Furniture and interior design: Austrian retailers lead the way

Knowing what people will want tomorrow is not always easy, but it can be the difference between standing still and having a successful future. Austrian specialist furniture retailers sniff out the trends and then add their experience, expertise and intuition. It is the latter in particular that distinguishes them from the often over-sized chains of furniture stores – and enables them to keep on growing.

At SERVICE&MORE, a "date with tomorrow" means keeping up not only with the latest trends in furniture and interior design but also with developments in digital tools and marketing methods. The latest figures prove that the association must be doing something right.
Christian Wimmer, Managing Director of SERVICE&MORE says: "In 2019, our total membership of GARANT Austria and the WOHNUNION rose to 296 in Austria, South Tyrol, Slovenia and Croatia. Total sales have also increased to €450 million (net)." This has been due in part to the association's continuing marketing activities, but mainly to customers thinking more and more in terms of room concepts. Wimmer: "Our retailers are increasingly selling whole rooms, and consequently fewer individual products. That's what distinguishes our mostly family-run retailers from the big chain stores." That is why, thanks to high-quality, durable products and concepts, good advice and good service, the association's members have managed to achieve another small increase in their market share and sales turnover. Wimmer: "Another thing is that, with our businesses, the company owners themselves always take responsibility for the orders – customers can rely on that."

The difference makes all the difference

Since 2017, under the slogan: "Well-positioned = success on the market", external consultants have been working with our members in free workshops to develop a bespoke concept for every partner company. The aim is to embed a clear picture of that retailer in the minds of potential and existing customers. There have already been twelve workshops, covering a total of 69 retailers. Andreas Schwaiger, Marketing Manager at SERVICE&MORE: "The companies can choose the most suitable from five well thought-out basic strategies. That one will be adapted to strengthen the position of the company in the regional market. Anyone who does not fall into any of the proposed groups can have a very special individual workshop with the professionals to work on their own positioning." A handful of retailers have now completed the entire process and started to implement the results across their whole product range. A further eleven partners are in the implementation phase. GARANT Austria and WOHNUNION will continue to support this project over the years to come. Wimmer: "As an association, we tend to think about collective marketing concepts – and hitherto that has indeed been remarkably effective. But regional is the new organic so we are now really buying into that trend and working on what makes every individual business special. So 296 partners means 296 positioning exercises – and 296 alternative options and different services for customers!"

Where interior design meets plumbing: striking the right balance

About two years ago, SERVICE&MORE took the big step of extending its scope to cover plumbing, bathroom fittings and installation services. In the last year, the segment has been further expanded and developed. Wimmer is pleased: "During the preparatory phase, we did a lot of research and analysis and talked to numerous companies. That really paid off. The trend for "complete bathrooms" that we identified continues unabated – and when it comes to planning and advice, we're real experts."
The association is an exciting new addition to Austria's plumbing, bathroom fitting and installation services sector, which is 90% dominated by wholesalers. SERVICE&MORE offers all its established, tried and tested services, such as collective buying, marketing activities, training courses and workshops for sharing experience, to specialist bathroom installation companies in a slightly modified form.
Helmut Veigl, module manager for Plumbing, Bathroom fittings and Installation Services, worked hard on the product portfolio during the first year, seeking out outstanding suppliers and persuading them to enter into a partnership: "We operate with medium- to high-quality product ranges and are very careful in our choice of supplier partners, not least in view of the retailers that we already have. That's why we are pleased that we were able to attract famous brands like Jacuzzi – global market leaders in wellness – BurgBad and Artweger as supplier partners." The plumbing expert already has his next few manufacturers lined up to join.
Veigl is also satisfied with his suppliers: "We are currently very well placed, with about 30 supplier partners, and we cover a very broad spectrum." The plan for the current year is to continue expanding in the fields of bathroom fittings and installation services. SERVICE&MORE has set itself the ambitious target of having 50 - 60 trading partners within the first five years.

Investing in the digital future

About four years ago, SERVICE&MORE began focussing on digitalisation, with a view to making the association's furniture retailers and interior designers fit for the digital future. A recent highlight is eVA 5.0, the Virtual Shelf. This unique digital tool is currently exclusively available in Austria to SERVICE&MORE partners.

A study commissioned by SERVICE&MORE in 2018 showed among other things that around 30% of potential customers do research on retailers' websites, and 60% of them go directly to the shop for advice. Andreas Schwaiger, Marketing Manager at SERVICE&MORE: "The numerous ways in which customers can research the options and share their experiences on social media mean that our retailers need to be highly trained and have extensive product knowledge, if they are to be perceived as competent advisers. But, even more importantly, showrooms need to be designed differently so that they appear attractive and contemporary."
An important first step was to address the retail partners' websites: these now have a trendy new look with numerous extra features, and member companies can take advantage of multiple options for customisation. Schwaiger: "About two years ago, SERVICE&MORE came up with a positioning concept that enabled our retail partners to develop their own individual, fully customised market presence. And of course that has to be clearly reproduced online." That's why an online coach helps our family-run businesses to create personalised text and images for their websites and to produce newsletters.

SERVICE&MORE also provides assistance with digital campaigns, search engine optimisation and the use of Google Ads. Among other things, the study asked people about their digital behaviour generally. 45% of them use social media platforms every day and get their design ideas from them. Schwaiger: "Obviously, there is huge potential here. Nevertheless, we always recommend that you should only use channels like Facebook and so on commercially if you are really familiar with them. Otherwise your presence there will seem artificial and insincere."

Potential customers will, of course, find inspiration particularly in retailers' showrooms. Many SERVICE&MORE businesses now have a very special way of providing it: customers can use virtual reality headsets to simulate their own homes and future rooms! As a first step, they talk about what they want to achieve with an adviser who measures the exact dimensions of the room.

Next comes the planning stage and all the information is imported via an interface into a special software program. Not long afterwards, it's time to put on the virtual headset and "walk" digitally around your new kitchen or living room. Phillip Kreuzer, digital expert at SERVICE&MORE: "With this tool, everybody wins. It means that decision-making is easier for the potential customer, because they can really experience what their room will be like, and it also helps the furniture retailer with their detailed planning."

Brave new world of interior design

The association is certainly breaking new ground with the introduction of the Virtual Shelf. SERVICE&MORE has invested a great deal in ensuring that its partner companies keep up with the times. Kreuzer: "This tool brings digitalisation into the showroom in a stunning new way and is the perfect aid for our members when they're giving personalised advice."
DThe Virtual Shelf, called eVA 5.0, is an interactive tool that records customers' wishes via a touch screen. It helps them to identify their personal style and offers visual suggestions about how to stamp their personality on a room. Kreuzer: "eVA 5.0 is a huge source of inspiration for customers. It enables them to experience different home furnishing styles and see all the brands that our partner companies have to offer, and discuss it all then and there with the adviser." Favorites can be added to a list in the same way as in other programs, and the sales representative can then work with these and use them in the detailed planning. Kreuzer: "The result always reflects that particular retailer's product portfolio, with no imaginary products being presented but only those that the company can actually offer."
Furniture retailers and interior designers are given a customised version of the tool by SERVICE&MORE right at the start. Then, to make sure it is always up-to-date, they can keep adding their own material and references.

Making life easier for the adviser

Even version 2.0 of eVA, the Digital Sales Assistant, makes the day-to-day lives of furniture retailers and interior designers so much easier: price lists, catalogues and collections are available online and offline at any time, free of charge. The big advantage is that the sales adviser always has the complete product range and all the prices from their main suppliers to hand, so lugging heavy sales folders around has become a thing of the past. All the information advisers need is stored securely in the cloud. If necessary, the sales person can download the portfolio while at the office, so that when they are with the customer they are not dependent on a mobile data connection. They can save all the items for a customer's future room on their tablet and call them up later or put them together in a new project. The system also provides space for adding individual notes and remarks. At the end of the consultation, the interior design adviser has all the information they need readily to hand at the click of a button, so that they can quickly prepare the best possible price quotation.
There are also two important advantages for all the suppliers who are on the system: sales staff have access to the whole range of suppliers at any one time, and the need to produce expensive folders of samples is greatly reduced.
eeVA 2.0 is self-explanatory, so users don't need any training but can start to use it as soon as the program has been installed.
Since 2017, eVA has been available in a completely new app for Android and iOS devices, and for nearly a year the same application has also been available for Windows 10 devices. It now includes all the purchasing paperwork – password-protected – and the suppliers' master data and contact details, and their terms and conditions.
Here again there is a strong focus on individuality, because eVA 2.0 now no longer appears in the SERVICE&MORE corporate design but in that of each particular retailer.

Success with the right partner

SERVICE&MORE is driven by its own aspiration to make its partners more successful. 296 retail partners, including 137 interior designers and 159 furniture retailers, rely on SERVICE&MORE to set the pace and can take advantage of its services not just all over Austria, but now also in South Tyrol, Slovenia and soon in Croatia.

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