Specialty Retailers Grapple with Online Approach
By Carole Sloan -- Home Textiles Today, 5/10/2010 12:00:00 AM
New York —
It's definitely a generational thing, but while home textiles specialty store owners acknowledge that the internet and its social networking off-shoots are increasingly important in their future success, the concept still appears alien to their merchandising flair.
“It's a necessary evil, especially with the bridal registries where people want to go online to buy,” admitted John Cheney, owner of the Gattle's stores in Cincinnati and Petoskey, Mich. “We have to have the whole store online to compete.” But at this point, he admits, “we have a site, but it is not fully developed.”
Looking at the online scenario, Cheney also points to “online competition as being a real thorn in our side. Some vendors will add to their online prices to protect their retailers, but others will let consumers shop at regular prices.”
Another challenge, he noted is that vendors will let consumers shop, “but the real challenge is that of minimums” — a situation where a customer will want to buy a selection of a product that a store doesn't carry, but not in a quantity that will fill a supplier's minimums.
“It's a non-personal, non-service type of business,” Cheney added, but we have to do it.” Looking ahead, he sees “the internet more of a blog program rather than an e-commerce situation. We see it as a selling tool for those who know us already.”
But also, Cheney added “What we want to do is have a live video of the store and let viewers work with our sales people,.”
Early internet pioneer David Hirsch, co-owner with his father Steve Hirsch of New York-based Fine Linens by Oswald, said: “We advertise on all search engines, Facebook and Twitter, and it builds customer loyalty. It's good for existing customers as well as acquiring new customers.”
As far as challenges are concerned, Hirsch said, “I'm on top of the pricing situation daily — more than 20 sites. Competition is very heavy with the same products I sell — but we counter with customer service and quick response.”
For Dan Cassidy, owner of Cassidy's in Stuart, Fla., “The whole situation is back-asswards. You have to understand we just got a computer in the store — and we're 30 years old.” The company has a website, “but not to sell goods. I don't know if we have the energy to do this right.”
In addition, Cassidy said, “There are few vendors that know how to deal with the mom and pops. Only a few companies can do this.” He cited Yves Delormes, Eastern Accents, Sferra and Matouk among those proficient in this arena.
While business is up some 12% over last year, Mark Scheuer of Scheuer's Linens in San Francisco, said, “I feel that our greatest growth potential is via the internet.”
While still in its early stages, the store's internet activities “have increased our productivity four or five fold. Our catalog [long a critical marketing tool] is less effective, and younger customers especially are using the internet to help make buying decisions.”
On the positive side, Scheuer said, “I like it that the vendors are monitoring pricing.”
As for the retailer's own efforts, Scheuer said, “We have the Linen Doctor blog. We haven't embraced the best way to use Facebook and Twitter.” Regarding Google, “We want to be at the very top of the geographical listing in our market.” Overall, he said “I think the web will be the biggest growth in the next 12 months — but the challenge is that the good sites are looking alike.”
“We have a website and are in the midst of updating and refreshing it,” said Paul Marx, chairman of the four-store, high-end home textiles and accessories retailer Between the Sheets in Irvine, Calif.
To date, he noted, “It's not a major source of income. We're selling luxury product and people want to see and touch the merchandise. We're making the site more enhanced to try to accomplish this.”
The retailer features down products and sheets on the site. “It's a nice business and low overhead — a nice source of income.”
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