Epperson tells HFA members to seize their advantages

Jerry Epperson

Twenty percent of all home furnishings transactions next year will take place on the internet — even more where accessories are concerned. Hoping to claim its share, Amazon, Walmart and others continue to grow their proprietary online furniture lines.

It’s easy for Home Furnishings Association members who own a brick-and-mortar store to look at the trends in e-commerce and shake their collective heads.

Resist the temptation, said industry expert Jerry Epperson. At his biannual “State of the Industry” seminar Sunday at the HFA’s Resource Center in High Point. Epperson urged brick-and-mortar retailers to defend their stake by touting all the amenities their stores provide over online competitors.

“Look, you’re never going to beat (e-commerce) on price, but that’s OK because you’re not really selling the same thing.”

Online retailers sell furniture designed for delivery, said Epperson. That means items packaged for single delivery with 800 operators standing by to help confused customers with assembly or to replace missing or broken parts.

He admitted to buying a “rolling desk” online only to find when it arrived that its wheels didn’t turn.

“I had to give the thing away,” he complained. “The ad called it a desk with wheels. People have these problems every day. They don’t return it, but they don’t buy from there again.”

Traditional retailers need to educate or remind customers in their communities of the differences between the furniture in their showrooms and the often-disposable furniture offered online.

“If the furniture comes to (your house) in a box with a piece of paper and instructions in Spanish on one side, French on one side and I don’t know what language on another side, that’s a piece of furniture that’s not going to last you a lifetime,” he said.

“Do you differentiate yourself?” he asked retailers in the room. “They (online retailers) got a picture, you’ve got the real thing. Your customers can see it, touch it. Your message should be, ‘Let us show you the features because you’re going to learn so much more about it than a picture on your phone.”

Epperson reminded retailers that more than 1,000 pure-play online furniture retailers have disappeared over the last 15 years. “They make a great deal of noise when they announce their presence, but they tend to go quietly into the night when they close shop.”

The key to leveraging your store’s worth, said Epperson, starts with educating consumers on your website and following up when they show up in your store. “You and your staff are the front line to education,” Epperson said. “It’s up to you to show them what you can offer them over what they’re going to get — or not get — online.”

In his usual colloquial manner, Epperson touched on a variety of other industry topics including the ongoing trade war between the United States and China.

“I don’t think anyone has real sense of how this is going to end or even when,” he said. “It’s such a complex issue with no easy solution that benefits both sides.”

Just last week President Trump touted prospects for an “epic” trade deal with China but acknowledged that a settlement of a year-long commercial conflict remained at least a month away.

Epperson said he could easily see Trump or Chinese President Xi Jinping walking away from a deal before talks even begin. “Our leader has a real-estate background,” said Epperson. “One of the most popular negotation tactics is to walk away until you get a better deal. We’ve already seen that in these negotations and where North Korea is concerned.

“I’m telling retailers not to worry about it because it affects everyone in the industry — not just them.”

Even if a deal is reached, Epperson said he’s not optimistic the 10 percent tariffs on $200 billion in Chines goods will be lifted. “I can’t remember the government putting a tax in and then taking it away. Remember, we’re talking about $7 billion a month. You don’t think the government could find a good waste for $7 billion?”

Epperson’s overriding message to HFA members was encouraging, however.

“We sell furniture that is meant to be used for years if not for a lifetime,” he said, noting that home-furnishings products are better than ever: better built, with better finishes and better fabrics, safer and cheaper in that furniture prices have risen very little compared to automobiles and other durable goods. Retailers must do a better job of telling that story, Epperson said.

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