City Furniture updates in-store communication systems

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Despite hurricanes and giant reptiles, the Sunshine State continues to bask in the glow of economic good fortune. Florida’s population has increased 13 percent since the Great Recession and has the fourth-largest economy in the United States.

It’s good to be City Furniture in a place with such impressive growth. Established in the 1970s, the company is known around south and central Florida for its expansive showrooms with furnishings in various styles and price points. With 29 locations and stores that range from 80,000 to 125,000 square feet, it’s hard for a shopper not to find something that fits their needs and budget.

However, managing sales in a space that large has always been a challenge. Customers may come and look, but they often have questions about high-ticket items like couches, beds and dressers before they buy. A knowledgeable sales staff is necessary — and they need to be spread throughout the store in order to help the most customers, since it can be a five-minute walk from one side of the showroom to the other.

CUSTOMIZED PROGRAMS

As mobile devices and high-speed internet became commonplace, City Furniture began to see a problem. “We were still using central desks,” says Chad Simpson, vice president and deputy CIO of the Fort Lauderdale-based company. “You’d go over with the customer to look at a product, then come back and sit down with them and place the order on an old-school, green screen terminal. It all worked but times had changed. We needed to give our salespeople the ability to move with the customer and get their order in anywhere.”

Perhaps the most bothersome aspect was the walkie-talkie system the company used: With an earpiece and microphone on the shirt collar wired to a pack attached to a belt, the communications system worked — managers could reach any staffer in seconds — but it had its limitations.

“The biggest issue for sales associates was distraction,” says Britney West, an IT sales analyst with the company. “You would be talking to a customer and suddenly a random conversation from the walkie-talkie is flowing in your ear. People would often pull out the earpiece and forget to put it back in, which made reaching them difficult.”

After a long evaluation to see what they needed, Simpson and his team embarked on a wide-ranging plan to update City Furniture’s technology in 2016. The first step was ditching the old desktop terminals for iPads. “The Apple devices have been around; they’re easy to use and reliable,” Simpson says. “We knew our sales associates would embrace them when they saw what they could do.”

However, Simpson knew the “mobile journey” the company was taking couldn’t be rushed. “We’ve learned from the experience of other retailers who tried to go mobile too quickly. They would give everyone tablets or laptops and send them back to the sales floor without much training. The result was a kind of half-hearted use of the technology.”

West and members of the IT department flew to Silicon Valley to meet with representatives of Apple and IBM to see which apps would work best for the company’s 1,300 sales associates. Customized programs were developed that allowed staffers to show merchandise in real-time inventory and available through ordering and make suggestions based on customer preferences, as well as handle payments and take care of deliveries.

“It really transformed how our sales associates would work,” West says. “They could show customers products on the sales floor, then go over details including colors, sizes, purchase and delivery on the iPad without going back and forth to a desktop terminal.”

SYSTEM-WIDE COMMUNICATION

But there was still an issue — those walkie-talkies. “At this point we were confidently moving into the 21st century except when it came to communicating on the sales floor, so we started doing some research,” Simpson says.

After checking out Zello — a “push to talk” app that operates online and through cell networks — Simpson and his team started experimenting.

“We got opinions from our sales associates about which Bluetooth earpieces worked best, then tried it out in one of the stores,” Simpson says. “The results were phenomenal. It drove home that this was going to be a huge change for our sales department.”

Besides being able to open the Zello app on the iPad to communicate, not having the distraction of multiple conversations in one’s ear was seen as the biggest improvement. “The great thing about Zello is that it gives you the ability to talk one-on-one to someone on a channel, or you can talk to a group,” says Wendy Mejia, customer success manager for Zello. “We made some tweaks for them to allow it to run in the background and they loved it.”

In addition, an app was added to the iPad package to allow users to make and receive calls. “They’re not tethered to a desk phone anymore,” Simpson says. “Using the softphone app and Bluetooth they can prospect as well as have inbound callers easily reach them.”

However, it was the addition of Zello to the package that made the iPad changeover a success for City Furniture. “A sales associate may need a manager’s help with a customer’s question,” West says. “In the past they put out a call on the walkie-talkie, disturbing everyone else, and the manager had to get over to where the associate and customer were standing. Now, the associate can quickly talk to the manager privately with Zello and may be able to get an answer right there.”

Because it’s system-wide, the company can directly communicate with all associates in all stores instantaneously. “Before we would have had to call each store and management would have had to talk to the staff,” Simpson says. “Now we can speak with them directly on the app.”

CHANGING ‘MUSCLE MEMORY’

City Furniture planned a six-month rollout for the new system. Broadband was upgraded in all stores; Simpson and his team used the store located next to company headquarters to test and tweak how they wanted it to work.

“We knew if we just issued the iPads out with all of the apps it would be overwhelming,” West says. “We were changing the way sales associates make their living, so we had to do this right.”

The company gradually introduced and trained associates on how to use each app. With each touchstone of achievement on the new system, a part of the old system was removed.

“The point was to make the transition as seamless as possible and for the most part, that’s how it went,” West says. “Getting that ‘muscle memory’ to change how you emailed or completed a transaction took a little time, but we felt we had a good replacement.”

In the future, Simpson hopes to see City Furniture expand the use of Zello throughout the company. “To be able to communicate instantly up and down the organization is going to be great. For someone in sales who has a supply chain question or a delivery tech on the road who needs a quick answer, it’s going to make what we do better.”

John Morell is a Los Angeles-based writer who has covered retail and business topics for a number of publications around the world.

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