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Home Industry Adopting Online Technologies

Online TechnologiesAttendees at the recent Online Technologies Conference
ATLANTA - As the world of technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace, the tools are becoming so powerful that no one who is serious about business can afford to ignore them -- even in a sometimes slow-to-get-on- board industry such as home furnishings.
     This was the key message at the recent Online Technologies Conference held here last month at Americasmart. The event, hosted by Home Textiles Today and its sister magazines, drew more than 100 attendees to learn about email marketing, social media, web development, tablet computing, data mining and more.
    "Business leaders understand that innovation creates high-margin businesses and drives productivity," said Penny Schneck, online manager at Sandow Media and coordinator of the conference. "The ingenuity displayed in using the Internet in business to outsmart and ultimately generate new opportunities is a testament to the power of technology."

Convergence
     Eric Dean of Whereoware kicked off the conference with a presentation about "convergence" and how companies can tie their online and offline experiences together. He said all the channels that vendors and retailers use for marketing need to work together, including print advertising, phone, sales reps, websites, catalogs, emails, tradeshows and social media.
    The reason? "Consumers want whatever they want, however they want it, whenever they want it, wherever they are," he said. The days are past when a company can dictate how it communicates with its customers - it has to be available on all platforms so the customers can do business on their own terms.
     He cited an example of Old Navy, which sent an email to its customer list with an Easter promotion using QR tags. Customers were invited to visit the stores, look for 15 QR tags hidden through the store, then scan them for a chance to win $50,000. The promotion used technology to drive people into the actual stores, then encouraged them to stay longer and look around more.
     He also cited the changing role of catalogs in American life. Whereas in 1965, the Sears catalog was 1,810 pages, in 2010 it was 128 pages. But that's not to say that they are less important. In fact, Dean said, customers who are sent catalogs are 54% more likely to shop; twice as likely to make an online purchase; spend 163% more; and are much more likely to visit the catalog sender's website. Catalogs are aspirational now, and work best to drive consumers to websites.
     Other ways that technology is driving the B2B and retail worlds? Reps are carrying catalogs on laptops, and increasingly iPads or other tablet devices; and technologies are now available to automate post-market lead follow-ups.

Web development
     Andy Bernstein, owner of FurnitureDealer. net, discussed what questions a business should ask when working with a web developer on a new website.
     This is very important, Bernstein said, because nearly three out of four furniture purchases are influenced by online research, and 81% of home furnishings shoppers cite the internet as their No. 1 source of information. And in a world of fast-moving technology, consumers have no patience for a bad website (one that's slow, uninformative, confusing or hard to navigate).
     "Good websites are expensive - they require a lot of time, money and skill," he said. "But, money alone cannot buy a good website. Most home furnishings executives (people above the age of 35) simply are not expert about the internet. They do not understand it well.
     "It's tough to tell the difference between great, average and bad website providers, yet this decision will have a major impact on your company's business," he continued. "To make matters worse, it is very easy to build a website (any kid can do it), and it is easy to throw around internet buzz words (like social networking, blog, ecommerce, search engine optimization, pay per click, analytics, etc.) that can make some salesman seem expert to someone who is not experienced or confident."
     Bernstein said the most important topics to discuss with a web developer are:
     • Product content (depth and breadth of product images; Google search only works effectively with original descriptive copy);
     • Search engine optimization (effective use of keywords and number of landing pages);
     • Software and site features (design and layout, product coordination, rich media, search, tagging and navigation);
     • Service and maintenance (how much are the charges for this, can the company handle it in-house?);
     • The contract (cost, what is included, maintenance/upgrades, timetables).

Tablet computing
     Todd Litzman, president of Brandwise, talked about tablet computing, which many see as the future of technology. He talked about the iPad, Android and Microsoft technologies now available, and the capabilities and limitations of each type of tablet.
     He also discussed "the cloud" - a new technology buzzword that helps to solve some of the limitations of the current tablets - namely that the different brands cannot operate each other's apps and software. Effectively, he said, cloud-computing works as application serving, which, "with an always-on internet connection, allows you to remotely run your native applications on any browser-capable device."
     But precisely because cloud-computing requires an always on internet connection, there are some limitations to it at the moment.
     "We are in the middle of a major technology revolution," he said. "The key to success during this time is understanding how technology works toward your goals, not how your goals can be manipulated to conform to this technology. Be sure your technology partners are looking at both online and offl ine solutions to meet your varied needs. One size does not fit all."

Web-based intelligence gathering
     Bob George, founder of FurnitureCore. com, discussed the importance of business intelligence, and how the Internet can be used to gather it.
     "I always encourage retailers and manufacturers to ready, aim and fi re," George said. "And not do the opposite. You need to understand technology before you use it."
     He said that 15 years ago, traditional channels accounted for about 95% of retail volume, but they are less than 60% now, echoing Dean's assertion that a company has to be available to consumers in whichever realm they wish to purchase.
     The best way to use technology is to gather as much data as possible on your customers and target them appropriately. "Do you know who your customers are?" he asked. "Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel and Target do."

Emails that work
     Corey Williams, vp of global sales for email provider Silverpop, talked about 12 effective emails that drive sales.
Examples he cited included welcome messages (for new customers); service-oriented cart reminder (can we answer any questions about the items left in your cart?); product review invitation (tell us about your recent purchases); birthday email (it's your birthday - save 10%); maintenance reminder (time to get your oil changed); or going out of stock (there is a limited quantity available of something you've ordered previously - better reorder soon).
      The stats back up the rationale for these emails, Williams said. For example, the "welcome" email generates six times more revenue than regular, ongoing emails. Purchase confirmation emails have 90% open rate, he said, suggesting that these are great opportunities to up-sell or cross-sell or other products.

Bob GeorgeFurnitureCore.com founder Bob George dvised attendees to tailor their businesses so consumers can access product and information in the form of their choosing.
     For products with long purchase cycles (like furniture, appliances) maintenance reminders can help keep consumers brand-aware.
     This is critical, he said, because once a customer makes a second purchase from a company, he or she is much more likely to be a lifetime customer.
     The conference was sponsored by Americasmart, Ayr1, Brandwise, FurnitureCore.com, FurnitureDealer.net, Myriad Software, Shopatron and Whereoware.

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