Home sweet home
As discretionary spending is down and online presents customers with a greater choice than ever before, the homewares retail sector is undergoing a lot of change. Here, three retailers share how they’re thriving right now.
How have homewares customers changed since Matt Blatt launched in 2002?
In our early days as Australia’s first online eBay furniture retailer, the concept of selling directly to customers – with no physical retail outlet – was a radical one, and we were taking a big risk. Since then, the e-commerce arena has grown phenomenally, with many online-only operators in the sector. And yet despite customers’ growing willingness to buy furniture and homewares online, we find they still enjoy the experience of visiting a showroom, talking to design consultants and checking out the quality and materials of our products in person – especially investment purchases such as sofas.
Today’s customers are more stylesavvy, perhaps because of social media and TV renovation shows, and more confident expressing the look they’re trying to achieve. We’ve also seen growing demand for customisation – such as a sofa in a specific shade of velvet, or an ottoman to match an armchair – as customers look to recreate styles they’ve seen on Instagram or other sites.
People want to personalise their spaces and use their homes to show off their personality – and we love helping them do it.
How would you describe the Matt Blatt aesthetic?
Eclectic. The Matt Blatt aesthetic is all about banning bland and putting the fun back into furniture. It’s about mixing premium designer products with playful accessories or unexpected materials, such as a cowhide seat on a mid-century chair or a life-sized tiger cub sitting on a plush rug.
We love adding a surprising twist, we embrace risk and we always advise customers to buy what they love rather than slavishly follow fads. Your home should tell your story, not anyone else’s.
How would you describe the current interiors retail landscape?
It’s competitive, cluttered and, unfortunately, crowded with too many cookie-cutter retailers churning out the same collections year after year.
On the plus side, consumers are certainly spoiled for choice in terms of the number of retailers, but I don’t think they’re spoiled for change in terms of the diversity of what’s on offer.
While the rapid growth in online furniture and homewares retailers has some advantages for customers, in terms of competitive pricing and convenience, it has come at the expense of quality and service in many cases.
The fast-paced nature of today’s retail environment means we’re seeing overseas trends – both in product design and colour palettes – translated for the Australian market much more quickly than we used to, which is terrific for customers looking to access and try the latest trends and ideas.
How would you describe the Matt Blatt in-store experience?
Operating in such a fiercely competitive sector, I believe our in-store offering is one of our key competitive advantages.
Visiting a Matt Blatt showroom is a unique and inspiring experience unlike anything else in the Australian interiors sector, and we’re incredibly proud of that. For years, we’ve been saying, ‘We’re not in the furniture business, we’re in the entertainment business’, and we work hard to ensure that’s the experience people get when they visit our showrooms.
That’s why we have life-sized dinosaurs, pinball machines and kids’ zones in our stores. It’s why we have sock monkeys strewn about. Our showrooms aren’t museums. We love people coming in and trying out the furniture, taking selfies with the faux animals, making a coffee, and making themselves at home. Seeing the look on people’s faces when they walk into one of our stores and hearing them say ‘Wow’ is still one of my favourite aspects of this business.
It’s quite a competitive sector, how does Matt Blatt stand out from the others?
Our in-store experience certainly sets us apart from our competitors, as does the diversity of our range, which includes unique offerings such as our hand-crafted bone inlay collection from India, and the exclusive modern vintage range from United Strangers.
We take quality seriously, and our products are built to last, not just to look good. We use premium materials such as Italian Carrara marble, South American hand-finished leathers and the finest FSC-certified timbers, and to meet growing demand for customisation – sofa fabrics, designs, legs, sizes – we work with agile Australian manufacturers so customers can create a product to suit their specific space, a service many massmarket furniture companies can’t offer.
Providing genuine customer service remains a priority. From hiring sales consultants with interior décor and design credentials to our expert interior styling service to our dedicated customer service team based on-site in Sydney, we might be risk-takers in many ways, but we’re old-school when it comes to service.
How would you describe the current homewares retail industry in Australia at the moment?
The Australian homewares industry has been an exciting place over the last few years. We’ve seen a tremendous increase in the number of great new styles and designs hitting the market.
This has also led to a rise in the number of Australian designers and brands making a name for themselves in the market. It’s certainly a competitive environment to operate in, but I think this ultimately results in better quality products for consumers.
What are some of the biggest challenges for homewares retailers right now?
The downturn in housing prices is making headlines at the moment and is naturally a concern to businesses operating in our sector. We know that this will lead to an overall softening of the furniture and homewares market in the next year or two. However, we believe that we are well placed, as we are still seeing a considerable shift in spending from offline to online in our categories.
It’s currently estimated that only about 3 to 4 per cent of shopping for homewares is made online in Australia compared with over 10 per cent in the US and UK. This will only get stronger as millennials, who are digital natives, grow older and fall into our core customer demographic.
Homewares is quite a competitive market, with big players like Kmart upping the ante in the category.
How does Zanui sit among so many other retailers and what makes it unique?
We know that your home is a very personal space and that families have an extremely diverse sense of style and taste. This is why we offer over 50,000 different furniture and homewares items on our site. It means we are able to cater to everyone’s personal preference. Being an online business, we create immersive and engaging experiences where our customers can browse the range from the convenience of their own couch.
It’s a distinct advantage we have over a physical store, where their stock display is constrained by the amount of floor space they have.
What plans do you have for the upcoming year for Zanui?
We have an extensive pipeline of projects at Zanui so I’ll just mention a couple of them.
Our product range will continue to grow this year and we’ve been working very hard with our suppliers and manufacturers on some amazing designs for our 2019 ranges. We have over 1000 new products coming onto our site every month and some of these will be jaw-dropping exclusives that won’t be available anywhere else.
We’ve also just launched an inspirational video series where we go into the homes of some of Australia’s favourite celebrities. In the videos, we show how we choose pieces and make over their place, provide in-depth style tips, and there’s a Q&A with the celebrity. Our first videos with [reality TV stars] Georgia Love and Lee Elliot are great fun, and we have many more to come throughout the year.
Logistics and delivery can be a struggle for a lot of online retailers, especially as customers’ expectations have increased in the last few years. How has Zanui managed that side of things?
We are always doing work on our delivery processes. When it comes to delivery, we like to look at this as an area where we’re not competing with other retailers in our sector, but with the best experience that the customer has ever had. As a result, we know that customers are looking for faster deliveries, more control of the delivery time and greater transparency while their items are in transit.
If we are able to provide all this to the customer, then we will have eliminated any uncertainty in the delivery and therefore reduced the stress a customer can experience when waiting for a delivery. We still have a lot of work to do to get to that ideal scenario in the business, but delivery is a critical piece of the online shopping experience. It’s the final interaction of a customer’s purchase and has a lasting impact on their overall satisfaction with Zanui.
How have homewares customers changed over the years? Would you say they have become more stylesavvy?
Absolutely. Furniture and homewares customers have matured significantly in recent years and are making much more considered purchases for their home. They understand their own sense of style and how new pieces can fit in with their existing decor.
I think that this has been ultimately driven by the greater choice and accessibility that customers have in the current market. In the past, a customer would have needed to dedicate a significant amount of their time to travel, search, view and select from a limited range on a physical showroom floor.
Now, with the power of technology, they are able to easily view thousands of products online, get inspiration from platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest and, ultimately, find and purchase that perfect piece.
What has Pillow Talk got in store for 2019?
Consolidation, store refurbishments in line with our rebranding strategy, product reconciliation while continuing to improve design, coordination and strengthening relationships with our suppliers. We are exploring a number of potential new stores. However, our criteria for opening new stores has become firmer in keeping with the overall tempering of retail market conditions.
The e-commerce sector, being the more dynamic component, is a never-ending moving target and we are consistently revamping how we present our various platforms, revising fulfilment efficiencies and, of course, the fashion and style visuals of our website.
How would you describe the homewares retail sector at the moment?
The sector probably has more focus on it via various media avenues, hence there is a greater interest from consumers to participate, and therefore as a retailer in that space, we are consistently refining our in-store presentation and cross coordination.
Having a large format footprint affords us the opportunity to refocus on product integration at point of sale.
What are some of the biggest challenges at the moment for retailers, especially as large, discount retailers are now cashing in on homewares, too?
Discretionary retail has seen various challenges in the recent past and looking forward, I don’t see any relief from all the pressure points that affect our sector.
I would suspect that all businesses are taking measures where they can to address costs, stock levels, lead times via supplier cooperation, in-store merchandising, space utilisation and re-evaluation of marketing budgets. In our case, cross-pollination of digital and social with our store profiles.
I don’t believe that big retailers are better than specialists such as us, who are consistent with maintaining quality standards, range coordination, in-house designers working six to 12 months ahead via colour and style themes. In our case, having well-trained staff in-store at all times is something that tends to be non-existent in many big retailers and in an ever-demanding home fashion environment, we are more determined than ever to continue with the service side of retail.
These things help in making us somewhat unique and our ranging gives customers the opportunity to see a vast panorama of product in one location.
Since you first launched Pillow Talk, what have been some of the most interesting ways the sector has changed?
Since starting the business more than 40 years ago, the simple answer would be ‘everything’, but in reality, our initial premise still remains that we offer a broad range of bedlinen, bedding, bathroom and home decorating products, with an underlying premise of catering to various price points, while always being considerate of colour and fashion and being conscious of having staff in-store to offer quality customer service.
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