Back to School

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Brick-and-mortar stores aren’t going anywhere.

At least, for now. Colleges and universities know this. That’s why they’re creating retail schools to train the next generation of merchants. Don’t have the time (or money) to go back to college? We’re bringing college to you!

If you can still recall the days when credit cards were pressed into carbons to make a purchase, then you shouldn’t be startled to learn there are many ways the retail furniture landscape has changed in the last 30 years. Colleges and universities have built separate schools dedicated to training and preparing tomorrow’s retailers with today’s burgeoning technology and marketing innovations. How do you gain access to those same insights and strategies? We can’t send you back to school, but we can bring the schools to you.

We asked professors and lecturers from several of the nation’s leading retail universities—many of them former retailers themselves—to share not only their insights into how the retail landscape has evolved and will continue to, but also the ideas and strategies discussed and debated in classrooms today that will prepare students (and you) for what comes next.

Understanding big data

Twenty years ago, the best technology tools a furniture retailer could arm themselves with were Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint slides. Today students are equipped with more sophisticated software knowledge. Most of these new tools are focused on helping students process and understand the data hidden in plain sight that’s available today.

Roger Beahm, professor of Wake Forest University’s School for Retail Innovation in North Carolina, spent 35 years in the business world before making the switch to academia. He says national retailers have been mining the trove of data in recent years and that smaller retailers are starting to come around.

“We’ve recognized that data contains more valuable information than what the retail industry has historically been using,” says Beahm. “Part of that is because we simply have more data with the advent of the internet and mobile devices.” New software, adds Beahm, allows furniture retailers access to deeper insights than ever before, all of which are data generated.

But with any technology, there’s a hitch: You have to know what to do with all the information at your fingertips.

“The challenge is to make sure students are equipped to handle that data, extract the intelligence, formulate strategies based on it and then create practical proposals that will drive the business,” he says. “Every year, we are seeing more and more opportunities that big data is providing with retail, and the challenge is to keep up with that as a school of business, to provide resources, courses and tools our students can access and feel comfortable with, so when they go to work in the retail environment they can be of immediate value to their employer.”

Beahm specifically sites software such as R and Tableau that offer data visualization. He says that much of the data retailers may have is “dirty,” i.e. not organized. “In order to extract intelligence from that data field, it has to be cleaned up. Giving students the opportunity to learn how to do that can be of real value and can help them later on as they grow into other management roles.”

New responsibilities

The flip side of the increased amount of data that furniture retailers now have at their fingertips is the issue of the new responsibilities that stem from all that additional information.

“With added insight comes responsibility,” Beahm says. “We’re seeing more about the ethics of obtaining and using data.” Areas of concern he references include at what point does it create an ethical issue when using data to not only describe the market, or even predict the market, but to start prescribing to the market. “There comes a point where it becomes too much Big Brother, and consumers feel that it is an encroachment on their privacy.”

As a result, Wake Forest and other schools are including more classes focused on teaching the ethics of analyzing big data, and not just the tools to analyze the information. “The key is if consumers are advised and agree,” Beahm says. “Most consumers are more than willing to let retailers use the data to help improve their own lives, to make better purchase decisions and to give them better offers.”

He says problems arise when retailers and companies either don’t seek consumers’ approval or if they aren’t transparent about the motivations and potential usage of the consumers’ information. “That’s when it gets concerning. We need to teach students that aspect of it.”

In-store purchases still rule

Stephen Kirn, executive director of the Miller Center for Retailing Education and Research at the University of Florida, tells his students there’s opportunity in the furniture business because the industry is so fractured right now. When you throw out big boxes Ikea and Ashley, vertically-integrated companies that manufacture and sell their own product, Kirn believes the industry is dominated by family stores.

“That’s good news for most small- or medium-sized furniture stores because it means there are still plenty of opportunities to be successful.”

Kirn says many of his retail students are quick to embrace technology—and rightly so, he says—but he reminds them of a sobering statistic. “I ask them the same question every semester: What percentage of total retail sales take place online?”

After wildly errant guesses, Kern says students are surprised at the answer. “This year it’s 9 percent—9 percent!” he says. “Now that number is slowly rising every year, but that other 91 percent is coming from brick-and-mortar stores and furniture is no exception.”
In fact, Kirn says, he tells his students he has survey after survey that show Millennials to baby boomers and every generation in between are more likely to make fashion purchases—sweaters, suits, furniture—in a store after doing their homework online.

“There’s no substitute to trying on that dress or sitting on that sofa so, in that regard, furniture stores still have an advantage,” Kirn says. And therein lies the message Kirn wants his students (and you) to know: Retailers can only leverage that advantage if they make the customer experience surpass the customers’ expectations.

“Look, we can teach the next generation of retailers all about digital marketing and how to mine big data, and we’re doing that, but all of that leads to getting them into your store,” says Kirn. “Once you get them there they need to be blown away by your experience.”

That means a knowledgeable sales staff, technology that allows the consumer to see that sofa in her den, the scent of fresh-baked cookies wafting through the showroom. “Retailers need to find a way—several ways—to differentiate themselves from the competition whether that competition is online or offline,” Kirn says.

Kirn also says smart retailers should be changing with the times and nowhere is that change more evident than in the furniture industry where Millennials are changing the furniture buying norm. “There’s no heirloom furniture anymore,” says Kirn. “Younger shoppers don’t value it like a generation ago did.”

Technological advances

The advances wrought by new technology that will be affecting the furniture retailer in the years ahead go beyond big data, however.

According to Charlette Padilla, professor of practice/fashion coordinator in the Retailing and Consumer Sciences academic program, part of the John and Doris Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Arizona, the school’s program may be focused on fashion retailing, but the new technology they are sharing with students has just as many applications retailers can use in their furniture store.

One newer technology that Padilla references is 3D printing. “With 3D design, students learn how to put specs together, and through these specs—what they send to the printer—they can see what comes out. From there, they learn “Oh my gosh, I’m really off here,” which teaches them how important specs are.” The implications for furniture manufacturers are obvious. But it also speaks to a not-too-distant day when custom furniture takes on a whole new meaning—not just in terms of detail and design, but in faster turnaround and delivery.

Another unique technological advance the school is utilizing with students is augmented reality. Padilla says one application of this new technology allows them to teach draping to students on a computer by painting apparel on a 3D form using Google Tilt Brush.

Padilla says that students in the University of Arizona’s program also focus on the business side as well. “We look at trends happening in the business, like supply chains, we review product knowledge, they learn about different styles and how to predict fashion trends.”

Padilla sees furniture retailers in the future using virtual reality more to assist them in designing rooms for consumers, as well as helping to further personalize the shopping experience, particularly online. “I think what will happen with furniture is when a consumer is buying online, they will be co-creating what they want. We have very creative consumers now, and they have great technology at their fingertips, and they want to start playing now.”

Kirn agrees. The shoppers coming into your store “are going to want to experience the same technology they have available to them back home,” he says. “If they can see how that sofa online will look in their room, they’re going to want to do the same in your showroom. Anything less and you run the risk of them perceiving your store as inadequate.”

Padilla adds a major focus of all the retailing programs seems to be experiential learning. While classrooms and lecture halls used to be centered around text books and lectures, today they have evolved so that much of the teaching allows students the opportunity to learn by doing.

In other words, trial by error.

That’s something existing furniture retailers can teach students.

Harness the education now

Have you ever wanted the benefits of a fresh infusion of energy, innovative ideas and enthusiasm that an intern brings, but didn’t know where to start? HFA has created an Internship Program Guidebook—a step-by-step resource to help plan and implement a successful internship program, complete with retail case studies. The manual is free to HFA members; call your membership representative for more info at 800-422-3778 or via our contact form.

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