Covid-19 Sets Stage for IHFRA Reps to Shine

By Ray Allegrezza
Executive Director, IHFRA

Ask anyone in the home furnishings sector about the impact the Covid-19 virus has had on the business and you would be hard pressed to hear any glowing remarks.
But for those insistent on finding anything positive to say about the virus one could make the following two points:
* The virus is an equal-opportunity disrupter impacting every business.
* Despite current spikes in the virus, consumers are still spending on non-discretionary goods.

In fact, a just-released study by Simon-Kucher & Partners on consumer optimism and spending behavior, concluded that while 61% of U.S. consumers are uncertain regarding their financial outlook, they are nonetheless far more optimistic than other consumers worldwide.

The number of U.S. consumers making non-essential purchases is higher than in the U.K. (54%) and China (55%), but not as high as Germany (73%), the survey concluded.
Perhaps nowhere has this optimism been more recently prevalent than in the home furnishings sector.

Despite the impact of the virus, home furnishings sales continue to remain brisk, with furniture and home furnishings store sales still on the climb month-over-month, with June’s totals increasing 32.5% over May, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Ironically, most suppliers, retailers and sales reps will tell you that the surge in consumer spending on home furnishings coupled with the disruption of the supply chain caused by the virus has become a two-edged sword, with demand far outweighing supply and availability.

This reality has set the stage for independent sales reps—the traditional links between supplier and retailer—to reinvent themselves and reestablish their indispensable roles in the industry.
Here’s why: In the midst of product shortages, many reps are finding themselves in the role of product allocators. As the intermediary between the factories they represent and the retailers they serve, reps are often making the decisions regarding how much product goes to the retailers they call on.

Now, more than ever, their retail customers are also relying on reps for current information regarding existing and future product availability, promotions, competitive market intelligence and much more.
With that in mind, what should reps be doing to help their retailers during this pandemic?

*Back to Basics
The first rule to successful selling is to know your customer. In light of the Covid-19 virus, this has never been more important.

To be successful during and more importantly, after the virus, good reps are investing the time to make sure they understand, then meet, the needs of their customers.

And for many retailers, the need is for current, real-time information regarding inventory. Good reps stay in touch with their factories and have current, up-to-date information regarding inventory. This is vital to retailers, especially as they plan promotions for the third and fourth quarters and beyond.

This also means reps should be checking their customer’s websites as well as sites of the factories they represent to make sure the information appearing on both is current and accurate.

*See the world through the customer’s eyes.
Good reps put themselves in their customer’s shoes. The understand that the retailer’s attention is scattered right now. A survey conducted by TOPO with more than 350 sales pros to determine the impact of the virus on retailers found that almost 50% aren’t willing to book a meeting right now.

Armed with that fact, good reps are calling on customers via the telephone and Zoom, making sure they stay in step with the needs of their customers.

*Help your customers create a “new normal” strategy
As more stores come back online, it will be a new ball game. Good reps make sure to find out what their customer’s vision is and talk frankly about what changes each need to make to make that vision work.
*Know your customers’ customer.

Consumer behavior will undoubtedly shift. Savvy reps are helping their retailers understand these shifts and show him or her solutions to accommodate those shifts.
Consumers, who were forced try alternate brands while stuck at home, are likely to be willing to try new brands and sources across the board and that will include home furnishing.

*Help your retailers sell both brick and click

Online sales going nowhere—but up.
Some sources say 20% of furniture sales will take place online in the very near future. Great reps stress the need for retailers to have a robust multi-channel platform. Having taken the time to learn and understand the fundamentals of online commerce, great reps can and do help retailers develop and succeed with a strong brick-and-click presence.

Without a doubt, Covid-19 has overturned most retailers apple carts.

But good reps, who invest the time and effort to truly understand the needs of their retail partners, are not only helping right those carts, they are helping to make them better and more attractive than ever.