Habitation Furnishing + Design in St. Louis Park is upending an industry not known for cutting-edge technology — furniture retail.
Instead of paging through outdated vendor catalogs with missing pages, Habitation provides a computer tablet and large screen TVs to help customers sort through the clutter of ordering home furnishings.
"We empower the buyer and offer a level of technological integration that is unheard of in this business," said Greg Rich, founder and chief curator.
When customers can't find a sofa, sectional or dining set they like in Habitation's 15,000-square-foot showroom, an employee provides a tablet filled with more choices. Or if a customer wants to see what a sofa on the show floor would look like in a different fabric, she can find it on the tablet and cast it to the nearby big-screen TV so it appears almost life-size.
Susan Mackin of Wayzata went into the store recently after friends recommended it and she scoped it out on Facebook. "It felt like a different shopping experience," she said.
After she told a designer what she wanted in a rug, Mackin browsed the store's selection and then looked for more options on a computer tablet. "They were there to guide me and give suggestions, but it wasn't pushy," she said. "It's like shopping online but in the store."
Mackin's special-order rug arrived in five days, another example of what makes Habitation's merchandising strategy different.
Many orders for customized furniture at stores can take eight weeks or more. Rich got that down to a maximum of four weeks by choosing smaller, lesser-known vendors with quick turnarounds.
Retailers are used to consumers shopping around for the best price, a reality that Rich said he doesn't ignore. He expects his customers will comparison shop, but by using vendors that won't let dealers sell for any amount, Rich said he can sell at a competitive price knowing that online competitors aren't undercutting him. He matches all online prices, calling his business a "cross between a design center and an Internet showroom."
Another tweak to tradition is the store's return policy. Returns are allowed for store credit only. The customer gets 80 percent of the price paid immediately and 20 percent 60 days later. Rich said the two-month wait allays cash flow pressure.
If the item goes to the warehouse instead of the floor, two things may happen. It could become part of the inventory for the staging business. Stagers, designers or homeowners can rent the piece out to upgrade the look of a home for sale.
It can also be part of the stock sold at quarterly warehouse sales held off-site. The next sale will be early next year after Rich finds a permanent location for a new warehouse.
Rich also instituted art buyback, furniture donation and wedding registry programs.
Wall art purchased from Habitation can be returned in its original condition, at any point, for 80 percent store credit toward a new piece. Customers having furniture delivered from Habitation can also get rid of up to five unwanted pieces of furniture when the new items are delivered for no additional fee. Rich's wedding registry is designed like a crowd funding account. A person can contribute $100 toward a $1,000 chair of the couple's choice, for example.
The furniture business hasn't changed in 75 years, Rich said. He thinks his audience will appreciate being able to peruse selections on tablets or big screens without a salesperson huddling around a catalog.
"You lose the customer's attention when you're looking through the catalog," said Nancy Christenson, a marketing specialist for Ashley Furniture. "You're always checking to see if the information is current." Ashley has instituted interactive touch screens and 40-inch TVs at several of its showrooms and dealers such as New Uses in Minnetonka and That Furniture Outlet in Edina. "Consumers like them. It gives them the opportunity to shop on their own," she said.
The selection at Habitation (www.habitationdesign.com) includes midcentury, contemporary and transitional pieces. Consumers can find sofas, sectionals and dining sets, as well as unusual pieces, such as wallpaper that peels off nearly as easily as a Post-it note. Habitation is located at 4317 Excelsior Blvd. in St. Louis Park.