Creative promotions needed in lean times

Tod RiggioSo I’m watching television recently and a commercial for Bassett Furniture comes on, offering custom furniture in a month. My first thought was: Isn’t Bassett a mass producer of furniture? How have they reconfigured their manufacturing operation to make one-offs?

And a 30-day lead time? How can our readers compete with that?

I probably spent the next several minutes imagining a customer shopping at a Bassett store, perhaps bringing in a sketch for a custom chair. The salesman fine-tunes the design, produces a shop drawing, and sends the order to a skilled craftsman who begins the work. Maybe there are dozens of craftsmen at the Bassett shop, filling custom orders like Santa’s elves in the Christmas rush.

First of all, kudos to whoever came up with the advertising campaign. The commercial had me at “custom” and, regardless of how wild my imagination went, the thought of getting what I want in a relatively short time frame was certainly intriguing. I went to the Bassett Web site and discovered you can “design” and order a custom dining table in 30 days, with the ability to choose from nine leg styles in three heights, eight tops and 14 finishes. You can also order custom upholstered pieces, choosing from more than 750 fabrics, for example.

It’s obviously not the custom, one-of-a-kind furniture most of us are familiar with, but rather “customized” furniture. It was certainly better than the ordinary furniture ads, where a guy screams that he can sell you a complete bedroom set for less than the competition.

The ad also led me to discover other marketing ideas from the large furniture retailers. This may interest only me, but they got “large” for a reason, and it’s always interesting to see what the big boys are doing when the economy is going south.

Bassett is promoting a “design consultant at a store near you,” who will visit a customer’s home and create a room plan with furniture, fabric and home décor selections.

IKEA, which opened its first New York City store June 18 in Brooklyn, has a 450-seat restaurant with views of the lower Manhattan skyline and Statue of Liberty, serving Swedish meatballs and a full breakfast for 99 cents.

And you thought free coffee was an exciting enticement?

On a smaller scale, the R. Smith Furniture store in Gardner, Mass., in response to sluggish sales, has opened its second floor to local crafters, renting 120 spaces for about $45. Manager Catherine Carroll told the Worcester Business Journal that the weekend flea market is a response to tough times for the store and the city’s other small business. R. Smith is also launching a Web-based store and will train its 10 employees to work on the Internet side as well. “Part of the reason that we’re doing these things is so that we can keep our workforce,” Carroll told the paper.

A quick Google search of “furniture promotions” produced a bevy of offerings for free and fast delivery, low or zero percent financing options, and the latest fad: offers of free furniture, such as if the Chicago Cubs win the World Series (see “Cubs win, customers win” on page 62 of the June 2008 issue of Woodshop News.)

But my favorite promotion involves The High Point Market, which has scheduled a “Stars Under the Stars” concert series during the fall furniture industry trade show. KC & The Sunshine Band and Peter Frampton are scheduled to appear. What, they couldn’t get Three Dog Night?

What’s your favorite promotion? It doesn’t have to involve selling furniture. Some of the best marketing efforts I’ve seen have been at minor league baseball games, such as shooting hot dogs into the stands with a slingshot, team mascots competing in a race around the bases between innings and postgame fireworks shows.

But what I’d really like to know is: what marketing efforts have been successful for owners of small woodworking businesses? Send an e-mail to editorial@ woodshopnews.com and if I get enough, I’ll share the best ideas in a future column.