Business Issues  



Merchandisers Are Key Factors to A Company's Success

By Joseph F Carroll

Be a good listener. Successful companies listen to their customer.

Furniture Designers Design Furniture with an aesthetic, architectural and manufacturing goal in mind. Manufacturers assemble it and retailers display it on their floors for the consumer to buy.

Who have we left out of the picture? Someone who, in my opinion, rarely gets enough publicity within our industry. This may be because there are not enough good ones to go around. We call them “merchandisers”.

In a few words, his or her job is to select the styles, colors, finishes, shapes and sizes that the public is going to buy 6 months to a year from now.

Recently I spoke with a friend, who has been a merchandiser for many years, and asked him what he had learned from this business. His advice: Be a good listener. Successful companies listen to their customer. Although we have paid lip service to this advice for almost as many years as I can remember, I see that successful manufacturers are relying more on market research, focus groups, comments from their web pages and direct feedback from their reps and store personnel.

Sales reps are the first line of information. The good ones “grid” a dealer’s floor to find opportunities to sell him by taking note of price points and style categories he sees on display. This information is relayed to the manufacturer’s merchandiser who is trying to figure out what customers are buying in the way of size, color, comfort or function.

The merchandiser wants to know what is selling on the retail floor. Selling to a national consumer is always more difficult than selling regionally. Even though our society is becoming more homogeneous tastes still vary in each region of our country by style and finish. The common philosophy that darker wood finishes are still preferred by New Englanders and the lighter finishes by those living on the East and West coasts still holds true for the most part. But not always. The trick is to know when one can make exceptions to these generalizations.

Selling internationally is even more complex. The size of the piece, color or finish all have to be targeted for the part of the world we are selling to. One hopeful sign I’ve seen develop in recent years to some extent is that there are some common styles and colors, usually in contemporary designs, that have universal appeal. Travel to furniture shows around the world and you’ll see a lot of product that is similar. I think this is just part of the globalization we are witnessing.

Good design always comes first. Designers play a critical role in the merchandising process. They understand that a consumer is first attracted by the look of a piece of furniture, next by its comfort and functionality and last by its price. Sometimes I think manufacturers often look at a new introduction in the reverse order of that formula.

The final step in deciding what the consumer is going to want is the most difficult. This involves selecting the best ideas from the many that have been generated from retail sales people, consumers, sales reps and the designer.

The merchandising professional bases his recommendations on all the experience he has picked up over the years. He may call it just a hunch but it is still genius that prevails in the long run.

I once asked one of the top U.S. upholstery merchandisers if he could teach me the secret of selecting the right fabric to go on a sofa or chair. He said he couldn’t explain how he knew what looked right – he just knew. I wasn’t satisfied with his answer but it was the best he could come up with.

It’s only been recently that I believe I have the answer. I think our brain is like a computer. We store up data over the years and unconsciously download it when we need to make a decision. This individual had spent 14 years in retail and then about 10 in manufacturing. He had seen what customers liked and what they rejected. His brain had recorded everything, whether or not he was conscious of it.

That’s what we call experience. That’s why the best managers hire good people and let them do their jobs. Genius in the product development area is always going to include an element of subjectivity. Companies are now developing strategies with their key dealers to make furniture that meets their customers’ “wants” rather than just produce a commodity that fills their “needs.” The most successful manufacturer of this decade will resist the temptation to copy other products. As business becomes more intense pricewise, the leaders of the future will have the best designs, near flawless quality and fast delivery. Easier said than done, right?

Good design always comes first. Designers play a critical role in the merchandising process. They understand that a consumer is first attracted by the look of a piece of furniture


Joseph F Carroll is the former publisher of Furniture/Today and one of the original founders of the IAFP (International Alliance of Furnishing Publications). He is an international marketing consultant.