What role does the physical showroom play in the digital world?

In the early 80s Olivia Newton-John enjoyed a big hit with ‘Let’s Get Physical’, but would a ‘Let’s Go Digital’ version reach the same heights? What is certain is that the business world is catching up fast. So, what about that good old physical show room? Will it soon be relegated to the past and will products and services be limited to the online realm?

Accelerated evolution instead of revolution

Bart De Waele, CEO of Duke & Grace, is not alarmed: "Physical show rooms won’t disappear anytime soon. However, COVID-19 is speeding up an evolution that has been going on for some time. A combination of a physical and digital approach yields the best results, but digital is starting to take the upper hand in the customer journey as a whole."



Compare it with a funnel ...

At the top are all the people who are aware of your existence and who know what you have to offer; at the bottom are those customers who have actually bought one of your products or services. At the top of the funnel, digital tools have been deployed for many years. For instance, are you in the market for a new kitchen? Then a brief browsing session is all you need to compile a list of kitchen manufacturers that you like. In the past, you had to spend several weekends trudging from show room to show room to get a sense of what the market had to offer. Overnight the lockdown forced us to also organise the bottom of the funnel digitally, but De Waele thinks this won’t last: "In many industries physical contact moments will always play a role, but the digital aspect is becoming increasingly important. Many people - even those with an aversion to digital - have now discovered the convenience of the digital world and expect to find digital solutions everywhere. We have to come to terms with the fact that no aspect of the customer journey is safe from digitalisation."


Digital, but still human

Of course, digital doesn’t have to mean that customer contacts will become cold and impersonal. People must always be at the centre, even when we automate. "We regard the digital world as a world that stands in the way of humanity and building genuine relationships - and undeservedly so. A Zoom meeting obviously has its limits but it does allow you to maintain personal contact. This also goes for social media channels. We can easily do our banking digitally, right down to signing contracts. But the value of the relationship with your bank still resides in the personal contact with your bank advisor. Mine even follows me on Facebook and sometimes reacts to my posts. It’s the equivalent of office managers drinking at the pub with their clients or sponsoring the local volleyball team. Being close to your community is still very important, but nowadays that community is more active online than offline", De Waele concludes.


Physical contact moments as the icing on the cake

A successful sales person is able to assess who they have in front of them and what that person wants or needs. Being a good judge of character is a great asset but the main thing is to ask lots of questions - and online is perfect for that purpose! Moreover, an excellent online tool can help you collect a host of valuable information on a large group of potential customers. This makes it much easier to separate the wheat from the chaff at the top of the funnel that is your customer journey and find those customers that effectively suit your business. More even, in your capacity as a sales professional these are the people you want to coach through the remainder of the sales process.

A concrete example? Suppose you get to see three categories on the site of a kitchen manufacturer: rustic, modern and cheaper kitchens. By subsequently presenting website visitors with different kitchens within a specific category, you can find out a great deal about what they expect from a kitchen. In other words, it’s a kind of Tinder for kitchens. Without online visitors having to share personal information, you can still collect a wealth of information on them, so you can come up with a personalised offer much faster. Don’t ask these potential customers to complete screens filled with outdated questions, but translate this principle to the web instead. In other words, have your future customers go through as many steps as possible online and turn those personal and physical contact moments into something valuable and unique. “Physical contact moments should feel like a present. Better still, like the icing on the cake.”

Mutually reinforcing

Jérémie Dejonghe, Manager of Renovive, an online data platform for construction and interior design businesses, agrees wholeheartedly: "Deploy online and offline in such a way that they reinforce each other. In the building and interior design sector I don’t think it’s a good idea to do everything online, but focusing on both channels makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts. In many show rooms, sales staff still spend a great deal of time looking up prices in a catalogue and this is frustrating, both for customers and sales professionals. Don’t become fixated on sales as the end goal of a digital channel, because the biggest gain is often found in the time savings you can achieve. Automating your everyday practice frees up time to think about your business strategy. After all, it’s hard to innovate when you’re always chasing your own tail. You don’t need a huge physical show room if your aim is to inspire customers in a digital environment. Moreover, you can also integrate digital tools such as touch screens in your show room. This not only saves space, but at the same time it also adds an experience element. This also means you don’t have to revamp your entire show room when certain elements are dated or major innovations are introduced."



Future-proof with Augmented Reality

So, although personal contact moments remain crucial, a number of innovative technologies are becoming increasingly accessible. Many cabinet makers and interior design builders are already familiar with the possibilities of Virtual Reality. With CAD/CAM software, you can bring your plans to life in a three-dimensional environment and let your customers walk through their future interior in 3D goggles. Augmented Reality adds another layer to that 'real world'. This creates a very realistic idea of what custom work will look like in your interior. More and more smartphones are powerful enough to support this technology. Nevertheless, be careful not to lose those personal contact moments with your customer. One idea is to show them how the furniture is made and what choices they have in terms of materials and colours. You can send samples, but also schedule a (digital) contact moment to make the final decision together. In other words, don’t leave the customer hanging with your digital solutions, but keep the contact warm.


Selling apples via live commerce

De Waele also has high hopes for live streaming and even live commerce: “The possibilities are endless. For example, you can answer frequently asked questions and give customers a peek behind the scenes of your business. Or you can give followers a ringside seat at events or introduce them to new products/materials from up close. With live commerce, viewers can even make an online purchase on the spot. In China, a front runner in this field, both are currently tremendously popular. Take the example of a fruit grower: instead of going to an auction, he can sell his apples via live commerce. Instead of a polished commercial, you get to see the farmer in the field, taking a bite out of a juicy apple. It’s perfectly suited to the times. Nowadays, we all want to know exactly where our products come from and we put great stock in craftsmanship and a short chain. Fortunately, video production is very accessible and affordable these days. Telling stories through sound and image has never been easier, with or without live streaming.” What’s more, putting yourself in the spotlight as a maker comes across as very sincere and authentic. So, break out of your comfort zone.


It all starts with taking a healthy interest

Does the implementation of Augmented Reality or live streaming sound complicated? Then start at the top of the customer journey funnel. Via Google, Pinterest, Instagram and other channels, people search for brands and companies that appeal to them. It takes only minimal effort to be present there and inspire potential customers. Experiment to get a handle on the digital language. Don’t be afraid to query your customers: How exactly do they look for information? What data do they need when they do? Which channels do they use most often and what messages appeal to them? However, don’t spend too much time on social media and refer people to your own website or database at the first opportunity. After all, social media is a rented environment: the channels determine to what extent you are able to reach your target group. Moreover, it’s crowded and the algorithms are strict.

Build a database of people interested in your company from the start, so you can email them. With email marketing, you have total control and it doesn’t have to be pushy at all. It’s far from rocket science: building a kitchen is much harder than mounting an email campaign. It just requires a different skill set. Budgets are limited, so making mistakes is possible - and okay. Bite the bullet and realise that you’re really only doing what you’ve been doing all along: creating connections with potential customers.


Looking for specific digital solutions for your online activities such as VR or AR? Or would you like to exchange thoughts on the online (and offline) strategy of your organisation? Then don’t hesitate to contact us!