What It Takes To Sell Luxury Online: 5 Questions With Smart Furniture CEO T.J. Gentle

5-Questions-MLStarting with its flagship product SmartShelves, Smart Furniture has led the luxury furniture market with its pioneer Design on Demand model. By leveraging manufacturers with advanced design capabilities, Smart Furniture allows customers to build and order customized furniture online, without the usual wait that comes with customized furniture purchases.

“We wanted to provide an easy way to use the Internet to build furniture,” says Smart Furniture President and CEO T.J. Gentle, “And, we wanted our customer experience to be simple and fun.”

Now with more than 120 luxury furniture brands available, Smart Furniture’s primary customers are highly educated, 24 to 36-year-olds with median household incomes of $110k. They are savvy when it comes to technology and belong to the what Nielsen defines as the “Young Digerati” demographic.

Before taking on the role of CEO, Gentle served as Smart Furniture’s VP of operations where he was tasked with finding reliable vendors that had the infrastructure to support Smart Furniture’s needs, while delivering the level of quality Smart Furniture’s customers expected from a luxury brand. “Working in operations, I learned that being able to please customers means meeting or exceeding their expectations,” says Gentle.

Gentle believes that if you fail to provide an exceptional experience, you are very forgettable, “I want to give our customers a better experience here than they wouldn’t receive anywhere else, including a bricks and mortar store.”

With existing customers eight times more likely to make a purchase than a new customer, SmartFurniture.com’s conversion rates reinforce Gentle’s philosophy that the best marketing is outstanding customer service when it comes to the luxury brand audience.

“When people are spending that much money, they really want exactly what they want,” says Gentle, “Our focus has been to provide great service to be rewarded with repeat business.”

For this installment in our “5 Questions” series, Gentle was generous enough to give Marketing Land further insight into Smart Furniture’s marketing strategy and offered his thoughts on what it takes to sell to luxury products online.

5 Questions With SmartFurniture.com CEO T.J. Gentle

Amy Gesenhues: Can you tell me the primary differences between an average B2C audience and a luxury brand audience?

T.J. Gentle: I believe all customers have come to expect good customer service; however, when customers are purchasing premium quality products, they expect the customer service to be extraordinary.  As the price tag goes up, the expectations of extraordinary service follows.

The stakes are higher with luxury brands, and companies must pay special attention to provide their customers with the utmost in customer satisfaction. If you aren’t giving your customers what they want, they will gladly find it elsewhere.

Amy Gesenhues: When it comes to your digital marketing channels, where are you focusing your efforts and how do you leverage these channels differently as a luxury brand?

T.J. Gentle: We have about four to five key customer segments, all of which are very different in terms of age, where they live, and what they do for fun.  So, we target customers in each of those segments a little differently.  In addition to paid search and display networks, we look for opportunities to sponsor blog posts on targeted sites and buy display placements on blogs where the demographics match our segments.

Also, we have found that even within the purchase of search terms, there are more effective ways to reach our key segments.  For instance, bidding on a term like “furniture” in zip codes that have the demographics that match up well with our key segments significantly outperforms bidding on “furniture” as a blanket term.

Amy Gesenhues: Are there any digital marketing channels you avoid?

T.J. Gentle: Although we have tried different timing and tactics, ultimately we have found that it is very difficult to generate relevant and profitable traffic from some media sites. For example, Facebook has been one channel where we have not had much success.  We have found that even with targeted and specific demographics we are simply throwing products at people during their social “off time,” the social equivalent of ringing the doorbell during dinner.

However, being present and available when customers are actively researching their next purchase or creating a design aesthetic has proven to be most valuable in channels such as Google, Bing, Apartment Therapy and Houzz.

Amy Gesenhues: Can you tell us about a specific campaign that delivered the best results in terms of conversions and sales? 

T.J. Gentle: We had a significant amount of success with our Eames Holiday Giveaway Campaign–which we primarily promoted on high end design blogs, on our site, and through email campaigns.  We generated around 60,000 visits from that campaign over a two week period.

Around 50,000 of the visitors completed the contest entry form–which is a very strong conversion rate for us. In the campaign, we gave away 12 very high end products designed by Charles & Ray Eames — one a day for 12 days with the last product being an Eames Lounge Chair that has a retail price of $4,500.

The promotion generated a lot of traffic and a lot of social media discussion. We timed the campaign to be in full swing while we had all Eames and Herman Miller products on sale for the holiday season. We think the campaign was successful for us because we were able to let a very targeted group of potential customers know that we had these beautifully designed pieces of furniture available, and the furniture was on sale. Many of the visitors would return to the site everyday to see if they were the winner for that day.

In addition to generating tens of thousands of leads for people interested in Herman Miller and Eames furniture, we generated over $100,000 in sales which made the ROI very attractive for us.

Amy Gesenhues: What’s been the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your luxury brand audience when it comes to your digital marketing strategies?

T.J. Gentle: The most surprising lesson has been that even customers who have a significant amount of discretionary income still want the best deal available. One might think that that customers in the highest income brackets are not price sensitive, and that is just not true. They want great service and a great deal, which go hand in hand, and that is why we offer award-winning customer service, including a 365-day return policy, and we continue to make technology advances a primary goal of our user experience.

Related Topics: Channel: Retail | E-Commerce | Features: 5 Questions With | Interviews | Top News

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About The Author: is Third Door Media's General Assignment Correspondent, and reports on the latest news and updates for Marketing Land and Search Engine Land. From 2009 to 2012, she was an award-winning syndicated columnist for a number of daily newspapers from New York to Texas. With more than ten years of marketing management experience, she has contributed to a variety of traditional and online publications, including MarketingProfs.com, SoftwareCEO.com, and Sales and Marketing Management Magazine. Read more of Amy's articles.

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