When COVID-19 had consumers confined to their homes and embracing (albeit forcefully) WFH, furniture sales soared to $1.2 billion, up from roughly $970 million in 2019 — representing a 24% increase in net sales year over year.
Like many furniture retailers, Mobilia saw a massive increase in sales and customer service requests via their online store. But is too much of a good thing a bad thing? To support the surge of digital shoppers following up on their online purchases (when will my standing desk arrive?) Mobilia turned to Heyday’s multi-channel messaging automation platform.
Powered with retail-specific conversational AI, Mobilia automated 83% of the 14,758 customer service requests from shoppers via chat, significantly reducing the strain on their human support team while providing their customers with instant support.
Rather than replace support teams in the midst of a pandemic, AI-chat enabled them to focus on more complex service requests, engage with shoppers via live chat and deliver a standout customer experience.
We sat down with Sophie Ohayon, Mobilia’s Director of Marketing, eCommerce and Merchandising, to learn how her team scaled customer satisfaction in the midst of a pandemic and built a sophisticated omnichannel customer experience that meets shoppers on whatever channel, platform or device they’re using.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
1. Let’s take it back to March 2020. Mobilia has been around for more than 50 years, and I don’t think any merchant could have possibly anticipated COVID-19 or the shift in consumer behavior it acted as a catalyst for. How did Mobilia decide that it was time to ramp up their eCommerce efforts and omnichannel experience?
Our investment into our digital and omnichannel customer experience began well before the pandemic in 2013. We initially wanted to transition our website from what was essentially a digital catalog to a digital commerce ecosystem that included a modern website, inspirational social media content, live customer messaging, and other touchpoints that made it easier for shoppers to get inspired and find furniture that matched their design sensibilities.
When COVID-19 hit, we felt the collective shock that merchants across the retail industry felt. With that said, though, our investments in digital over nearly the past decade put us in a position to weather the initial impact, adapt to the new reality, and capitalize on the tremendous windfall in our vertical.
So, in that sense, our team didn’t need to make a drastic pivot to digital, but it certainly made us happy that we invested in digital well before an external event would have forced us to.
2. Once the team got over the initial shock of pivoting to serving customers almost entirely via digital channels, did any challenges emerge?
What was ultimately the biggest challenge for us at the onset of COVID-19 was simply handling the massive spike in online orders and the demand for virtual customer service. When you’re accustomed to serving a certain number of customers and that number skyrockets 10x, there’s challenges that come with supporting that newfound transactional volume.
There's a big difference between a brick-and-mortar store associate and a virtual store associate. It’s two totally different realities that require different skill sets to have success.
For us, the pandemic highlighted a challenge I think many other merchants encountered: there’s a big difference between a brick-and-mortar store associate and a virtual store associate. It’s two totally different realities that require different skill sets to have success. We trained our store associates and created a channel, so our customers can still effectively communicate with us during the store's closure period.
2. Did you notice a shift in what shoppers have been buying since the beginning of the pandemic? If so, have you adapted your product offering or positioning as a result?
Absolutely! In fact, we noticed two things. First, people bought whatever was in stock. Typically, when you buy furniture, there’s a delay between when you place the order and when you receive it. That delay is usually a few weeks, but can take months depending on the article. So the first thing we saw was a strong demand for whatever was available right now across all product categories.
The other thing we noticed was a shift in the product categories customers were buying and searching for on our website. For instance, our couch sales saw tremendous growth, as did our office furniture category. Mobilia didn’t historically sell a lot of office furniture, but that certainly changed following work from home orders.
We also sold far more dining chairs than previously forecasted. Not everyone has a proper office at home (like many, I’m working from my dining room!). I like to think the interest in dining chairs is because, rather than invest in a proper office chair — which can be unsightly and bulky — people opted to sit in more comfortable dining chairs, which are still practical to have even when WFH measures are lifted.
3. I’m also curious about order fulfillment — there have been countless reports on how merchant supply chains have been affected by lockdowns. How has Mobilia tackled shipping delays?
Our supply chain has been a challenge since the start of the pandemic and to this day. We buy our products from everywhere in the world. Some are built locally in Canada, while others are manufactured in Asia, Europe, India, or elsewhere. This was a key advantage of Mobilia, since our designs were always inspired by aesthetics you typically find in other parts of the world.
It’s important to match customers’ expectations for instant support across every channel they use, and both Heyday’s AI chatbot and multi-channel live chat messaging help us do that.
Each country is being impacted by COVID-19 differently, but when lockdown measures are enforced, typically manufacturers have to halt production, which results in extended shipping delays. Usually a 4-month delay was exclusively for special orders, but now it’s the relative norm across our industry for products that aren't in stock.
That, paired with the demand and waitlists for items, results in consumers waiting longer for their orders to be fulfilled. To a certain extent, those delays are out of our control, but what we do is proactively give shoppers full order transparency on order fulfillment timelines via our virtual assistant, Mia, but we proactively inform shoppers of the expected date of delivery into our product pages.
Our virtual assistant helps us keep an open line of communication with our customers, 24/7. It’s important to match customers’ expectations for instant support across every channel they use, and both Heyday’s AI chatbot and multi-channel live chat messaging help us do that.
4. Furniture is one of those things that customers like to try before buying —
for many shoppers, showrooms and stores were an essential part of the buying journey. How has Mobilia pivoted to give online shoppers confidence in what they buy online?
Consumers definitely view furniture as an investment purchase. They want to be sure that a piece fits their lifestyle and expectations before buying, which is totally understandable considering the price point and how central furniture is to our everyday lives.
With that, shoppers in our space tend to invest a lot of time researching products, taking measurements and envisioning a piece in their home. When our stores shut down, we took several steps to make researching Mobilia furniture easier because, ultimately, the more information you give shoppers, the more confidence they have to buy.
One of our recently launched services is in-store appointment booking. Essentially, any online shopper can book an appointment with a store associate at any of our physical locations. Appointments are limited to assure our store remains safe — and each shopper has a store associate to help them for the duration of their visit. More often than not, shoppers who arrive for their appointment have already done a fair amount of research and know what they’re looking for. It’s our sales associate’s job to build on that and assure they’re buying what’s right for them.
Heyday’s integration with appointment booking software booxi got that service up and running, and it’s been an essential part of our omnichannel customer journey. Nothing can truly replace the benefits of shopping in-store, but we’re finding accessible ways to give shoppers confidence to come in-store and safely get that tactile experience online shopping typically lacks.
For online shoppers who are less comfortable coming in-store, we also launched virtual video consultations, where they can connect with a store associate (during store hours) and get one-to-one service via video chat. They can see how a product looks, get a better understanding of its dimensions, color, and how it will fit into their space. That service has really helped us extend our physical store experience online.
While both of those services were launched as a result of COVID-19, we fully intend on keeping them running post-pandemic. The feedback from shoppers has been great, and it helps us offer a truly omnichannel shopping experience.
6. Buying furniture is such a personal experience, and everyone has their own way of doing things. How did you elevate the experience of finding the perfect piece of furniture, whether it’s a home office desk, lounge chair, or anything in between?
For us, this ties back to our ethos for launching video consultations and in-store appointments. Whether it’s in a virtual or physical environment, we want shoppers to get personalized service from store associates. Someone to help them buy furniture that fits in with their lifestyle, aesthetic, and budget. Even through COVID-19, there are still ways to personalize the shopping experience, it just takes a new approach to commerce, and technology to make it happen.
7. What was the feedback you received from your store associates as they adopted these new tools, channels, and ways of serving customers virtually?
Our store associates embraced virtual shopping, but there was definitely a transition period. After all, in some instances it requires honing new skill sets. For Store associates who are accustomed to physical interactions with customers, communicating via live chat may feel odd at first. What we noticed is that our store associates who were less comfortable writing would suggest a video consultation to their customer.
There’s a big difference between a store associate and a web associate who is completely accustomed to distance selling. What we’re working towards, though, is a fully hybrid workforce capable of transitioning from one channel to another based on their customers’ needs. That’s where the future is.
8. It’s no secret that COVID-19 has forced retailers to rethink the role that their physical stores play in their customer experience. There’s been a lot of press around your new store concept that was launched in Toronto’s Design District. Talk to me about Mobilia’s vision for the in-store experience.
Interestingly enough, we launched our new store concept just a month before the pandemic hit. Talk about timing!
What we hope to achieve with our new store concept is to make our physical stores feel less like a large, overwhelming space and more like an experience. Rather than grouping products by category, we created spaces that present our 4 worlds of style within the room setting — We believe showing furniture in context helps shoppers imagine how items will fit into their homes and their own aesthetic.
Image source: Mobilia
By the time a shopper visits one of our stores, chances are they’ve already done their research online. They aren’t coming to a store to get product information; they can easily get that information online. They’re visiting our stores to compare and contrast products, get inspired and envision how they will fit into their lives. We want our stores to facilitate the modern shopper, feel less transactional and more experiential.
9. Let’s talk about Mia, your virtual assistant. When did Mobilia decide to explore chatbots? How did that impact your support teams or online sales during the busy holiday season?
Around summer 2020 we started exploring implementing a virtual assistant on our online store as part of our omnichannel strategy. Our goal was to have a virtual assistant up and running for Black Friday that year because, as you know, it’s the biggest shopping event of the year. We needed something in place to help us convert more of our website traffic into sales, and also help us handle the spike in returns and customer service requests post-holidays.
And Heyday’s FAQ automation and live chat really helped us achieve that goal. While Mia handled high-volume, repetitive queries — like what our shipping and returns policy was — our human teams gave one-to-one service to customers with more complex questions via live chat.
We resolved over 14,000 queries via chat from November - January 2021, with 83% of those getting resolved entirely by Mia without human intervention. Automation has helped us deliver personalized service at scale.
In hindsight, our timing couldn’t have been better. Just three months after the holiday boom, COVID-19 happened, shoppers went digital-first, and our virtual assistant, Mia, was ready to do some heavy lifting both in terms of creating sales opportunities and lightening our support team’s load.
Mia has really helped us offer 24/7 customer service, and connect shoppers with store associate’s for one-to-one virtual service during store hours. It’s totally changed how we engage with our customers online.
10. When someone shops at Mobilia — whether it’s in-store, online, or a mix of both — what do you want them to walk away thinking?
Increasingly, the lines between shopping in-store and online are blurred. Rather than feel like you’re shopping via a specific channel, we want shopping at Mobilia to feel like a homogenous experience where we meet customers where they are, wherever that may be — chat, online, in-store, in Google Search, on Pinterest, or anywhere in between.
The reality is that shoppers don’t rely on just one channel anymore. They switch between different platforms, channels, and devices based on whatever is most convenient for them. We’re committed to building a customer experience that embraces this reality and matches shoppers’ demand for convenience.
When you shop with Mobilia, we want the entire experience to feel seamless; everything just works and, regardless of the channel you’re shopping on, the customer experience is excellent and all their needs are met.
11. Could you give us a sneak peek into some things your eCommerce team is working on for 2021?
Well, I don’t want to give too much away — but we’re working on a lot of things! We’re working to remove any barriers to purchasing furniture online, whether it’s financing, visualizing how a product will look in your space, or delivering AI-powered product recommendations via our virtual assistant, Mia.
We have a list of projects we’re working on in 2021 that was actually developed in partnership with our customers. What better way to prioritize which projects to tackle first then asking customers for their input? We’re really excited for the future and look forward to launching these projects!