Wayfair's Whitman talks trends in the home space

Personalizing the online-shopping experience in the home space, marketing to Millennials, and accounting for the unique emotional connection consumers have for all things related to their abodes were among the topics discussed as Sarah Dignan Whitman, VP at Wayfair Supply and AllModern, spoke with PRWeek prior to the Spong PR-hosted roundtable.

Sarah Dignan Whitman, VP at Wayfair Supply and AllModern
Sarah Dignan Whitman, VP at Wayfair Supply and AllModern

Gideon Fidelzeid: How has the proliferation of TV shows and networks devoted to all things home changed consumer behavior and, in turn, how Wayfair and all entities in this space operate?

Sarah Whitman: To cite a specific show, Love It or List It, I find it fascinating how many people choose to keep their house as opposed to selling it and buying a home that seemingly suits their needs better. That speaks to the passion and emotional connection people have for their home. They have so much pride, joy, and memories there, they want to make it work.

The home tends to be people’s favorite place in the world. HGTV and similar networks have amplified that. However, it’s not just TV. It’s this explosion across all mediums that really gives consumers access to ideas for inspiration, DIY, and home improvement. Companies in the space have to follow suit or be left behind.

Wayfair’s tagline is "A Zillion things Home." Giving consumers access to the most diverse, wide selection of product is key. People will see all these ideas on HGTV and the like and they want to recreate that for themselves. Wayfair needs to provide the products that enable them to do that.

The TV offerings have also raised the stakes in terms of content. Wayfair, for example, is not just focused on creating a destination for people who know exactly what they want. Perhaps more so, it is about creating a place where people can find new options and discover new things.

And in terms of the actual content, we’re doing a few different things. First, we develop our own content story. If you go to the inspiration section of our website, we have a huge bank of content that is partially inspirational, partially instructional. We have an inspirational gallery where we combine photography we’ve taken ourselves with images that have been submitted by the interior designers who work with us. And we’ve created this "Shop the Look" section so visitors can browse different types of styles. They are taken through the process of clicking and purchasing things that look very similar – if not the exact same product – to what they see in the imagery.

We also have a daily email program that is essentially curated collections and daily promotions to help inspire customers on a regular basis. We’re constantly trying to take that 7-million-product-strong catalog of ours and curate it down to a more manageable experience for customers.

Fidelzeid: Wayfair is the largest online-only retailer for home in the US. Home, however, seems to be a sector where touching and trying would be an integral part of the buying process. How do you combat that as an online-only site or with online content generally?

Whitman: When we started our company 12 years ago, this conversation took place all the time with manufacturers. The idea of purchasing something such as a sofa online was unheard of. A lot of manufacturers didn’t feel anyone could ever make this kind of a decision without seeing the actual product in person.

So our challenge – and it’s the same now as it was then – is to bring as much of that in-person experience to the online experience. We focus on having really rich content, as rich as possible on every single SKU [stock keeping unit] we have on site. This includes inspirational imagery, very detailed product descriptions, and myriad product specifications. We try to include every conceivable detail you would ask about if you’re in a store.

Customer feedback is absolutely crucial here. Wayfair is very focused on reviews and making sure customers share their experience with products in order to help inspire other customers.

We also invest a lot into our customer service. That human interaction is crucial. We make sure it’s very easy to contact us and get somebody on the phone. In fact, we have about 400 or 500 people dedicated to sales and service. We don’t call them salespeople. We call them design consultants. They don’t just sell product. These are the people customers call with questions about swatch samples and fabrics.

As styles are diversifying and people really want to create spaces that are their own, we find customers are gravitating toward shopping experiences based more around selection and options than based around that in-person experience. So more people are coming around to the possibility of buying a sofa – and all items for the home – online.

Fidelzeid: Many brands view Millennials as a key demographic. Please discuss how Wayfair tailors its messaging for this group.

Whitman: This is a demographic that is much more inclined to purchase online. As Millennials grow older and have more money to spend, the online space will become even more crucial for all brands in the home sector.

As for focal points in messaging, the concentration is on entry-level products and price points. It’s more around maximizing a small space, how to choose the best bedding for your budget, and basic design ideas.

DIY content resonates particularly well with Millennials. Tell them how they can take something they find at a flea market and make it look really cool and fun.

Fidelzeid: Buying a home is the most important purchase of most people’s lives. As such, everything surrounding the home tends to elicit incredible emotion. Where does the emotional factor enter the marketing equation for brands in this space?

Whitman: It starts with the realization that the home space is different to almost any other category. Take technology. People purchase an iPhone and feel it’s really special because they can personalize it. However, millions of people have the same iPhone.

That is just not the way it is in the home space. You don’t go to your next-door neighbor’s house craving to have the same exact sofa or lighting fixtures. That pursuit of something that is uniquely yours is paramount in this space. Content needs to do more than inform. It needs to inspire homeowners and give them the confidence to develop their own style. You don’t have to fit into the "modern," "transitional," or "contemporary" box. You can mix and match all of those to create a style that is uniquely yours.

Fidelzeid: What room in the house do people tend to devote the most attention to when it comes to designing it?

Whitman: We do a lot of curated events around the man cave that perform very well. It’s an interesting evolution of a space where men feel as if they can have their own personal style.

The space where we see customers spend the most time and probably the most money is in the great room. Most people want that area to serve a lot of different purposes, which can be really challenging from a design perspective because you want it to be a place where you can entertain, where your kids can hang out, and where the entire family can gather to watch TV. It’s the room where you really look to strike that balance between formality and informality, livable and stylish. It’s also the space people tend to update most often, be it for the holidays or simply in response to trends.

Then there are other areas of the home where we see people take more risks. Nurseries are a prime example. We’ll see homes that are entirely traditional, but the nursery will be modern because it’s a space that’s often very much off to the side. It needn’t flow with the rest of the house and it’s usually somewhat of a temporary space.

Outdoor spaces are also ones where people will experiment with colors and designs they would not consider indoors.

Fidelzeid: What are some trends in the home space people should be mindful of in the next six months to a year?

Whitman: While not a new trend, DIY is only becoming more popular. The focus on the process of design and personalization is as high as it has ever been. So much of our content revolves around that. We work with many bloggers around DIY stories.

Another trend that is actually very specific to content creation in the home space is the increasing occurrence of us partnering with numerous shelter magazines, as well as networks such as HGTV, to create boutiques on our website. In those, we essentially take their editorial calendars and repurpose them on the website to bring to life the kind of content they’re delivering in their publications and on their digital channels. We then tie that into the shopping experience.

In terms of style trends, more people are more comfortable with mixing and matching than ever before. The access to so much content, whether on TV, in print, or online, is a huge facilitator in that. 

Fidelzeid: Are there regional differences to what homeowners find most important? Are there some surprising consistencies across the US that are not impacted by region?

Whitman: It’s actually surprising how few trends there are on a regional basis. You certainly see differences on an urban-versus-rural level, but that has always been the case. The willingness to mix and match seems to be there in all regions, which makes sense since everyone is exposed to all the different content we’ve been speaking about.

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