in a website was considered more of a technology expense than an advertising and marketing expense. However, those days are long gone. Now there are many full service website development firms like Creating Your Space that can design a site and maintain it, as well as keep it on their servers, drive Internet users to it, and give website activity reports, all for a fraction of the cost. A retailer doesn’t need any special equipment or technical knowledge.

Sites extend basic business
Websites can run the gamut from a full fledged e-business, such as the sites operated by iFloor and Lumber Liquidators, where many sales are transacted online, to basic sites that are designed to support a single store or two without any direct sales at all. They can be as creative or as simple as a retailer wants to make them but they have to be designed with the overall marketing strategy in mind.

All retail websites should have several characteristics. They need to be aligned with and reflect the basic business, have a clear purpose, enhance the relationship with the customer, motivate the customer to take some kind of action, and provide detailed measurements of what happens when visitors use the site. They also need to be easy to find.

Baker Bros. and iFloor, two completely different kinds of retailers with the same kind of products, offer contrasting examples.

Baker Bros., a seven showroom chain in Phoenix, launched a new website this year. The company’s tagline is “Where Fashion Meets Flooring” and the tone of the new Baker Bros. home page reflects that philosophy. “When customers walk into a Baker Brothers, they know they’re in a Baker Brothers,” said Phil Koufidakis, one of the owners. “They’re in a place where people are experts.” That’s the image he projects for the entire business.

iFloor began as an online-only business, but gradually opened stores to support its web business and now has 36 locations. The company determined where to build those stores from website statistics. When a shopper lands on the website home page, the addresses of the nearest stores are automatically displayed at the top. But the visitor is urged to buy now with bright visuals such as “One Day Sale” and “Get 0% Financing” and “Low Price Guarantee.” It’s a very price and product oriented website. In addition, there’s a blog by CEO Steve Simonson, who offers his opinion on all kinds of flooring in a very conversational way. One blog entry even detailed how one of his customers used bamboo flooring to fashion an archery bow. The informal nature of the blog makes Simonson—and by extension, his stores—seem like a friendly guy who’d be easy to do business with.

Koufidakis, by contrast, wanted his website to provide information the way a trusted advisor would, without advocating for any specific brand or kind of product. He said his old, internally developed website wasn’t projecting the right image about the business and the information was often outdated. The home page, in subdued colors, emphasizes design with a virtual room designer and design center prominently displayed. There’s not a single mention of any brand, product, price, financing method or sale. Inside there’s information on the pros and cons of every kind of flooring, including cleaning, potential installation issues, and other factors that might affect a floor buying decision.

The Baker site, developed by Creating Your Space, encourages customers to try out different kinds of flooring in different online rooms, a feature not included on the iFloor site. For example, shoppers can use a stock picture of a bedroom and compare how carpet, tile, or any other kind of flooring looks with the furniture and walls, and save it all in a workbook. It also gives them the ability to upload photographs to see, for example, how a floral print rug might look in their bedroom. It’s not a useful tool for picking colors, but it is valuable for examining patterns or deciding whether dark or light flooring would look best. It’s all meant to spark the imagination and keep shoppers involved in the site, a key to making the final sale. Koufidakis said he’s had a couple of reports from people who have “gotten hooked” and spent hours on the site just trying out different scenarios. The design tools are linked to the online product catalogs, which mirror what’s in the showrooms. Customers can’t buy directly from the website.

“Where our sites are very different is they are very engaging and interactive and have products that consumers can look at and put into a work book, see in a room, take quizzes, and do a multitude of things, similar to what Shaw does on its site. But we give that same capability to the retailer,” Vogel said. Creating Your Space has more than 40 off-the-shelf designs and they can all be customized.

“Having a pretty website is important but it’s not as important as letting customers know that you understand who they are and have what they need,” Vogel said.

Valuable source of information
Industry statistics show that the more time a shopper spends on a website, the more likely that person is to buy from that business, even if it means driving across town. Vogel said each visit needs to be at least six minutes to be effective—the average is a minute or two—but it’s not unusual for his sites to keep customers busy for 20 minutes or more. Koufidakis knows that his site’s design tools have helped many of his customers narrow down their choices—even directing them to flooring categories they hadn’t considered before visiting the site—and he can point to many sales that probably never would have happened without the site.

A retail website needs to be updated fairly frequently, just like any other form of advertising. Koufidakis said he makes some kind of change to his site every couple of weeks, but it isn’t always visible to website visitors. Some of the changes he makes himself, such as adding his latest print ad, but other changes he gives to Creating Your Space, and the changes are made quickly. Generally, though, Koufidakis prefers not to get too involved, even though he finds it all fascinating, because he has other things to do.

“The system allows website owners to do the updating or we’ll do it for them,” Vogel said. “They can change pages, turn products on and off, upload advertisements and sales, or they can send us an e-mail and ask us to do it.”

Another big part of having an effective website is making it easy to find on the Internet, especially for shoppers who may have never heard of the store. Search engine optimization, the art of making a website prominent for shoppers, should be part of the package, as it is with Creating Your Space.

In addition to helping customers shop, websites can give retailers valuable marketing information that would be hard to obtain any other way. Customers can usually communicate directly with the stores through the website, and their questions and concerns can be very revealing. Registration areas, such as Baker Bros.’ virtual designer, not only provide contact information for e-mail or telephone follow-up, but can supply demographic information or more subtle statistics on what customers are interested in. And website activity reports can reveal how and where most shoppers are using a website, how many different shoppers visited, how long they stayed, what words they used in a search engine to find the site, and even where they went when they left the site. And this, in turn, can help a retailer get clues about everything from his product mix to the effectiveness of his website’s features.

“Without question, our website is an incredibly important part of our business planning,” Koufidakis said. “We’re still testing aspects of the site, figuring out what people are looking for, and what we want to promote. It’s a long term process.” 




Copyright 2007 Floor Focus

Related Topics:Shaw Industries Group, Inc., Creating Your Space, Lumber Liquidators