Home improvement can be a complicated process. With stay-at-home orders, it became even more complex. But that hasn’t stopped people from wanting to take on projects. In fact, business has been booming in the space.
After Ferguson Bath, Kitchen & Lighting Gallery was forced to shut its doors across the US, it embarked on a novel solution to serve customers: creating a virtual showroom experience for people to shop at home. Ferguson’s Kristen Elder, VP of showroom and builder; Dave Nickens, director of innovation for Ferguson Ventures; and Katherine Yackel of Ferguson’s Tacoma, Wash., location tell Inverse exactly how they did it.
What does your company do?
Elder: Ferguson Bath, Kitchen & Lighting Gallery offers an extensive selection of kitchen and bath products from today's notable brands. What's distinctive about us is our state-of-the-art showrooms and product experts who work closely with our customers and their contractors and designers to ensure their kitchen, bath, and lighting selections are a perfect fit for their home.
When we use the term "showroom" instead of "store," it is more than semantics. When customers come to Ferguson Bath, Kitchen & Lighting Gallery, they’re truly seeing and experiencing the product. A product expert works with the customer to find the right solution based on lifestyle, needs, wants, budget, vision, space, and specs. We partner with them to discover the right solution to bring their dream home to life.
How have you conducted business in the past?
Elder: We encourage our customers to book appointments. However, we are not an appointment-only business. The reason why we encourage appointments is the consultative nature of the showroom experience. Selecting several products at once is very involved. You are comparing and contrasting finishes. For example, you might like a light from one vendor and a fixture from another. In the showroom, you can take the different products around and mix and match. The process can take 30 minutes up to a few hours if you are working on a large project.
What immediate effects did stay-at-home orders have on your business?
Elder: We had to shut our doors immediately and get creative on how to keep the appointments that we already had scheduled on the books. What made it so complicated was that every markets’ stay-at-home order was different. We closed our doors nationally and reopened based on each markets' needs.
Nickens: It forced our product specialists, who are experts in the physical retail space, to become fully digital. When faced with having to cancel appointments or try a different approach, they quickly understood the value of video conferences and screen share experiences over a phone call.
“We wanted to replicate the things that make a trip to the showroom extraordinary.”
Innovators always excel in crises. Over the past year, the Ferguson Ventures Innovation lab has explored and prototyped technologies such as augmented reality for commerce, augmented reality shopping in showrooms, computer vision using A.I., and machine learning and other technologies. When we could no longer operate in stores, the recently explored virtual shopping models became relevant.
What changes did you make to adapt to our current situation?
Nickens: We immediately tapped into the Ferguson Ventures startup network to find companies that could help. We identified two partners that could help us rapidly accelerate our efforts. One was a web-based virtual reality tool that allowed linking of 360 photos and included video conferencing using avatars. We purchased a small 360-degree camera and got to work at our headquarters showroom. The innovation lab team spent a day in the showroom taking more than 300 360-degree photos. We spent the next few days working around the clock to stitch each photo to the other to create an experience worthy of our brand and products.
Starting with a basic virtual tour, we incorporated feedback from Ferguson associate use, then enhanced the experience. We addressed immediate needs for customers to see inside refrigerators, ovens, and other appliances, which were not available on the web. We wanted to replicate the things that make a trip to the showroom extraordinary.
What were the challenges in implementing these changes?
Elder: What's important to remember is that construction was deemed essential in most markets during this time. Projects may have slowed, but they couldn't stop. Our biggest hurdle was getting technology set up for over 2,000 associates and all our buildings. For one thing, we didn't have that many VPNs. Not all associates were equipped with laptops and headsets. It was the little things we had to figure out for them to work remotely. Our associates are used to talking face-to-face, so once we got them the technology they needed, the virtual consultation was intuitive.
What have been the results?
Elder: Adapting to a remote environment will undoubtedly have a long-lasting impact on Ferguson. Within a short time, we completely transitioned to a virtual world, adopting video conferencing and virtual showroom consultations in record time. We discovered that virtual consultations are an excellent way for our showroom customers to connect with us, especially for follow-up appointments and to confirm product selections. We've also learned that vendor training can be done efficiently via video conference.
“You need to keep the customer at the center of every solution you consider in this new world.”
For the most part, our customers embraced virtual options. We also had some customers who decided to wait because they want to touch and feel the product. As places opened back up, there was a bit of a backlog to get through. Most importantly, we have learned we are resilient and are now better equipped to face the future.
What have you learned through adapting to a remote environment?
Yackel: We've learned that these tools can serve us past stay-at-home orders. Now that we are open again, we have adopted a hybrid approach. We meet with customers using virtual consultation and the virtual showroom to discuss their product and begin their product selection. Then, we follow up in person to go over and confirm their order.
Additionally, we're using the tool as outreach for local design students. The instructors love it because we are now able to show area design students how to storyboard a project using a high-tech tool. During the design class, we take students on a virtual consultation and showroom tour. Not only do they learn about Ferguson and how we can support their careers and business, and ultimately make their projects better, but they are also learning skills that can help them in their careers.
What advice do you have for others who are trying to figure out this new way or working?
Elder: You need to keep the customer at the center of every solution you consider in this new world. If your solution doesn't resonate with your audience, then it doesn't matter. You can offer the most high-tech solution, but if it doesn't solve their problem if it wasn't the right one. At the same time, you can offer every solution and some people will still wait for you to open back up. That's OK, too.
Yackel: Keep an open mind. You might think that customers don't want to adapt to a new way of doing things, but they can and will surprise you.
Nickens: Keep it simple. Complexity is your enemy. I tell my team if there is a way to reduce complexity, do it and get out of the customers way.