Home accents industry continues its transition into the digital world

Jenny Heinzen York — Home Accents Today

THE TECHNOLOGICAL world always seems to move at breakneck speed, and although this industry has long been known as decidedly low-tech, the home accents business is starting to move increasingly into the online space.

Penny Schneck, online manager for Sandow Media, said over the past two years, there has been a real evolution in websites in the home accents industry.

“Where many websites just a few years ago functioned like a business card – with locations and contact information – vendors are now moving toward better utilization of their websites and letting them act as virtual showrooms,” Schneck said. “Websites have become much more of a sales and business management tool for all parties involved – the customers, the reps and the vendors.” Eric Dean, president of online marketing firm Whereoware, and Adam Schrier, executive director of sales, marketing and business development for the company, told Home Accents Today their company’s goal is to make the online channel profitable for their clients (home and gift vendors).

“I think there has been an important sort of mental shift in the way that the vendors view their sites,” Dean said. “They now see it as a channel that cuts across all aspects of their businesses.”

“Your website needs to be three key things,” Schrier said. “It needs to be visually pleasing and brand enhancing; it needs to be informational – as informative and helpful as calling a company’s best customer service person; and your website needs to be as strong as your best salesperson.”

Whereoware has developed tools such as a personalized catalog-maker that sales reps can use to customize PDF catalogs to a specific customer.

“This tool empowers the sales reps’ knowledge, because they understand the customer and the product better than anyone,” Schrier said.

Schneck said that mobile technologies are the most cutting-edge, and look to be significantly more prevalant in 2011.

“Right now, about 29% of people have a smart phone (a phone that can connect to the web, such as a BlackBerry or iPhone),” Schneck said. “By this time next year, it’s predicted that 49% will have one. So next year, a lot more mobile ads will come into play, as well as new apps, text messaging and other opt-in forms of marketing.”

But, Schneck said, the single biggest technology she’s asked about is social media.

“Social media has all the buzz right now,” she said. “But people really want to know how they can use it and how they can evaluate the return on investment they get from it.”

She said that with 500 million users, Facebook in particular is too big an opportunity to be ignored. And according to Forrester Research, more than 70% of retailers now report that they have a social media presence. Just-released Pew data reports that 46% of all Americans use social media.

“I don’t think you should ignore any channel that has that kind of reach,” Schneck said. “But social media should be part of an overall strategy. It needs to integrate with your website.”

The biggest benefits and opportunities with social media: “communicating with customers on a more personal level; gaining feedback on your products and services; and building brand loyalty,” she said.

Uttermost launched its first social media campaign this year, and CEO Mac Cooper said the company is already realizing some of the benefits.

“Our social media has been very effective at reaching customers on another level,” Cooper said. “It’s a great forum to exchange ideas, success stories, concerns and needs. One of the most effective aspects of social media for Uttermost is that it allows our customers to share ideas and success stories with each other.”

But it’s very important to maintain a close watch on your public brand, a reason that Whereoware recommends that its clients handle that part of their online marketing themselves.

“The world has been trained onto social media,” Dean said. “And as quickly as word can get out about your brand – good or bad – you need to stay close to it.”

“The size of the audience speaks to the ability to reach out to new customers that you aren’t connecting with through your website, tradeshows or other marketing,” Schneck said.

Cooper agreed, saying “Social media is just one more effective communications channel with our customers. The better we know our customers, the better we can serve their needs.”

Snapretail developed its Traffic Builder tool as a way for retailers to leverage social media and email marketing to reach their customers and improve the sell-through of products on the floor, according to Jeremy Hirsch, vice president of marketing. It’s also an effective tool for vendors to use to help build their own brands and boost product reorders from their retail customers.

With Traffic Builder, sponsoring vendors provide their photography and other marketing tools to subscribing retailers, who can access the pieces to build their own marketing campaigns.

“Vendors are terrific at making products and selling them into the (retail) channels,” Hirsch said. “But they need help working with the retailers to help them sell through the products. The job of the vendor shouldn’t stop with selling the product to the retailer. Our tool lets the retailer leverage the content that the vendor provides to market the product.”

He said the changing nature of the retail environment has necessitated products like these. “Over the past few years, consumers have changed the way that they purchase,” he said. “For many independent retailers, it’s a challenge to get consumers to visit their stores. Many have a strong position within their community, but they still have to get people into the store, and that requires marketing. Traffic Builder allows retailers to market to consumers easily and in the way that they want to be reached.

“The need we’re fulfilling is helping independent retailers compete with big box retailers and their equally big marketing budgets,” Hirsch said.

Schneck said another important tool in the digital marketing arsenal is online video.

“Video can be a great way to really feature a product and demonstrate how it works,” she said. “Research has shown that companies that have videos on their sites have a higher conversion rate of people turning into customers.”

Schrier said the web does not and will not replace the importance of trade shows. But, he said, online tools for lead-generation and lead follow-up are also important in the most successful new business models.

“The importance of being at a show doesn’t end when the show ends,” he said. “We see our clients are opening new clients online … and the major source of those was visits at shows. It makes sense – a buyer still wants to see and feel an item.”

The one thing that a website can offer that’s difficult for a company to provide is roundthe- clock access to information.

“Clients are making the web an integral part of the sales and marketing strategy,” Schrier said.

“The website is there 24 hours a day, available to everybody.” And it’s becoming much more mainstream to operate that way, as evidenced by the retailer survey on the subject conducted by Home Accents Today this month.

“The audience is becoming much more receptive,” Dean said. “It is now not just an integral part of how vendors operate, it’s an integral part of how customers get their information. If they want to know something at 10 p.m., (without an effective website) it can be hard for them to readily get that information at that point.”

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