The furniture sector was traditionally the preserve of bricks-and-mortar retailers but e-tailer Made.com has helped shake up long-held perceptions of how furniture should be sold.

Made.com is still investing in showrooms even though it is very much an online retail brand and it has picked Amsterdam for its sixth permanent showroom.

There are three UK showrooms and Made.com head of showrooms, Rebecca Ruddle, envisages there could be space for another three or four in the UK.

"Showrooms are a really important part of our strategy but we still want to stay true to our brand," says Ruddle. "We are not going to have a showroom in every town on every high street, we just want a few throughout the countries we are in for customers to be able to come and see the bigger purchase items."

The end of tills?

Visitors to the showrooms are able to see the products in person, but if they wish to order anything they must order online via a Mac, rather than being able to pay at a till.

Ruddle says customers are as willing to buy online while in the store as they would be to make the purchase at a till, and believes they get a better customer experience in doing so.

"We offer the chance to purchase online so we are capturing everything properly and they have the same customer journey as they would if they were to order at home," says Ruddle. "We wanted to make sure that in-store customers had the same experience and added benefits that we provide by ordering online with all the updates on their orders and the email correspondence."

She believes the industry is moving towards this model and highlights as evidence the rise of iZettle payments and big high street retailers equipping store staff with tablets.

"I think it is the future of retailing to do away with till points and just have technology points to be able to purchase," says Ruddle.

Conversational commerce

Ruddle is using the Made.com showrooms to "bring the online offline" through the trial of new technology that she believes is more conversational than chatbots or instant messaging-style live chat.

The trial invited customers who were browsing from home to click on an icon on the website to chat with an in-store assistant on the latter’s iPhone or iPad device.

During the month long trial around 320 customers used the chat function and the average conversation lasted about 20 minutes.

The option to chat only appeared to a customer browsing on Made.com if a store assistant marked themselves as available.

Both conversion rates and the average spend improved with the customers who were involved in the trial. Ruddle believes this was because the feature gives them "more confidence on the higher price purchases".

The second wave of the trial will launch this week in the Leeds showroom and if successful will be rolled out to all showrooms.

"The holy grail is for it to perform better than our regular live chat, take some of the pressure off the call centre, and increase the productivity of each of the showrooms so they are working harder for us," says Ruddle.

Despite chatbots being all the rage, Ruddle believes it is "much better to speak to a human being" because they are better at handling the trickier questions that usually determine whether a customer makes a purchase or not.

"It is all about being more conversational rather than robotic and factual," concludes Ruddle. 

Hear Ruddle explain more about Made.com at RBTE 2017, on Monday 8 May 13.25-13.55