The Impact of E-Commerce on Interior Design

  • Categories:

    Industry Trends

  • Date:

    February 22, 2018

The Impact of E-Commerce on Interior Design

Industry Trends

I was intrigued when SANDOW, the publisher of Luxe Interiors + Design, asked me to sit on a panel to discuss e-commerce during the Design Center of the Americas’ Winter Market.

Pam McNally, vice president, digital for SANDOW, moderated the panel. I was joined by Alex Shuford III, president of Century Furniture, and Allison Paladino, a highly regarded interior designer in South Florida. 

Here are some takeaways from our discussion entitled “Thriving and Surviving: Tools, Tips and Tricks for Navigating the World of eCommerce.” 

It’s no secret that e-commerce and specifically Amazon completely changed everything about how consumers shop. It’s estimated that Amazon Prime has more than 90 million members, many of whom are among the most affluent consumers. And, they’re frequent shoppers: in fact, more than 50 percent of Prime members buy from Amazon multiple times per month. Almost all of them conduct price checks on Amazon when shopping both online and in-store.

The Amazon shopping experience reset consumers’ expectations on availability, product and cost comparison, experience, customer service and availability of ratings and reviews. No surprises there, right?   

Yet Amazon is just one part of it. When you add the impact of social media and Google, this shift in consumer expectations is creating significant change — not just for retailers, but for how the interior design business functions, as well as the subsequent effects on the high-end furniture market.

E-commerce challenges

The biggest challenge facing Allison, the interior designer, became apparent quickly. How do you meet the changing expectations of the next generation of clients?

And for Alex, president of Century Furniture, the challenges seem even more daunting. He asked (and already had some answers for) all the right questions. Among them: How do you balance the needs of the traditional interior design channel while democratizing access to product information including price and purchasing? And, how do you reimagine the custom furniture shopping experience for consumers?

Changing consumer expectations

Allison told the audience she rarely works with clients under the age of 45, and most of her clients have previously worked with a designer. These clients understand the process, the timing and the value she provides. The limited number of times she has worked with younger clients have been challenging, because those clients are quick to judge concepts, constantly share new ideas, expect immediate responses, are impatient and require a lot of education and hand-holding.

But, these clients can’t be ignored. According to Bain & Company, Gen Z and millennials generated 85 percent of the luxury retail growth in 2017. These younger consumers are increasing their purchasing power, but they have a completely different set of expectations compared to their parents. 

Millennials are interested in luxurious living, but they are focusing more on experiences that speak to their specific tastes. This experience mindset is translating to how they design their spaces and what they expect from brands — in transparency and sustainability. 

Millennials and Gen Z have more information available at their fingertips than any generation before them, and they know how to access it. In their own eyes, this makes them experts on everything from geopolitics to fashion and design. But their lack of experience means they need, want and seek validation for their thoughts and ideas. 

This is where smart designers and brands can play an important role.

Creators, custom and virtual reality 

Millennials and Gen Z are well-known creators. From Etsy to microbrews, they have an appreciation for craft and a propensity for desiring items that are locally sourced and made by hand just for them.

Alex shared a good example of how the furniture industry is poised to deliver for this craft mindset.

Try walking into an Audi dealership and requesting a driver seat in a different shape or even something as simple as a different color of yarn for the leather stitching. Then, demand the vehicle be delivered to your home in less than four weeks. You’ll get laughed out of the showroom. But that is the expectation of a custom furniture brand. 

There are thousands of options for every sofa Century crafts by hand. The challenge becomes creating a consumer experience that allows the buyer to see that piece from every angle, feel the fabrics and experience the seat and back angle before purchasing it.

Enter a mix of intelligent showrooming and virtual reality (VR).

In the past year, Allison has made VR a mainstay with her affluent clients. She has a partner who can create VR rooms that allow clients to stand in the middle of the space and experience colors, sizing and spacing, which gives them confidence in their choices before they make a purchase decision. 

For Century, the idea is to connect the physical world to the virtual one. In the future, Century wants a potential customer to go to a showroom or retail partner, sit in a representative sample of a chair for the experience and then see all of the custom options in VR. It’s the best of both worlds, and it eliminates the fear that stifles large investments.

Price and transparency

In our e-commerce-dominated world, the conversation around price and transparency is simple — except when it isn’t.

Consumers expect to easily find a price and are frustrated when they can’t. If there isn’t a way to see a price, how will they know if they can afford it? If they don’t have a way to compare prices (like on Amazon), they can’t possibly know if they are getting a good deal. And that can be a deal breaker. 

On the other side of the equation, the custom furniture manufacturer must consider multiple channel conflicts, from brick-and-mortar retail to e-commerce to design centers and varying designer commissions. Not to mention the thousand options for each piece due to customization. 

While these channel and manufacturing conflicts are real for the brand, the consumer simply experiences a roadblock in their research when they can’t determine price. And, when consumers are frustrated, they will turn to a brand that provides the information they need to make a decision. 

Running out of time (and words)

Panels always run out of time before they fully cover a topic, and this story is no different.

While the challenges caused by changing consumer expectations are real, we know from experience that the brands and designers who embrace innovation and meet customers where they are will win in the future. The ones that quit saying, “That’s how it’s always been,” and start embracing, “Ask what if?” will be tomorrow’s leaders.

I know from the brief time I spent with Alex and Allison that they are both seeking and finding answers to “what if” questions. Personally, I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

Explore more articles from Wray Ward.