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Furniture might seem like the last concern for people facing a pandemic. It’s not a typical panic buy, like toilet paper or eggs, that has led to Costco and Walmart to have some of their best months ever. But the need for comfortable and productive spaces during quarantine has opened up a tremendous opportunity for furniture brands. Companies that make the right moves can set themselves up to win big, both during and after the crisis. The difficulty, as always, is knowing how to make the right moves and having the vision and commitment to stick to them.
One of the biggest challenges direct-to-consumer (D2C) furniture brands have had to overcome is simply the cultural artifact of furniture being very much an experiential sale. Despite the proliferation of companies that sell sofas and mattresses and chairs online, most consumers still prefer to go into a showroom and sit on furniture, pull knobs, and bounce on beds.
But that behavior is changing. In fact, it was already changing before the pandemic hit. Online mattress sales had grown to over 5% by 2017, and have continued to increase since then. Furniture brands have joined the mattress revolution in taking advantage of shifting consumer patterns. These brands have found innovative workarounds to escape the need for a showroom, or at least temper it somewhat.
Take, for example, Burrow. The maker of modular sofas began as a strictly D2C brand in 2015 after two Wharton friends got fed up lugging massive furniture into tiny dorm rooms and off-campus apartments. Despite beginning as a digital brand, the company opened two showrooms over the last several years — showrooms that have since needed to be closed as a result of the pandemic.
In their place, Burrow has introduced Burrow House at Home: a platform for scheduling in-home virtual consultations with Burrows designers. This platform takes the best part of shopping at a retail location (interacting with a knowledgeable, human consultant who can help customers figure out what will work in their space) and brings it online in a COVID-19-safe way. And in the wake of store closings, the brand was able to roll out their platform within 48 hours.
Lesson #1: Online doesn’t have to be impersonal. For larger purchases, like furniture, customers are still looking for the human element. They still want to interact with helpful, knowledgeable staff, and are still interested in forging a connection with another human being. Integrating personal experiences online can help bring that into consumers’ houses and help them feel more connected and at home (pun intended).
Lesson #2: Moving quickly is important. Burrow was able to gain a strategic advantage by rolling out their at-home consulting services only days after retail closures started to happen. They were one of the first D2C furniture brands to offer these in-home services, and did so quickly enough that customers looking for these services would have found them first.
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With news stories about doom and gloom, it’s important for companies to help keep spirits up. At the same time, it’s important to make sure that any attempts at levity and humor are respectful and relevant — COVID-19 is still having a serious impact on millions of people, and it’s critical for brands to remember that.
So when the call for social distancing and staying at home went out, IKEA was ready. The Swedish furniture retailer can be considered the grandfather of direct-to-consumer furniture sales. They pioneered many of the concepts that have spurred the growth of D2C business, from eschewing the traditional third-party retailer model to vertically integrated supply chains that D2C brands leverage to save consumers money.
As countries around the world began shutting down to slow the spread of COVID-19, IKEA released a clever ad to help spread the message. Done in the style of the typical IKEA furniture item, only labeled “STAY HӦME” instead of the usual pseudo-Swedish, the ad reminded consumers that the best thing they could do is simply to stay home. As an added bonus, one of the materials listed in the top right is 100 rolls of toilet paper, making light of the toilet paper crisis plaguing the world.
The ad works because rather than trying to sell customers on IKEA, it masquerades as a public service announcement. Rather than trying to push consumers to buy more, it uses a clever play on something most customers are familiar with (IKEA furniture instructions) to pass along a positive message. It’s not a joke ad — it’s a serious ad that happens to be light-hearted and creates a bonding moment with consumers.
Lesson #3: Brands don’t have to shut down advertising or become super serious during the COVID-19 pandemic. But they do need to remember that people are suffering, and make sure that their advertising reflects that. Positive, uplifting, and yes, even humorous, ads can still work so long as they aren’t seen as being overly self-serving or promotional.
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One of the most uplifting aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been seeing the sheer number of brands who are willing to pitch in and help their communities. From distilleries making hand sanitizer to sports and athletic companies making protective equipment.
Furniture brands are no different. Florida furniture retailer City Furniture, rather than laying off or furloughing staff at their factories, instead put them to work making masks for Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami. The plan, to create 30,000 masks for both healthcare workers and the families of children being treated at the hospital, is an amazing example of corporate giving and help in a time of crisis.
But more than just providing much-needed supplies to a local institution, the act of donating the masks also creates tremendous upside for the brand itself. The most obvious is the earned media City Furniture has managed to gain through their charitable act. Though that may seem like a self-serving way to look at things, it’s really a win-win for everyone involved. A hospital gets much-needed PPE that it would not otherwise have had, and City Furniture gets positive press and makes inroads with the community they operate in.
Even more than that, though, pivoting to producing PPE allows City Furniture to retain their skilled employees instead of having to lay them off and hoping that they are still available when the economy recovers. Some analysts and economists are predicting that the end of the COVID-19 recession will be as sharp and as sudden as the recession itself was, leading to a gold-rush for talented employees to get companies back up and operational quickly. By retaining their workforce, City Furniture ensures that they will be ready to swing back to full production as soon as the economy is ready.
Lesson #4: Find ways to pivot and help the community during the crisis. Yes, it can help earn positive brand mentions in the press. And yes, it can keep employees working and ensure that brands are ready to bounce back when needed. But most importantly, it’s the right thing to do. More than ever, it’s important for brands to be good members of their communities. Helping out local institutions is a great way to do that and make getting through the pandemic just that little bit easier for all of us.
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Making the right moves during a disaster isn’t just important for keeping business going through COVID-19. It can also set companies up for success after the crisis has passed and the economy begins reopening. Just like investing in marketing during a crisis yields huge rewards down the line, so too does making smart strategic decisions.
Burrow will continue to have their Burrow House at Home service as a strategic advantage when the economy picks up. IKEA will still have gained new followers with their cheeky campaign. City Furniture will still have positive press show up when people in their market search for furniture. Making these investments now, while business seems upended anyway, is the key to not just surviving now, but also to getting ahead in the future.
Lesson #5: The final lesson is that now is the best time for big, bold action. To make that big charitable contribution, or invest in a splashy new ad campaign, or retool the customer experience, or experiment with new business models. Category-defining brands are born in the transition period between the old way of doing things and the new normal. This is exactly where furniture brands find themselves now, and exactly how they can become leaders tomorrow.
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Originally published on April 13th, 2020, last updated on June 16th, 2022.