Thursday, 3 January 2013

The Commerce of Sofas

A while ago I was helping my partner find a sofa for his new flat. We toured many furniture showrooms and warehouses finding the sofas either too large to fit the flat, too small, too garish, too nursing home-ish, not comfortable enough, too saggy, too expensive, too badly made (many seem to be held together with just staples these days), before I located a furniture emporium online which boasted it was the largest in the region and a proud family business since 1911. We duly trekked to the town in question to find to three capacious floors of furnishings with the upper floors in darkness. It turned out they only put the lights on when customers went upstairs as an ‘energy saving measure’. We toured each floor and whilst the furniture was somewhat unimaginatively displayed, we finally found a sofa which seemed to tick most of the boxes. ‘Can you deliver this by Christmas’? my partner asked. The shop assistant seemed doubtful even though Christmas was over six weeks away.  My partner then asked if he could buy the display sofa if there was not enough time to have one made. Again the shop assistant looked doubtful and summoned the boss, a lean worried looking man in his forties who bore the same surname as the business, presumably a descendent of the founder.

He seemed to have no straight answers to our questions about the sofa availability either, until finally (and reluctantly, it seemed to us), he agreed to sell the display model, even though we didn’t want the matching easy chair to go with it and that might be a problem from his point of view with fabric matching re a future consignment (which seemed odd to us as surely a sofa should come with two easy chairs and not just one to form a standard 3-piece suite)...? Just as it seemed a deal was about to be struck my partner requested Saturday delivery.  The boss stated this would not be possible as they had set delivery days according to when they had enough deliveries to travel to each area, but it was FREE delivery and a white glove service as they retained their own fleet of vans. My partner explained he was at work during the week and that I lived in a different city so could not take delivery either, and volunteered to pay for delivery if it could be on a Saturday morning when he was in.
Much to our amazement, the boss stated this would not be possible. We left the shop which evidently didn’t want to let go of its stock, despite our being virtually the only customers, and began the drive home. As luck would have it, we accidentally took a wrong turning out of the town and came across a huge furniture warehouse we had never heard of. We decided to stop. Lo and behold my partner found his ideal sofa on the sale floor at half price and with delivery to suit at an extra £50. Nothing was a problem for the friendly sales staff (sofa was delivered the following Saturday without incident) and they had a wonderfully eclectic range of furniture in all styles and to suit most budgets.

I reflected what a shame it was that some upstart furniture warehouse could so easily outrank a family business which had been running for over 100 years and wondered if the family ever set foot outside their own store to check out the competition. Much though the internet is playing a part in the sad demise of our High Streets, so are businesses which refuse to move with the times and operate as if still in their 1970s/80s heyday when every home possessed its own 24/7 housewife to receive furniture deliveries at the stores’ convenience, no matter that today’s footfall might tell a very different story to its glory days. In addition had the son ever had any business training/experience of the outside world, or had he just gone straight into the family business from school to continue running it the way it had always been run, his masterstrokes of innovation being the installation of eco light bulbs and the introduction of a website which was bound to disappoint in that it seemed far more impressive than the store and created false expectations.
Here was a business which was literally committing Hari Kiri by refusing to move with the times, or at least match up to its website, so how sorry should we feel for it?

In my last property job our Land Agent announced the demise of one of the quaint independent businesses in our premises across the road. I opined that it would be a sad loss. ‘Not really.’ He replied. ‘I wasn’t impressed with their business plan and frankly I wasn’t going to let them have it at all. In the end we compromised on a one year lease with an option to extend in the unlikely event they made a go of it.’
In an instant, I saw this business with its friendly, intellectual and earnest owner in a wholly new light. The leaseholder was in love with the idea of being a shopkeeper to his lovely shop, rather than someone who’d done their sums/market research and was in touch with it as a viable reality. I have since observed many hobbyist businesses which close all too soon after opening, much though some might succeed if they possessed more business acumen or more support from the banks.

But modern businesses once they have succeeded have no room for complacency. Last night at Halfords I spent the best part of five minutes waiting at a deserted till to pay for coolant, money in hand, despite half a dozen staff floating around and even fewer customers. My local Co-Op is similarly lackadaisical in its approach to customer service, frequently abandoning all tills to stock-take or shelf-fill, no matter that several customers might be waiting, and when they finally notice us, to inwardly tut as if customers were an unexpected inconvenience rather than their lifeblood.

As for my local B&Q, that replaced ALL of its manned tills with self-service tills taking DIY a step-ladder too far for most customers like me who fled.  It has now closed down leaving Oxford B&Q-less.

In the most successful pubs and businesses, it is noticeable that they do not stint on the staff or the customer service. Nor are they reluctant to sell or deliver the goods and even dare to chase up customer satisfaction levels afterwards. As for advertising, 'advertise or fossilise' as famous Victorian wit and whiskey distiller Thomas Dewer once said.


Wisewebwoman said...

I hear you Laura, it is so sad to see some multi-general businesses vanish due to a refusal to embrace the times. As an accountant I've seen it far too many times. I advised one business to embrace the web as a way to sell their unique (to North America) goods and was told what was good enough for....blah. Two years later out of business.
As to furniture I sure hope what happened with my new furniture didn't happen to your partner. I turned over all the cushions to extend life of same and guess what? On the underside was this nylon chintzy crap that didn't match the suite fabric. I was furious but warranty had run out.

Steve said...

Shop owners these days seem to forget the most basic of facts: if they want to survive and make money they have got to want our (the product buying public's) business!

Marginalia said...

My observation is this: Businesses, industries, people fail because the mind map they are navigating by is out of date.

I was in the Treasury when we were kicked out of the ERM in 1993. It resulted in the equivalent of institution nervous breakdown.

We had been operating as if we were still in the late 50's early 60's - following time honoured rituals and routines. Perfectly attuned for some 40 years earlier, but the world had moved on.

Our mind map was so strong that we were blind to the day to day evidence that things had changed. The world was made to fit our vision of it.

Only the exposure of our policy nakedness and the resulting humiliation and ridicule brought about a rapid shift. But not before a near total institutional nervous breakdown.

Someone's dream of running their own business becomes a nightmare if they don't constantly reassess their product, attitude and market.

looby said...

Marginalia's comment is interesting in the light of a book I read by Corelli Barnett a couple of years ago which looks in detail at British labour and political history in the post-war period. The intertia, the glacial refusal to change in all sections of the Estate - the unions, the Treasury, the Civil Service - is astonishing to read, an almost unbelievable catalogue of how the UK squandered chance after chance to reinvent itself as a civilised, major world economy.

The result: crappo furniture shops and an economy that relies on trading imaginary money.

Btw - re hobbyist shops. I have seen dozens of them come and go. My home town is a fairly pleasant place to live, a bit bohemian and lively, and it's so true that people come here, like it and want to stay, then think they can run a shop on smiling too much and ideas, rather than a concrete business plan and a willingness to put the elbow grease in.

Leather Sofa Specialist said...

Good things are just around the corner! Lucky that you discovered that warehouse but guess all good sofa deals can be easily found if one is only patient enough to look for it. Thank you for your insights. :)

The Poet Laura-eate said...

WWW, that is tragic that a company could fail to realise that the internet may become big!

Steve, yes, customer service should mean they are there to serve their customers.

Marginalia, what an interesting and thought provoking response. I remember too that our unions were seriously out of step in the 70s advocating endless strikes to bring industry to its knees, when actually it was on the way out anyway owing to cheap imports etc and so much industrial action problably obscured that.

Looby, excellent points. How did we get from worldwide empire to what we have now? Why were our victorian ancestors visionaries compared to us? Re small towns and hobby shops, you sound like you live in Lewes!

Thanks for dropping by Leather Sofa Specialist.

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