Replicating the appeal of the home and garden showroom online

Ed Bussey

CSO, Content

Shopping for homeware was traditionally a hands-on experience. Deciding on that new sofa or dining table typically involved touring various showrooms, meandering amongst carefully curated interior spaces, sitting down on chairs, inspecting tables, comparing fabrics and finishes. Although the homeware sector has taken significant strides towards a well-established online presence over the past two decades, some industry leaders have proven surprisingly sluggish about embracing an eCommerce future. Others simply underestimated the significance, scale, and scope of the digital transition required, neglecting to prioritise their online experience.

The global pandemic has made the shift to an online-focused operation more pressing than ever. To thrive in the digital-first future, traditional homeware retailers must take a leaf out of the books of pure plays like MADE and Swoon; building sophisticated digital stores that simplify the purchase journey and bring customers in, while intelligently using their physical presence to demo products and inspire.

With vast swathes of the population spending more time at home, the home and garden category has the potential to thrive in the months ahead. But our recent analysis of 50 home and garden companies has revealed some surprising gaps and omissions in their eCommerce offerings. By simply implementing the right sort of content, many of these companies could gain and retain a much larger proportion of online market share, supercharging customer acquisition and retention, even in economically challenging times.

The location

The websites of most brands and retailers are suddenly their primary means of engagement with customers, both old and new. That means their online presence has now become the equivalent of a flagship store and must be equipped accordingly. The good news is that in the online realm, optimising category description content for SEO can serve the same function as having a strong and enticingly laid out retail outlet on a sought-after high street, attracting new customers, especially at the initial consideration and evaluation stages of the purchase journey. With 80% of shoppers ignoring Google’s paid ads, securing a top-five result from organic search queries is essential. To achieve this, ranking well for generic category terms with high volumes of search traffic, and long-tail category terms with high purchase intent, through high-quality category content, optimised with the correct vocabulary and metadata to search, is critical to success.

According to our recent assessment of 50 leading home and garden retailers, 52% are missing out on valuable organic traffic by having sub-standard category descriptions. Habitat was a top performer in this area, providing well-formatted, useful, and highly relevant category information, linking to appropriate products with key phrases and metadata optimised for semantic search. Recognising the critical role of category content, Habitat displays an impressive level of detail – providing unique descriptions for each one of its minor subcategories, as well as the main sections. For example, under its ‘Sofa and Armchair’ category, interesting and well-written category descriptions are supplied for no fewer than 14 sub-categories, including ‘Two-seater sofas’, ‘Three-seater sofas’ and ‘Sofa beds’.

In SEO terms, this attention to detail certainly pays off: Habitat scores front page SERP listings on Google for most searches of these sub-category terms, generating significant levels of traffic. Little surprise then that even pre-pandemic, 85% of their sales were online.

Search optimised category descriptions attract online ‘footfall’, just as your physical stores would

The showroom

Attracting traffic, however, is only the first hurdle. To convert these browsers into buyers, home and garden retailers need to inspire and engage them by recreating the experience of the showroom, online. Virtual room technologies offer a partial solution, but unless backed up with strong product information content, will still leave many questions unanswered. To serve consumer needs at a more fundamental level, truly effective product descriptions are key, however, 98% of brands in our assessment published incomplete product descriptions.

Aside from the fact that detailed product descriptions can also entice potential buyers to your site, they play a key role in creating a helpful, friction-free online showroom, making up for the inability to touch, feel or smell products and consequently boosting conversions and basket sizes while reducing returns.

For a lamp, this may mean descriptions of brightness and tone (e.g. atmospheric versus practical lighting) that may not be apparent from a product photo, coupled with sizing information and suggested styling options. For candles or home fragrances, it will mean an evocative description of the scents. In the case of a sofa, it means offering clear visuals alongside detailed and carefully written copy, providing an account of the fabric, explaining whether the sofa is firm or ‘squishy’, and supplying advice on where it would look best. The Range, which performed well in our recent assessment, sets a good example with the sort of top-notch, informative product descriptions that are likely to convert.

Online product descriptions need to replicate the experience of seeing and touching items in an offline showroom

The sales assistant

Online, there’s no knowledgeable sales assistant on hand to highlight the features and benefits of your products, to answer a shopper’s questions, or to offer advice. Chat functions are one potential solution, but most consumers prefer to have all the information they need at their fingertips, without having to seek out additional help. When it comes to providing information about your products, less is never more.

While carefully curated product descriptions go a long way in answering pre-purchase information on a specific product, often consumers want to weigh up a variety of options. Providing a carefully presented selection of written and visual guides is one way of facilitating this while mitigating the lack of sales assistants online. Quality guide content can enable you to pre-empt consumer queries, provide style tips or inspiration for those shoppers who don’t already have a specific product in mind or highlight the respective benefits of specific products or ranges to help consumers make a choice. Guide content on topics such as how to style a hallway or advice on choosing a dining table could also significantly boost a brand’s traffic by generating ‘featured snippets’ and other high-ranking SEO results.

In our recent assessment, 26% of brands reviewed had poor quality guides or a total absence of guide content. MADE excelled in our recent assessment with its well-written and topical guide content, which showcases its products, offers styling advice, and links to a host of relevant products. MADE’s extensive ‘Ideas’ section includes ‘Style Tips’, ‘Room Ideas’ and ‘Inspiration’. The latter features highly relevant articles such as, ‘Desk dilemmas: how to create a productive WFH spot’, with handy advice for socially isolating workers seeking to create productive spaces at home.

How-to and buying guides can replicate sales assistants – answering pre-purchase questions while offering styling tips and inspiration

The visual merchandising

Augmenting your product description and guide content with compelling visuals is absolutely critical to supporting consumer confidence about a potential purchase. In addition to features such as 360-degree product imagery that showcases an item from all angles, another potential solution lies in visual AI technologies, which can be used to help consumers visualise how a piece of furniture may look in their home. For example, sofa giant DFS’s room planner tool lets shoppers see the sofa in their chosen home space before they commit to a major purchase.

However, retailers can still achieve maximum impact with consumers who are less comfortable with new technologies by simply incorporating compelling ideas and strong visuals in their guide content. Ikea’s ‘living ideas’ pages offer an excellent example of this, showing large images of aspirational interior spaces, casually filled with the brand’s products, across various rooms in a house.

Remember, ensuring that your visual tools are mobile-friendly is critical: in the first quarter of 2019, almost half of all eCommerce transactions in the US happened on smartphones.

Visual guides can go a long way to replacing visual merchandising in the online sphere

Home and garden retailers must be at home online

Despite the growing emphasis on eCommerce, many home and garden retailers have maintained a reliance on bricks and mortar showrooms as a physical backup to their online businesses. Others, such as MADE, which began as a purely eCommerce entity, have since added bricks and mortar showrooms to supplement their online offerings.  But in an era of social distancing, this omnichannel approach is becoming increasingly costly and logistically problematic.

Of course, it’s always nice to have an offline store and showroom, but homeware websites need to be self-sufficient – and to work well without them – keeping up with consumer expectations for immediacy, convenience, and even personalisation. In the digital age, shoppers can peruse goods at their leisure – whenever and wherever they want. If a website fails to provide the information and the reassurance they need before making a purchase, they’ll simply go elsewhere.

By employing high-quality content and by personalising their offering, home and garden retailers can retain the loyalty of their traditional customer base, while attracting a new generation of consumers. Even in a climate of economic uncertainty, brands that treat their content with the pre-eminence it deserves are likely to reap significant rewards.

How does your store measure up?

Ecommerce Content assets – such as product and category descriptions, buying and how-to guides – although frequently overlooked, are a critical driver of revenue, reputation, and ROI for online retailers, helping to:

  • Increase search rankings and traffic
  • Improve conversion rates, AOVs and product return rates
  • Create positive, on-brand online experiences

Is your eCommerce Content up to scratch? To find out, request a complementary Ecommerce Content Score audit of your site.