Shop-at-Home Sales Option: Retailers, big and small, diversify with shop-at-home programs - Jan 2021
By Meg Scarbrough
For years, retailers looking for new ways to access more consumers and expand their reach have been venturing into shop-at-home programs. The idea seems simple enough: a customer schedules an appointment, the retailer sends a sales associate armed with samples out to the home, a sale is made, measurements are taken and everyone is happy. But it’s a competitive and complex landscape, dominated by companies like Empire Today and 50 Floor, which are expected to see combined sales of roughly $450 million this year and whose entire business model is centered on this strategy. Programs such as these have seen varied results over the years, with some reporting recent gains, especially in 2020 amid the pandemic, while others report slow business.
GETTING WITH THE PROGRAM
For those in the shop-at-home arena, strategies can vary. Some have fleets of vans; others don’t. Some cater their offerings to the individual consumer’s needs, while others sell based on pre-stocked inventory.
Molyneaux Carpet Tile Wood, based in Verona, Pennsylvania, is an eight-store retailer that has been operating a shop-at-home program since 2002. Co-owner Pat Molyneaux says his company’s program came about as a way to reach consumers in metro areas of Pittsburgh where it did not have brick-and-mortar stores. When it launched, he said the company did heavy advertising in the target areas in an effort to generate leads. Today, he says the business mix includes about 95% residential and 5% commercial.
Two other retailers that are making it work are Great Floors, which covers states in the Pacific Northwest-Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana-and Worldwide Wholesale Floor Coverings, which services New Jersey.
Jim McKay’s voice lights up with excitement when he talks about Great Floors’ program. “We went from last February having two people in our company do shop-at-home to 13 across 22 stores,” the vice president of sales says.
Both Great Floors and Worldwide are part of the Costco shop-at-home network. As part of that agreement, Costco, which only offers Shaw products in this program, sells its flooring and then contracts with independent retailers who do the measuring and installation.
McKay says the partnership with Costco allowed them to get into the market faster, and they expect it to continue to grow. Darren Braunstein, vice president of Worldwide, adds that it helped his company build up its shop-at-home business over the past few years, and they’ve been focused on growth with leads generated through it.
He also says the company has begun expanding beyond Costco and has been offering the service to all of its customers. “It’s something that maybe people who wouldn’t have considered shop-at-home in the past” will now pursue because of reluctance about going into stores due to the pandemic, Braunstein notes.
ON THE ROAD
Retailers have a number of ways in which customers can request shop-at-home services, including via their websites or through call centers. Most report making major updates to their websites in recent years, especially amid the pandemic, in an effort to improve and simplify the experience for users.
Once contact is made, there are different ways in which retailers with vans decide what products to send into the field. The question comes down to whether they are stocking what customers actually request or presenting what they have in stock and want to sell. Some vans are pre-stocked with an assortment of flooring that perhaps does well in-store. Others pre-stock some items but also include products based around each client’s specific needs. While others only bring what a client has requested. Independent retailers have the benefit of broader product bases than, say, an Empire operation, which is likely selling what’s in stock.
McKay says for each shop-at-home service “we have a little Great Floors van that’s logoed up. They’re cute. We have our vans filled up with those products that we stock and want to focus on.” He says most of what gets sold is water-resistant flooring, laminate and carpet.
Braunstein says, “We have an assortment of stocked products mixed in with our special orders. And we merchandize them differently so the salesperson can identify what’s stock and what isn’t and work with the customer. We try to stock anything that’s going to turn quickly.”
Molyneaux, on the other hand, started with company vans but no longer uses them. Instead, each salesperson at their locations is equipped to run shop-at-home from their own vehicles with a gas per diem compensation.
IN THE HOME
Retailers say shop-at-home business got a boost in recent months with millions of Americans sheltering in place and seeking to update their homes. But McKay says despite seeing some extra business during the pandemic, it’s been challenging. Where, on one hand, one might expect that consumers would seek these programs out because they want new floors but don’t want to leave their homes, there are those who are still not comfortable having a stranger coming in their personal spaces.
The shop-at-home experience can be more intimate than in-store. A client is inviting a company into their home. Retailers say building trust and being friends is more likely in these scenarios. You can build a stronger relationship in the home.
They add that it’s critical to make sure you’re sending competent and qualified people into those homes; they might need more training than the average in-store RSA, having knowledge to identify pitfalls or address issues that can arise before the installer enters the home. Advancements in technology have improved in-home visits. With the help of visualization tools, now RSAs can take a photo of a customer’s home and show them on the spot what a particular flooring could look like. And in a world of instant gratification, consumers expect that type of service, and they want to get down to brass tacks in the home-sales staff need to be prepared to give an estimate. Retailers say a visit doesn’t have to result in a sale, but it’s vital that salespeople follow up.
Molyneaux says that’s why staffing and training are a challenge. “You have to train salespeople to do what they need to do in the home, and you have to pay them well,” he notes. In recent years, Molyneaux has been reaching out to workers in the retail and service business, including waitstaff and bartenders, as a way to build his staff, offering competitive salaries and training, which he says can net sales staff six-figure incomes.
The investment and time commitment are really up to each retailer. A fleet of vans is only going to be as good as the salespeople driving them. But for those considering shop-at-home programs, it’s important to note that with it comes benefits. One retailer points out that it’s great word-of-mouth; you’re automatically advertising since you’re in the neighborhood with a van or even a car logo. And you can ask the client to give you a review on their neighborhood page. It also allows flooring experts to see firsthand the lifestyle of the homeowner and offer solutions that meet their needs. Is there a dog in the house? Or lots of foot traffic from children? What kind of style fits the customer?
Molyneaux says shop-at-home programs are not for the faint of heart, “Empire and 50 Floor have figured it out, but it’s hard for the traditional retailer to make that move.” But he adds that it’s not impossible. “Slow and steady improvement to the model each year is helpful,” he says.
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