Selling home furnishings can be a satisfying and financially rewarding career. So, what can be done to elevate
the status of RSAs, starting now in 2021?
This issue of Furniture World celebrates its 150 years of publishing. It is the longest continuously published trade publication in North America and, for all we know, the oldest in the Milky Way Galaxy.
Having written that, 150 years of publishing is a short time when compared with how long humans have used mattresses and furniture. Prehistoric humans padded their sleeping surfaces with soft materials such as moss, dried grass and leaves. It's probable that soft, warm luxurious animal fur was also used by the more prosperous of the Homo Neanderthalensis.
I intend no offense to the Neanderthals. After all, the latest research suggests that we all have a few ancestors from that population. Besides, Homo Sapiens also once lived in caves, and probably acquired their furniture from the same (very) big box store as the other guys.
As humans acquired the polish of civilization—a work still very much in progress, and, I might add, beset with frequent backsliding—they also sought better furniture. If my experience is any guide, women have been a driving force in the social history of home furnishings. I enthusiastically compliment them for their civilizing influence on men. But for the existence of women, more men would still be spending most all of their time in their so called “man caves.“
The Truth Regarding Furniture & Bedding Sales
Can you think of one thing our little history lesson teaches us? It's that home furnishings will always be in demand. Furniture, like food, clothing, and shelter is among the essentials of life in every culture, especially Western Consumer Culture. The selection of furniture available to buy has never been larger. Every adult buys furniture at some point in their life. For every buyer there is a seller. Selling furniture at retail can be a fascinating and financially rewarding career. Yet, for some odd reason, retail sales associates (RSAs) rarely approach their job with the attitude of, “This could be a satisfying, well-paying job where I can develop a large customer base while meeting lots of interesting people!” Instead, it's often more like, “Maybe I’ll try sales. I heard that the bedding store down the street has a help wanted ad running.”
Things Need to Change
Selling furniture and mattresses can be a great career. Unfortunately, at this moment in American Culture, it is not the most prestigious of jobs. I spent six years on the showroom floor before I opened my first store, so you can trust me on this one point. I recall the following exchange with my uncle at a Thanksgiving dinner.
Uncle Ed: “Well, Dave, I haven’t heard much from you lately, what are you doing for a living these days?”
Dave: …hesitatingly, “I’m selling mattresses.”
Uncle Ed: How’s that working out for you? Is your college degree helping you with that?”
Dave: Well, you know I majored in Mattress Sales.”
Guffaws follow, then a much needed change of the subject. Five years later the conversation was a bit different as follows:
Uncle Ed: grinning says, “Dave, still selling those mattresses?”
Dave: “Yeah, Uncle Ed, doing pretty well, in fact. Why don’t you come outside and look at my new Lexus?”
Why isn’t retail sales a prestigious job? To me, one of the big things that needs to change in our business is the lack of respect customers show to salespeople. I think many would-be buyers enter a mattress or furniture store DREADING the inevitable encounter with a salesperson. Shoppers frequently perceive furniture and bedding salespeople to be incompetent, unskilled, untrustworthy, perhaps even dishonest and ignorant.
Of course, not every RSA/UP greeting is met with contempt, but, it happens often enough that we should talk about it.
Start With Attitude
Our customers' disdain for retail salespeople is often well deserved. Generations of poorly prepared, unmotivated RSAs have helped earn their generally seedy reputation. So, what can be done about this problem?
While this cultural perception of salespeople in general will probably never change, individuals pursuing a sales career can turn this around. First, they need to get serious about themselves and their future. How many silly, careless physicians do you know? Medical students and medical doctors are serious about their work; as they should be. Is there some reason why retail sales associates cannot be just as serious about their work? I can tell you this for certain. People who are serious about their work ALWAYS become more successful than non-serious people.
Knowledge is Important Too
What else can help RSAs? Sales educator Peter Marino once wrote in Furniture World that “nothing is more important than what the situation calls for. In terms more meaningful to those in sales, nothing is more important than what a given customer finds important at a given time. Be it attitude, selling skills or product knowledge the customer needs, the salesperson must offer the right combination of these sales components.“ With regard to product knowledge, for starters, make sure that you pass down articles you find in the print edition of Furniture World to your salespeople. Current article links can be found on the home page at www.furninfo.com. Check out the article archives for past issues as well—for free. Sales associates who focus on bedding sales should read “How To Win the Battle For Mattress Sales.“ You won’t need to take out a government loan to pay for it. Have them read other bedding sales books as well, notably those by John F. Lawhon, Gerry Morris and Peter Marino. Take the time to send your RSAs links to sales videos, competitive retailers' websites and manufacturers' websites. Ask them to read and study these materials over and over again. They will learn something new with every viewing.
I first arrived on the scene of furniture and mattress sales in 1991 at a now-defunct furniture store in Southern California. Sure enough, there were copies of the latest issue of Furniture World laying around in the break lounge. I have been reading them ever since.
The magazine has changed its appearance quite a bit since then, even though its essence remains. And, that essence is to impart meaningful, accurate and useful information that furniture retailers can appreciate and understand. Serious sales discussion and training ideas are part of every issue.
In fact, a lot has changed about the furniture and bedding industry since I attended my first sales training class nearly 30 years ago.
What Has & Hasn't Changed
We've all noticed that the supply chain for home furnishings has had a major geographic shift eastward. I’m not here to discuss the politics, economics or morality of this shift. How long it will last is anybody’s guess. The reality is probably that the “genie is out of the bottle, the toothpaste is out of the tube“ and to quote Bruce Springsteen, “they ain’t comin’ back.”
Other big and obvious changes have occurred as online-only retailers and DTC models for furniture and bedding proliferated. We’ve gone from local brick and mortar stores, with a sprinkling of shopping mall stores, to internet marketing and selling. From a longer time perspective, however, consider how much different the internet titans are from the Sears Catalog that sold general merchandise including furniture and bedding back in 1896. Not as much as most people think. And, what about today's DTC mattress sales pitches? Are they much different than those of Ostermoor Mattress (see the ad from the turn of the 20th century above)? Sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same.
What has not changed? It's my opinion that the showroom floor customer/retail salesperson interchange/encounter has not changed significantly. Even with the growth of online sales, chat, email and video conferencing, this relationship remains the most important conversation in the furniture and bedding business. The competent, professional retail sales associate is more important than ever; and, can make more money than ever before.
Retail sales can be a great career. John F. Lawhon said, “Sales can be the highest paid, easiest work there is.” And I agree. It CAN be. But, nothing happens without first adopting a serious positive attitude and then putting in the work to make sales happen.