Built to last

You might think that a brick-and-mortar furniture store would have a distinct advantage over on online retailer. After all, it's tough to tell how comfortable a recliner or how soft a mattress might be via a computer monitor. But the retail industry is undergoing dramatic changes these days, especially when it comes to consumer perceptions.

"Consumers seem to think all furniture stores look alike," observes Daryl Kleiman, vice president of merchandising with furniture e-tailer FurnitureFIND. "They don't totally respect the sales person in the retail store. They have to drive to a store, look for parking and put up with other inconveniences that don't exist when they use a computer to search our site. A retail store has to look into a crystal ball and pick product it thinks and hopes will sell and then put it into inventory."

Founded in 1952 as a single brick-and-mortar store, FurnitureFIND began selling furniture exclusively on the Internet in 1996. Surviving the dot-com bust, the company's business today is quite healthy, and growing.

Between e-mail inquiries, phone calls and web traffic, FurnitureFIND receives more than 1 million inquiries a month, which is expected to increase markedly after the launch of a national advertising campaign in several publications. The retailer hopes to see inquiries reach 13.5 million people a month.

FurnitureFIND's model is to offer many different products, currently numbering more than 7,500 SKUs. The company carries no inventory, but boasts an online selection much larger than a traditional retail store could offer. "Once the customer places an order with us, we place it with the manufacturer," notes Kleiman

A problem for the e-tailer was coordinating delivery for orders where several vendors are involved. Although these sorts of orders represent only 6% to 7% of Furniture-FIND's total business, with its old fulfillment provider, service was slow and cumbersome. Kleiman says that all of that has changed since the company entered into a partnership with Exel Direct, the product fulfillment business unit of third-party logistics provider (3PL) Exel.

Previously, FurnitureFIND worked through one warehouse in North Carolina for order fulfillment. "If we were dealing with a vendor in California and the customer lived in the same town as the vendor, the shipment would still have to go from the vendor to North Carolina then back to the customer," says Kleiman. "Today, what will happen is the California vendor's product will be picked up by Exel in California and delivered directly to the consumer. Now I have less lead-time, fewer damages and a happier customer — plus, I'm a lot happier."

"We arrange for transportation from a manufacturer to a consolidation point," explains Jim Kitz, Exel's vice president of business development. "At the consolidation point there are arrangements for line haul transportation. Our goal is to fill trailers quickly and move product in a fashion where it's not put in with general commodity freight, but is handled the way that furniture should be handled. All of that activity — the sweep, consolidation and coordination with the vendor on pickup — is visible in our system and is managed at the local level."

For Exel and FurnitureFIND, the focus is on providing the best service for the end customer. Exel's customer service group manages the account, events and services from its central location in Green Bay, Wis. From there, Exel maintains constant communication with FurnitureFIND to keep it current on product and shipment status, but the 3PL doesn't rely solely on electronic communications.

"It's commonplace for us to work directly one-on-one with those who affect service — whether it's Furniture-FIND's people or those at Exel Direct — to make sure the customer gets what they paid for," Kitz explains.

When product reaches one of Exel's strategically located consolidation facilities, personnel coordinate assembly of shipments — it is uncrated and inspected — making sure all components of the order are in place. At this point, notes Kleiman, "The furniture, to use an industry term, is 'deluxed.' Something man made is not going to be perfect. There may be things that have to be touched up, and maybe the hardware might have to be attached. You want to put the leaf on the table to make sure the glides work. All that is done before the product is brought into the consumer's home. That's very, very important."

FurnitureFIND charges for delivery by piece, with break points being one to two pieces, then three to four, and additional charges for five or more. White glove home delivery service is part of FurnitureFIND's offerings. "As a consumer, I don't like being upcharged, and I didn't want to do that to our customers," Kleiman notes.

FurnitureFIND's original brickand-mortar store in Niles, Mich., now functions as a clearance center for returned products. Reverse logistics is part of Exel's service.

"We give the consumer a 100% satisfaction guarantee," Kleiman explains. "You need a leap of faith to buy big-box items over the Internet. So if it gets to the consumer and it's perfect but the customer doesn't want it for one reason or another, Exel brings it back to the Niles store. Determination of how to dispose of the item is handled internally."

Kleiman is looking forward to greater benefits from the Exel relationship, including the opening of business into Canada. FurnitureFIND will use a 3PL for brokerage services but expects seamless delivery from Exel, with the 3PL handling inspection, deluxing and home delivery, just as it does in the U.S.

resources

Exel www.exel.com

FurnitureFIND www.furniturefind.com

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