A Path Forward for the Home Industry

By Seth Weisblatt, AVB/BrandSource

March 24th is a special day in my life.

A week after St. Patrick’s Day my dad and I typically celebrate his birthday together. Herb was born in 1946 and for the first time in many years we will not be celebrating either occasion together.  Similarly, for much of the rest of the country and the world, it appears that celebrations with loved ones are being held by digital video chats as the COVID-19 pandemic races through the planet’s population.

In my house, growing up revolved around the furniture industry. Dad’s hard work to turn around the family business that his father started the year he was born was a constant focus and a life-long commitment.  As my main mentor, dad taught me the business by attending High Point markets at an early age.  Although I went through high school and college thinking I’d choose a different path, I realized furniture was already in my blood, and in 2003 I took the leap and started working together with my dad and grandmother at Sam’s, our retail store in Ft. Worth, Texas.

Today, a great many stores are being forced to close to contain the spread of the virus. I had written several articles for this great BrandSource network of retail executives to serve as a warning bell as to how the outbreak could impact the U.S. supply chain of furniture — spanning manufacturers, importers and the transportation industry — and suggesting how retailers could best prepare. 

What was completely unexpected by me and seemingly many others was a complete shutdown of the U.S. economy, including the closing of shopping malls and “non-essential” stores, and what is virtually a complete stop to all air travel and hotel stays.  In their place a new concept was introduced to the world: social distancing. 

While I am still bewildered about the current state of affairs, I think it is time to start making transition plans for what comes next.  Temporarily closing their stores and furloughing employees were the hardest decisions many owners have ever had to make.  But there is hope that these showrooms will reopen and will constitute a stronger core on the other side.

Focusing on a “what comes next” scenario for the retail store can provide us with hope and the energy to move forward.  Many of our businesses will weather this storm with a beat-up financial statement and an uneasy balance sheet.  But we’re not down and out.  We will fight back, because that is what retailers do.  That is what our manufacturers do.  Furniture industry veterans are a tough group of “dirty fingernail” doers.  We’re hard workers and have a mission to serve our communities and to help our employees be the best versions of themselves.

I expect the most positive outcome of the “what’s next” strategy will be the re-engagement of brick-and-mortar retail with the consumer.  Amazon is struggling to fulfill Prime purchases; in Dallas, a just-placed Prime express order is 30 days away.  Its featured “Prime Now” two-hour delivery offering is offline and unavailable. The e-tailer has buckled under the demands of what consumers need.

But grocery stores are restocking their shelves every day and changing hours to meet the demand from consumers buying products locally.  The quarantines and work-from-home orders mean that neighbors are meeting each other on walking trails and in their neighborhoods, sharing their stories and rekindling friendships, even if from a six-foot distance. There is a sense of community in the U.S. again, similar to after 9/11.

Furniture and appliance stores are going to be the center of the recovery.  As Americans are rehired and re-engaged to pull the economy back on track, it will be our local brick-and-mortar stores that will lead this charge. Restaurants might look completely different, but so should our stores. 

For those that qualify for various loan or government assistance packages and are eager to move forward with their retail business, consider how you can utilize these funds to revamp your store experience and reinvest in the marketing side of your operation. Your website should be the most visited store in your chain; AVB Marketing shows that there are five to seven times more people on your site than in your store.  With that number skyrocketing in this period of isolation (people are still browsing for our products), now is the time to prepare and improve a best-in-class web experience.

Dad taught me many lessons in business.  The most profitable time in our store’s history was 2009 to 2012.  Despite a crashing economy in late 2008, we dove head-first into an expanded online investment and strategy. The thinking behind the decision was, “We know the recovery is in front of us; let’s lay the groundwork now to be in the right position when it arrives.”And it worked.  A similar strategy today will work for most of retail. 

So reinvest in digital. Use this time to shed the strategies you knew were not working but were unwilling to change.  Commit to doing something new and bold, because consumers have changed too, and they will be looking to you for a reason to buy something.  Show your customer that you are committed to doing business in the ways they want to shop — with you, locally and engaged online. 

AVB Marketing has the most complete toolset on the marketplace today to help retailers stay relevant and competitive.  Don’t let the FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) lock you into indecision.  Take this time to commit to becoming a better retailer and more responsive to your customers’ needs.

I’m here to help. Feel free to reach out to me at seth.weisblatt@brandsource.com and we can work on your businesses plan together.

Seth Weisblatt is Director of Merchandising /Home Furnishings for BrandSource, a unit of YSN publisher AVB Inc. He previously served as Executive Vice President at Sam’s Appliance & Furniture and Vice President of Digital Marketing at Ashley Furniture Industries.