Hire purchase businesses swivel in pandemic
(right) Pamille Shaw-Blair(right), general manager of Ashley Furniture HomeStore General, upsells the Devonee Ceramic Jar and DrewingBar Height table to customer Lorna McIntosh. (Photo: Garfield Robinson)

Local furniture stores have had to find unique, innovative ways to keep the doors open for business in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic and significant disruption to the global shipping industry.

Despite social distancing protocols and curfews affecting business hours and foot traffic to stores, there has been an increase in demand with the work-from-home orders and virtual classes having a significant impact.

“The pandemic started December 2019,” began senior product coordinator at Singer Jamaica Limited Farisha Easy. “We recognised very early how dependent our business was on international shipping. So having gone through the uncertainties of 2020, we would have been more prepared for 2021.”

Easy spoke about her company's strategy for combating the double whammy of a pandemic and a shipping crisis through forward-thinking and planning.

“We're seeing lots of delays and lead times are longer, but what it requires is planning. So in the past you could plan, say four months ahead, but now you plan 12 months ahead. So, if you know you want some items in September [of this year], maybe from December 2020, you'd have to figure those out,” she told the Jamaica Observer.

“We would stock products that will usually perform so that we could have consistent supply. And we know that, if there are shortages, we want to have a competitive advantage by having the product, then we will have a high chance of performing,” she revealed.

With the back rooms stacked with guaranteed performers like bedroom furniture, Easy said Singer has experienced a roughly similar amount of walk-in traffic in their 20 physical locations as its online store is underutilised.

She insisted that customers prefer walking in to get a literal feel for the products. But, further to providing what is needed based on what products Singer has stockpiled, she pointed out that the company has another competitive advantage.

“If you have an idea of the product that you want, we can share with you images…give an estimate [cost] and we can secure that product for you. So we do have special orders.” Easy concluded that, “We use what our customers are asking for to determine our range.”

These methods for navigating the shipping crisis in combination with the pandemic-led surge in demand has seen Singer record marginal increases year on year since these crises began. There was a six per cent increase in 2019, followed by a seven per cent increase in 2020, and as much as 15 per cent increase year to date.

Meanwhile, other furniture stores, which don't get the majority of their stock from Asia or have options besides that region, are likewise experiencing a bounceback.

General manager for Ashley Furniture HomeStores Pamille Shaw-Blair told the Sunday Finance that the company has not been too adversely impacted by the global shipping crisis.

“The Ashley Furniture HomeStores operating in Jamaica have been affected by global supply chain difficulties, including extended shipping delays, however, this has not hindered our ability to continue to offer our customers exceptional service,” said Shaw-Blair.

“Thankfully, we are a part of the successful Ashley Furniture franchise across the globe, which allowed us access to multiple factories across the world. This allowed us to adjust our demand planning and inventory management strategies to secure products to supply the Jamaican market,” she continued

Shaw-Blair also explained that the company has been able to maintain its market share by offering a variety of services in addition to retailing, due to the Disaster Risk Management Act, which is responsible for the work-from-home mandates and curfews.

“Ashley's furnishing solutions are on trend for housing development solutions. We offer furnishing solutions to homeowners and residents of investment properties. We also note the increase in demand from real estate professionals marketing properties through staging and other strategies,” she detailed.

What's more, they deployed added marketing tactics to complement their global approach.

“During the height of the pandemic, Ashley HomeStores in Jamaica provided remote sales processing, kerbside pickups, and personalised shopping options. We engaged our customers through Facebook shop, interior design tips, workshops, and webinars, which kept us in touch with our loyal customers,” Shaw-Blair told the Sunday Finance.

This kind of digital policy is to be expected in the circumstances, and lifestyle furniture and home decor store Spaces has committed itself to that direction.

Creative Director Janelle Pantry-Coke said in-store traffic to its Ardenne Road location has declined, but that, in return, traffic to the Spaces website has shot up with customers choosing to conduct more business electronically.

Consequently, Spaces has opted to use Instagram as a marketing tool to drive more traffic to the website to inform customers about the services and products offered.

“What we have been forced to do is pivot and push a lot of our service. While we are a furniture store, we also have interior decorating and design services which were able to subsidise/compensate for the retail division of Spaces,” she said.

Spaces, in addition to providing interior decorating and design services, create 3D rendering of furnishing layouts and mood boards to help clients who are renovating.

This was a necessary move, given the issue faced in sourcing products from local providers and those in the United States and the Far East.

“Within the last 12 months there has been a shortage of products such as sofas, beds, chairs, décor items, and wall arts that fall under home furnishing. And then there are price increases. If you found products available, it is now at least 50 per cent more than what it was a year ago,” she said, noting that, despite a 30 per cent increase year to date in demand for products, the challenge has been in meeting that demand because of the logistical issues.

She, however, remains hopeful about the full embracing of e-commerce, “We hope that, come 2022, we will find more people actively pulling the trigger on e-commerce. So, whereas they'll go on the website and see the items on the site, they still call and reach out to us, then come into the store to make the final purchase.”

Janelle Pantry-Coke, creativedirector for Spaces Limited
3D rendering of a living room done by Spaces Limited
Farisha Easy, senior product coordinator for Singer JamaicaLimited

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