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Just One Question for Emily Davidow
Mar 25, 1998 :: Michael Sippey

Besides being the founder of Digital Elements, a WWWAC board member, and an advisor to both of the top web developer conferences, Emily Davidow is the creator of BeHOME, a refreshing combination of content and commerce that makes learning about and shopping for home furnishings, well, fun. Emily was kind enough to take more than a few minutes out of her busy schedule to answer just one question...

MS: I once saw this lovely two-by-two matrix developed by an e-commerce consulting firm which segregated goods sold online into four categories: High Information / High Touch; High Information / Low Touch; Low Information / High Touch; Low Information; Low Touch. Their theory was that products in the "High Information / Low Touch" category (like books) would be easiest to sell, since the Web is so adept at providing reams of information, and you wouldn't actually need to feel the products before making a purchase decision. They had furniture and other "nesting" products in the "High Information / High Touch" category, implying that although the web is good for learning about furniture products, it's not necessarily the best place to actually buy furniture products. What makes BeHOME a place where someone would actually want to place an order for a $1,500 sofa, that they can't even take for a test romp?

ED: Indeed, consulting firms are fond of those two-by-two matrices. I especially love "Internet Opportunities for Various Retail Categories" on page 45 of Morgan Stanley's Internet Retailing Report by Mary Meeker and Sharon Pearson that places furniture in the lowest quadrant, above only "Cigars (it's a 90s thing)". It's true, furniture is a "High Information/High Touch" item, and both of these qualities deserves a little more explanation. But the qualities that make BeHOME a good place to buy a sofa are ultimately universal for Internet retailing.

High Information

Shopping for sofas can be as difficult as shopping for speakers that aren't plugged into a source. You will see sofas that look the same from the outside varying in price by as much as $2000 from store to store. And touch can be deceiving... a sofa could look and feel great in a store, then a few months later the cushions start to sag, the upholstery gets stained. Only then do you learn it's not easily cleaned and there's no way to remove the cushions.

BeHOME demystifies the products by offering complete construction, material, cleaning and warranty information and will never make you feel stupid for asking a question -- we want you to know what you're getting so we can exceed your expectations. Unlike printed catalogs where space is at a premium, we are able to provide greater depth of information along with large and detailed images of each item. Often this information is hard to glean even in a physical store, as most provide only the price and cursory information on the hang tag, and sales people can be busy, uninformed, unwilling to listen or just plain unpleasant.

But you already knew that the Web is a good place to learn about furniture...

Speedy delivery gives BeHOME an advantage over furniture catalogs and many stores where your order takes *at least* 6-8 weeks to arrive. The items shown on the site are available in-stock, so if you see something you like on our site, you can have it in your home within 10 working days (provided you live in the continental United States).

Trust and recourse are major issues for all kinds of Net shopping, and especially so for furniture. Shopping via the Internet feels less concrete than purchasing from a local retail store. How do I know I'm getting what I ordered? What happens if something goes wrong? Is this a fly-by-night-site? Who else will see my information?

We understand those concerns (being heavy Internet shoppers ourselves) and work hard to allay them. Benchmark is a large local retail furniture store in Kansas City and has been around for 30 years. We make all of our policies and practices easily available on the site -- shipping is fully insured and all items (except custom orders) are returnable. We also take a few extra steps for our Internet customers:

  • The customer is provided with a tracking number so they can track their own order easily whenever they want over the Net.
  • Before their sofa leaves our warehouse, it is thoroughly inspected and photographed. The photos are placed on the Web for customers to see and approve that they are getting what they ordered and that it is in mint condition.
  • Telephone assistance is available also -- some people feel more comfortable just hearing a human voice on the other line.
  • We never give or sell out e-mail addresses or other personal information.

Convenience ranks high, as time is our most precious resource. Furniture is usually a joint decision, but couples and families have difficulty finding the time to go shopping together. (When you finally get some quality together time, do you really want to drive around, search for parking then fight crowds?). BeHOME is always open and accessible from anywhere you can access the Web.

High Touch

Alas, our site is not yet close to serving up the sensory experience of plopping down into a deep and comfy club chair, running your hands over the supple leather, easing back and propping your legs up on the ottoman. The site features detailed photos of fabrics and leather to show the pattern and grain online, and animations provide another dimension for motion furniture -- things that recline, swivel, fold out, massage or rock. We also send out free swatches of material on request so you can touch and feel them and see how they look in your home.

Brand names go a long way on the Net, and we focus on them. If you have experienced an Action Lane recliner in your local store, you will know that it is top quality regardless of where it is being sold. Once you are dealing with a brand name product, a known entity, the critical issues become price, service, convenience and immediacy -- areas where BeHOME excels. If we can offer a better price and faster delivery time than the place where you saw the item, why not order online?

With home fashion, many customers fear how to put it all together. Home furnishings catalogs have become highly successful by showing entire room settings in a lifestyle format even though they lack detailed product information and the touch experience. (Sadly, more than a few of our customers came to us after being burned by ordering from these catalogs, only to have their sofas delivered 10 weeks later and not fit through their urban dwelling doorways. No one ever gave them the dimensions or told them to consider that before ordering!)

BeHOME provides lots of educational (and hopefully inspirational) features that show you ways to decorate and create different kinds of spaces from scratch or just enhance what you already have. Unlike the shelter magazines where you have to flip to the back, cross your fingers, hope there's somewhere in your area that carries it and it's affordable, you can order the whole room or just a piece immediately and get all the information you need.

What the matrix failed to tell you

Furniture stores that sell lousy selections in dated displays at ridiculously high margins, cannot provide complete (or even consistent) information about their own products nor easy and timely customer service have been able to survive for a long time because of a lack of alternatives. BeHOME is an alternative. I created BeHOME to make furniture shopping fun and easy and empower people to trust their own good taste. Home should be a wonderful place where you feel comfortable and free to express yourself, and the process of getting there should be as delightful as the result.

The Web will not replace physical furniture stores, but instead enhance them tremendously. Along with customers who have shopped and bought on the website alone, we have many customers who pre-shop on the Web and then come into the store, or have visited our stores but decided later and placed their order through the Web. The physical stores that survive and those that are yet to emerge will be much better for the competition and increased communication with the customer.



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