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Ron’s Thoughts: Replacing the Handshake in the Furniture Industry

By
Ron Sellers
January 19, 2021
Man reaching out for a handshake.

In addition to supply chain disruptions, retail store shutdowns and surges in eCommerce orders, the home furnishings industry has had another challenge to overcome this year: the loss of the handshake. In a market that has traditionally focused on pressing the flesh, conferences, symposiums, and markets are crucial to the relationship between vendors and buyers. In fact, furniture is one of the few industries that’s been operating this way for centuries, going back to ancient markets where you could buy a rug and a goat in the same place. 

Like Fashion Week events in the apparel industry, furniture markets let buyers see vendor offerings first-hand. They’re an important showcase for new lines and new vendors, and an opportunity for retailers to find their next hit. They also let attendees re-engage with their friends, their peers and coworkers, sales reps, and other retailers. If half of these events are spent selling, the other half is about building friendship and trust, which is absolutely crucial to your business. Now, they’re gone. 

It’s not just the conferences or industry events either—it's travel as a whole. Suppliers can’t fly to their customers, see their stores, discuss goods, or bring them along for the buyer to see in person. Sales reps can’t make in-person pitches or show off samples.  

You can’t replace 90% of these experiences, not completely. So, the industry has had a sense of loss, loss of community, loss of connectivity, and in turn, loss of business relationships. And that has left a lot of folks wondering, what can we do? 

The first step to look at is your time. In a normal year, I might spend five full days at High Point Market twice a year. With all the markets and industry events, that adds up to 20 to 30 days a year I spend elbow to elbow with my industry peers. The events might be gone right now, but the time is not! Instead of sitting at your desk filling that time with busywork, you need to be adaptable and spend the time creating and nurturing relationships in a different way. You don’t have to do it in big chunks, but if you dedicate a few hours every week, a few days a month to connecting, it will have a big impact. 

One thing that is helping people stay in touch with customers and prospects is Zoom and other video services. Zoom can’t replace real-life connections, but it at least puts a face to your conversations. Schedule Zoom conferences, not with 300 other people, but one or two folks getting together to talk. The big events are gone for now; but by transitioning to little events, we can still create those moments of connection. 

Buying furniture without seeing it in person as a consumer is rough enough; retailers and buyers are struggling without the tangible aspects of market showrooms. To overcome that, we’ve seen vendors and reps use a lot of different methods. Video and 360-degree imagery on eCommerce storefronts are great for visuals. Some sellers are using VR to “project” their products into real spaces. Mailing fabric swatches and samples is another great option. 

Another tip is to refocus and take away all the busywork from time to time. Because we're all stuck behind computers right now, we’ve lost a bit of the “human” side; email conversations and even phone conversations are sales oriented. Get rid of that for a moment and focus on more than the transactional aspects of your relationship! Remember that this unique industry we’re in is as much about personal relationships as it is about great products. 

I had a customer call me recently and leave me a voicemail saying, “Hey Ron, I just saw this thing, and it reminded me of you, so I wanted to say hi.” What a great way to bridge the gap and bring me back into the mindset of that relationship. When you think of a buyer or seller or trading partner, pick up the phone. Give them a call just to say “Hi!” and you’ll be amazed at the conversations that happen. 

The majority of my conversations today end with, “I don’t know when I’ll see you, and I can’t wait to see you again. It might not be January, but let’s hope the market is open in April.” That’s really what it comes down to. We’ll get the handshake back someday—of that I’m sure. Until then, let’s all remember to reach out, have a conversation, and give each other a wave. 


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Loved this article? Read more of Ron’s Thoughts on the furniture industry in these blogs: 

 

About the Author: Ron Sellers, co-founder and chief revenue officer of TrueCommerce ecUtopia, is a technology advocate and leader for the home furnishings industry. With more than 25 years of industry-related experience, he offers significant expertise as a committee member of the Home Furnishings Association (HFA) and sits on the Executive Advisory Council for WithIt, a women’s leadership development network for the home and furnishings industries. When Ron is outside of the office, he can be found on his Harley Davidson cruising the streets.

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