For many people, life today is way too busy and complicated, leaving precious spare time to get everything done or spend quality time with family. However, one of the best trade-offs, which can throw off more time to bring your “to do” list under control, has been the rapid technological advancements in online shopping for a plethora of consumer goods and services.
Arguably, furniture shopping has traditionally meant up to a half day trip to a mega-mall or boutique outlets, possibly visiting several across the metropolitan area, to find the ideal product(s). Moreover, this probably includes testing numerous products, comparing prices, assessing quality and when you find what you are after being told it is out of stock, with no visibility on the next arrival.
While its probably fair to say you will have more luck finding what you want with a specialist boutique furniture outlet, rather than a mega-store, the whole ‘going out shopping’ experience can infuriate and frustrate many of us who are time poor. Moreover, the other inconveniences, especially on weekends, are finding a carpark and putting up with crowds.
While global lockdowns, arising from strategies to mitigate the COVID 19 pandemic, have resulted in a boon in online shopping for numerous products, including furniture, it is worth stepping back to really assess the numerous benefits.
A review of recent research, which is completely applicable to furniture products, suggests consensus on the following benefits from online shopping:
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One thing is quite apparent, there are compelling arguments for online shopping over the traditional route, with convenience, simplicity, cheaper pricing and choice the main drivers.
However, with an overwhelming degree of choice online, consumers must evaluate their desired preferences, then decide whether to select furniture from a specialist boutique store or marketplace. The differences are quite profound, with outcomes potentially quite varied from adding value to unenjoyable experiences.
To put it simply, an online marketplace is an e-commerce website where products and/or service information is provided by numerous third-party suppliers targeting all market segments. The most well-known global marketplace brand names are Amazon and eBay, while in Australia prominent groups that carry large furniture ranges are platforms such as Temple & Webster, Zanui and MyDeal.
Compared with a specialist boutique online furniture store, a marketplace carries thousands of different branded products from different suppliers and is central in interfacing with the consumer. For example, and to provide context, Temple & Webster carry over 180,000 different products from multiple suppliers, which is massive.
For a fee or commission based on a percentage of the sales value, the marketplace operator facilitates and processes all direct consumer communication aspects of a transaction, with the actual product supplier hidden in the background. In addition, the fulfilment process and after sales services are generally outsourced, which places further distance between consumers and product suppliers.
As the marketplace concept is designed and scaled to meet all consumer groups’ requirements, the objective is very much a volume game that focuses on keeping products moving rapidly out of warehouses. This business model probably suits consumers that are not particular and just want a hassle-free result, though the abundance of choice – due to fierce competition between suppliers – can be completely overwhelming. However, because suppliers must pay a marketplace fee and/or commission, the ultimate pricing consumers pay is likely to be elevated compared with a specialist boutique online furniture store.
Moreover, another weakness inherent with this model is the marketplace is completely reliant on the supplier to ensure current and accurate product information is displayed on the platform, which implies a risk that errors may occur. Further, there is no ability within a marketplace platform to offer a custom-specific price or product basket, which means no customer-personalisation.
Typically, problems arise if there is a fault with the product and the consumer needs to interface with a centralised customer service unit to resolve an after sales issue. This is where buyers’ remorse can set in, as the customer service team members are product generalists, covering multiple brands; they will not necessarily be able to provide ready answers to specific product questions.
Further, some groups will not have a hotline number and only accept email exchanges which can take several days and iterations to resolve an issue satisfactorily. This can be quite a frustrating and infuriating experience, not to mention consume time, which defeats one of the purposes of shopping online in the first place.
For the more discerning consumer, after more substance with their shopping experience, then searching out a speciality boutique online furniture store can potentially deliver a better value add outcome. Typically, speciality stores are targeting a certain type of market segment.
For example, the product range could be tailored to appeal to 25-40 year old tertiary educated urban professionals that thoroughly research out their home styling requirements before moving forward on a purchase. Arguably, in this setting, the consumers in this market segment will be more attracted to a specialist boutique online furniture store with perceived expertise for a specific product and/or depth of a branded range carried.
A key advantage the consumer will derive from utilising a specialty boutique online furniture store, especially when communicating directly with the customer service team, is a greater depth of product and brand knowledge. Specialist firms, striving to differentiate and carve out a strong niche, know the importance of ensuring their customer interfacing staff must be able to answer all questions thrown at them to a high standard.
Further, some speciality firms are significantly advanced on the technology curve and utilise the latest techniques on their platforms to ensure a product’s positive features standout. Delivering a positive customer experience, resulting in a favourable online review, is a value-add win-win for all stakeholders.
As speciality stores are not subject to marketplace fees, they can leverage price discounting, special promotions and offers more aggressively to entice customers to trade on their platforms. For price sensitive customers, being in tune with upcoming promotion campaigns on offer by speciality stores could result in securing a better all-round value add deal and outcome.
Given the vast disparity in size between a marketplace and a specialist boutique online furniture store, the fulfilment and after sales processes are handled directly rather than through an outsourced intermediary. This reduces the potential for mistakes but if there is an issue, then resolving it should be easier with direct contact.
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The online shopping revolution is unlikely to slow down, rather accelerate as the COVID 19 mitigation efforts have re-shaped attitudes and forced changes in consumer demand patterns. In layman’s terms, more people are working from home and shopping online has gained significant traction with convenience, simplicity, discounted pricing and choice key motivating factors.
Further, against a backdrop of fast changing consumer preferences for furniture, staying in front of the technology curve, couple with being in tune to customer trends and flexible, are increasingly critical success factors.
Hence, for any consumer group wanting furniture, sourcing from a marketplace will generate a result, but not necessarily the best outcome. If there is a fault, then buyers’ remorse could manifest, coupled with the potentially time-consuming hassle of dealing with after sales customer service teams via email.
Interestingly, in a 2018 German study, which focused on assessing trends in the online furniture market, results from a consumer survey – that asked about concept design – highlighted the following:
To this end, while marketplace platforms have their place, a specialist boutique furniture online store on top of its game is more likely to deliver the discerning consumer a better overall value-added outcome.