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Home furnishings category is ripe for Uber-like disruption

The home furnishings category is ripe for disruption as current online customer experiences lack innovation while the Uber of home furnishings that leverages mobile for a brand-new customer experience has yet to emerge, according to new equity research from Wells Fargo Securities and Fluid.

While omnichannel experiences are particularly important in the home furnishings category because the path to purchase often starts online and ends in the store, retailers have mostly failed to leverage mobile for the kind of disruptive customer experiences it can provide.  As a result, there is an opportunity for an upstart to come in and capture sales from category leaders. 

?The current role is simply ?mobile optimization? for most,? said Bridget Fahrland, vice president of  client strategy at Fluid Inc. ?While this is a good first step, the role of mobile design and marketing needs to be much bigger for this category. 

?Home furnishing shoppers are more likely to move across channels and devices as they make purchase decisions - mobile should have features specific to ?on the go? users and the in-store context,? she said. ?At the very least, mobile experiences should have geolocation, continuous carts, easy checkout and the ability to scan products for more information. 

?With the exception of Amazon, none of the companies we looked at are capitalizing upon mobile specific features  beyond registry apps.?

Multichannel retailers fall short
?The research, published in a reported titled ?Home (.com) Is Where the Heart Is,? reviewed nine key areas of the customer experience, including the mobile experience. 

Amazon and Overstock provide the strongest mobile customer experiences in the home furnishings category, according to the research. 

While multichannel retailers West Elm, Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma scored highest in overall online customer experience, they trailed their pure-play counterparts in mobile experience. 

Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma offer mobile optimized experiences, but they are nothing special, according to the report. 

Crate & Barrel has a good mobile optimized site and app for registry. The brand?s room planner app is a good effort but is not where it needs to be yet. 

However, Crate & Barrel?s site lacks in inspiration and content. For example, there are no product videos. 

The lack of mobile innovation is repeated in the customer experiences for Room & Board, Pier 1 and Ethan Allen. 

Restoration Hardware fails with the absence of a mobile optimized experience. 

Pure-plays dominate mobile
?The pure-play online retailers were more innovative on the mobile front. 

For example, Overstock offers flash sales, inspiration boards and an app with a daily lotto feature. 

Amazon offers a highly functional shopping app that includes a scanner and price check. 

However, other pure-plays such as Hayneedle and One Kings Lane, while offering mobile optimized sites and apps, do not provide anything unique. 

Retailers are also not doing a good job of promoting their mobile experiences to customers. 

?Companies do not promote their mobile experiences & apps very well on their desktop sites,? Ms. Farhland said ?For example, West Elm has a good registry app with a scanner but they only discuss it on the registry page in an undistinguished paragraph.?

While the online retailers scored higher than multichannel retailers on mobile experience, multichannel retailers did better on search-ability, product information and post-purchase categories.

Home furnishings sales grow
?The report?s list of multichannel retailers, in order of their online customer experience ranking is: West Elm, Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma, World Market, Crate & Barrel, Bed Bath & Beyond, Room & Board, Pier 1, Ethan Allen and Restoration Hardware. 

In online retail, the list is: Overstock, Amazon, Hayneedle and One Kings Lane. 

While the home furnishings market in the United States is estimated at more than $220 billion, the online penetration is estimated at less than 10 percent. 

Online home is one of the fastest-growing categories in ecommerce, growing at an estimated 20 percent in 2013 and expected to grow at 18 percent over the next few years. 

Inspiration is key?
Compared with other product categories, the home category tends to be shopped more from a visual standpoint and not searched. For this reason, the retailers in this category need to focus on product discovery, photography, emotion and inspiration. 

All players in this space should have mobile experiences that go beyond replicating the site, according to Wells Fargo Securities. They should have features that are specific to mobile such as geo-location and scanning. 

Additionally, multichannel retailers without in-store pickup and integrated registries are at risk of losing customers who have come to expect anywhere, anytime experiences. 

?The pure-plays - One Kings Lane, Amazon, Hayneedle and Overstock - out performed multi-channel retailers when it came to mobile apps,? Ms. Farhland said. ?Overstock and Amazon especially stood out because they had features specific to their mobile apps - Overstock's daily lotto and Amazon's price check.

?Crate & Barrel, Bed Bath & Beyond, and West Elm had apps for registry so customers can add things while in store,? she said. ?All retailers should look at creating mobile apps with specific use reasons.

?They don't have to be used forever - e.g. a registry app has a shelf life on a customer's screen - but the use case can be compelling for a specific market or specific time period.?

Final Take?
Chantal Tode is senior editor on Mobile Marketer, New York