How Bob’s Discount Furniture Avoided the Retail Apocalypse

Once a great retail disrupter of the 19th century and the world’s largest retailer in the 20th, Sears filed for bankruptcy in 2018. What happened?

Sears didn’t address the needs of the “omnichannel” consumer, a term coined in the mobile Internet age. An omnichannel retail approach allows consumers to buy using the devices and locations in any combination they prefer. While digital natives might take the flexibility of an omnichannel retail world for granted, traditional retailers — like Sears — that did not embrace it have faltered. One recent survey found that millennials, or consumers aged 22 to 37, make 60 percent of their purchases online. But for older shoppers and especially for large-ticket items, a trip to the store to get the feel of an item is still important.

How can a retailer know where to invest?

There are a lot of stories out there about a “retail apocalypse” brought on by changing buyer behavior, including the advent of e-commerce and with the success of Amazon. But there are retailers that are thriving. Bob’s Discount Furniture, headquartered in Manchester, Connecticut, is one of them.

Bob's Discount Furniture delivery
An omnichannel approach allows consumers to buy using the devices and locations in any combination they prefer. Image via Bob’s Discount Furniture.

“We were an original disrupter in the furniture business by taking an ‘everyday low price’ model,” said Scott Perry, vice president of Digital for Bob’s Discount Furniture. “From our early venture into e-commerce we saw our website as a complement to our physical stores.”

Furniture sales are usually large-ticket items with a longer decision cycle than other consumer goods. For retailers, they are bulky items with high shipping costs. According to several studies in recent years, the category of home furnishings, made up of products such as sofas, has traditionally been one of the categories least likely to be purchased online.

“We saw early signals in the data we were collecting on our customers that a blended omnichannel buying experience was what was needed,” said Perry. “We added technology that allowed our customers to research, experience, and buy furniture according to their preferences. At least 75 to 85 percent of our customers use our e-commerce site at some point in their buying process.”

Adopting New Technology in Retail

Several technologies that get lauded as transforming retail have not been widely opted yet.

“We are early adopters, but data-driven early adopters,” said Perry. “We have an augmented reality (AR) app that allows customers to visualize what a piece of furniture will look like in their own home. Before we launched it, we made a business case based on data that it would help both online and in-store purchases. We also made sure we wove this new technology into existing processes, which meant training everyone. The app has been popular and the development costs have paid off.”

Where will the next growth at Bob’s Discount Furniture come from? According to Perry, “We still believe our core reason for growth is we treat our customers well and offer them value. The technology we add builds upon a great foundation of trust and the simplicity that comes from not having to join a membership or follow seasonal promotions. There are areas we are investing in, like 3D room planning, that will help you visualize a space you may have not even moved into yet. None of these investments will pay off unless we continue to keep in tune with our customers’ preferences and feedback.”

Kathleen Wiersch works in Customer Experience Portfolio Marketing at SAP.
This story previously appeared on SAPVoice on Forbes.