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Hearth & Home March 2014

A salesman at the Napoleon Home Comfort Store in Barrie, Ontario, works with a customer on an iPad.

The Last Frontier?

By Tom Lassiter

It’s time for retailers to bring the digital world into their showroom.

Got a website? Of course you do. Market by email? All the time. Stay active on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Houzz? 24/7.

Use digital technology in your showroom? Probably not so much.

The showroom is the last digital frontier for many specialty retailers. Customers these days stroll showrooms armed with smartphones and tablets, prospecting for information and every possible buyer advantage.

Meanwhile, sales personnel at most shops do business like it’s 1994. They must either memorize product information about scores of SKUs or step away to look up answers on a stationary computer that doubles as a sales terminal. Some may even resort to paging through product information sheets stored in three-ring binders. Talk about retro!

The digital age, however, is working its way into a smattering of showrooms. Manufacturers, in some cases, are spurring the transition. Advances in those instances tend to be limited to just that particular company’s interests.

Where retailers themselves are forging across this digital divide, solutions tend to be more universal in nature, encompassing the full range of products, brands and manufacturers available in a store.

Today’s Patio, with six locations in Arizona and one in California, has employed digital technology in the most basic yet high-tech way possible. Each store has one Apple iPad for use by sales people as they walk the showroom with customers.

Using the store’s Wi-Fi signal, the iPad can access online sources such as the Today’s Patio website or those of furniture companies.

“Some of the manufacturers have great websites where you can colorize their products” to simulate different finishes or fabrics,” says CEO Chad Scheinerman. “We use the iPad for that as well.”

(While all stores contacted use iPads, tablets using the Android operating system or a Surface tablet by Microsoft could be used to access websites. Certain applications used by retailers, however, are available only for iPad or other Apple devices.)

Scheinerman says the store is ramping up a new point-of-sale system that, when fully implemented, will allow sales orders to be written on iPads.

He notes one drawback of using the easily portable devices: One iPad last seen on a sales counter apparently left with a rather impolite customer.

In Barrie, Ontario, retail sales staff at Napoleon Home Comfort have the option of using iPads installed with a $9.99 application called Quick Sale. The store, owned by Napoleon Fireplaces, furnishes iPads to sales staff and deducts the cost of the devices from paychecks over 26 pay periods, says Steve Gauci, the store’s director of Retail Operations.

Quick Sale software allows the salesperson to look up an item, quote the price and, if desired, e-mail the information to the prospective customer.

When it’s time to close the deal (sales people frequently make home sales calls), the software allows the order to be completed with a digital signature on the iPad’s touchscreen.

The inexpensive software has one downside. Each item in Napoleon Home Comfort’s inventory must be entered by hand on each iPad. The software currently does not interface with data stored on a desktop computer or mainframe.

“It’s crazy, but when it works, it works,” Gauci says. “It’s the wave of the future.”

In Atlanta, salespeople work with iPads running LightSpeed Pro software; note the credit card reader attachment at left.

Atlanta’s Kolo Collection also uses iPads to reference products and write orders. The difference is that the tablets work seamlessly with software running on the shop’s Apple computers, for a total inventory control and point-of-sale (POS) system. The software, called LightSpeed Pro, also manages data (including images) that can be uploaded to the store’s website, says Paul Yuncker, director of Operations.

An attachment turns the iPad into a credit card reader, allowing sales to be completed on the spot. The system also functions securely across the Internet, communicating with computers at Kolo Collection.

“You can be in front of someone in another city, tap into it and create an order remotely,” Yuncker says.

Getting data into a new POS system sometimes can be problematic. Cory Shepherdson, with the Canadian firm that markets the application, says data in spreadsheet format from virtually any existing POS system can be imported into LightSpeed Pro.

Yuncker said Kolo Collection experienced few bumps in making the transition to the new sales and inventory management system. “It wasn’t painless,” he says, “but it wasn’t painful.”

Shops like Napoleon Home Comfort and Kolo Collection are the pioneers, exploring the possibilities for digital solutions in the showroom. Most specialty merchants, however, likely are similar to Karen Galindo of Outside In Style. Her business has signed on “with what Tropitone is doing.”

Otherwise, she says, digital technology advances in the showroom are “something we need to think about. We’re not high-tech people.”

Manufacturers Take the Lead

Tablets allow close and easy contact with customers, and rapid access to all information necessary to close the sale.

Tropitone and Lane Venture are among manufacturers that have developed digital technology programs for their dealers’ showrooms.

Others, such as OW Lee, are exploring Web-based solutions that allow shoppers and sales staff to explore design possibilities via computer.

OW Lee’s first venture in this direction is a “firepit builder” that will allow a shopper to select finish, tile and firepit media and see a custom-made product onscreen. That feature is scheduled to launch on OW Lee’s website this spring, says president Terri Lee Rogers.

Tropitone’s program works in tandem with its “omni-channel retail” initiative, which is designed to give a consumer the same shopping and purchase experience across all platforms.

Company policy doesn’t allow director of Sales Frank Verna to discuss the program, but he wrote in an email that it involves flat-screen televisions and “after-market streaming devices connected by HDMI” cables. He also mentioned that some stores, and Tropitone’s showrooms, use Apple iPads that work wirelessly with the stationary equipment.

Additional details on Tropitone’s program, including the number of retailers participating and any related costs, were unavailable.

Lane Venture’s initiative involves a stand-alone, touch-screen display mounted on a slender pedestal. The device contains the entire Lane Venture catalog, says Teresa Buelin, vice president of Sales and Marketing.

The device is being tested at a handful of dealers, she says. Lane Venture retains ownership of each unit, which contains two product information videos about caring for outdoor upholstery.

Buelin says the touch-screen units will help in training salespeople as well as educating customers. “It’s to help tell our whole story and what makes our products ideal,” she says.

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