Observations by Claire Irving

In my experience the gap between expectation and reality can cause disappointment. This was made clear to me after the birth of my first child. As proud new parents we excitedly commissioned a photographer to take pictures of us with our wee bundle of joy. In my mind’s eye I foresaw the photos turning out similar to an Estee Lauder advertisement - us all dewy skin, with golden locks, white teeth and misty smiles as we tossed our progeny playfully in the air while a golden Labrador puppy played around our picnic basket. When the eagerly anticipated photographs came back they looked somewhat different…Six months of sleep deprivation and no gym visits had clearly taken their toll; we looked pasty and bloated. My hair resembled a raccoon as I’d clearly overlooked the mandatory two monthly visits to the hairdressers in favor of a few too many muffins and whole milk lattes whilst breast-feeding in Starbucks.  My husband’s first reaction on seeing the photographs was that we’d looked like we’d eaten ourselves. Gwyneth Paltrow clearly need not feel threatened!

Home shopping using catalogues and online photographs as stimuli reminds me of the salutary lesson learned from that photographic experience. Now as a parent of three young boys I have little choice but to shop from home as visits to the mall, Main Street or the city shops with three young kids in tow is beyond stressful and going alone is a rare treat squeezed between swimming lessons and soccer practice. Lately I’ve become too fixated on Pottery Barn. Online shopping with them would be a breeze if you’re an altogether more disciplined and considered online shopper; the type of person who diligently sends off for samples, measures spaces accurately and takes more note of the exact type of lighting fittings required.

Alas, I do not fall into such a segment. I’m more the impulsive online shopper; once I have an idea in my head I have to purchase the item and cannot wait the extra day or two for a wood sample or fabric swatch to come through. When Charles the nice UPS man brings the eagerly awaited products the net result of my have it now mentality is my expectations are often not instantly met and I end up spending the next two days packing the stuff back up and queuing for eons at the Post Office. Pottery Barn’s interpretation of smoky blue (green/blue) is somewhat different to mine (grey/blue), and their kids’ tables are way too low even for small kids. However, whatever Pottery Barn lacks in its interpretation of color and its desire or short kids, they make up for by having a clear style and personality for their brand that defines their particular category niche. Plus their customer service rocks.

There are, however, a multitude of online and catalogue retailers which I’ll term disposable brands. Every Wednesday and Friday (clearly anticipating my weekend shopping spree when the husband can occupy the kids) my post box groans under the weight of home-ware catalogues that spuriously make their way to me. However these disposable brands all blend into one. Their products look like they’ve been sourced from the same manufacturer, the visual and verbal style of the catalogues are variations on a similar theme, the product pricing is close and the company names all invariably incorporate the word home or design. If I happen to come across a product I like, then misplace the catalogue in the recycling it takes an hour of searching on Google to come up with the retailer’s name such is their lack of brand stand-out. Their email strategies don’t appear to work well for me either. I get countless notifications of sales, special offers and X % off which I find overwhelming and duly trash before opening.

In this post consumer era, we seem hell-bent on acquiring stuff, more stuff and yet more stuff. For brands that compete in crowded categories like homewares, derivative strategy is simply not good enough. Many of these brands feel like they subscribe to the me too school of business strategy. They’re wasting precious marketing dollars on the mistaken philosophy if you sling enough mud eventually something will stick. Playing for the long term and adopting a more distinctive focus and proposition will secure longevity and increase sales.

A distinctive name and accompanying visual and verbal style that makes these brands feel different and simultaneously on-trend is 101. However if creating this style involves developing a one-dimensional creative idea for direct mail and online agencies to translate their wares into their respective mediums then a trick has been missed. To drive loyalty and secure higher margin revenue a fully rounded concept is required. It must stem from the business strategy and provide the backbone for defining the entire operation. It needs to be directive to enable each function to clearly integrate under a strong vision and therefore outwardly create a distinctive personality and identifiable customer service style.

How a brand then engages us also needs to change (what they offer, how they offer it and when they offer it). Home decor is an organic process; how we accessorize our homes changes with life-stage, lifestyle and as we develop as individuals. Some homeware companies would be better off refocusing their marketing budgets – more emails and catalogues doesn’t necessarily translate into more for the bottom line. They need to demonstrate they understand the nuances between customer segments and cater for differing need-states and motivations. Offerings need to engage customers in a more meaningful two-way dialogue that isn’t just a diatribe about price or product. Brands that focus on the personal and psychological journey involved with home styling and develop a distinctive way of doing this will develop the stickability that helps catalogues and emails transcend trash bins. They will create a special relationship with their consumers and be positioned more as lifelong partners who can be trusted to help them to continually evolve their homes.