From Office Furniture to Futons

During the past 30 years, Milwaukee-based National Business Furniture has sold furniture exclusively to midsize businesses, schools, and churches. Now the $110 million cataloger is reaching out to consumers as well, via its Furniture Online Website.

National Business Furniture mails three business-to-business titles: the eponymous flagship catalog; Alfax Furniture, which sells to schools and universities; and church furniture title Dallas Midwest. Each catalog has an accompanying URL. The company acquired the Furniture Online URL in June 2001 when it bought and has spent two years tinkering with the business.

Furniture Online carries about 4,000 SKUs, including entertainment centers, bedroom furniture, and futons. Finding products for the consumer segment wasn’t a problem, says founder/president/CEO George Mosher. Because of the company’s volume, National Business Furniture already had relationships with about 150 furniture manufacturers. The cataloger approached some of its key vendors at trade shows about buying consumer furniture from them.

What did present a challenge is National Business Furniture’s lack of a distribution center.The company relies on its suppliers to drop-ship the merchandise to business users. So potential Furniture Online vendors had to be willing and able to drop-ship products to consumers, Mosher says. Happily for Mosher, most vendors weren’t put off by the idea of fulfilling consumer orders.

Targeting consumers online

National Business Furniture currently has no plans to market Furniture Online with a catalog. To drive traffic to the site, this past January the marketer ratcheted up its search engine efforts on Yahoo! and Google. It also stepped up its training of customer service representatives to teach them how to deal with consumers, Mosher says.

“We’ve applied to the consumer business what we’ve always done with business furniture,” Mosher says regarding the company’s emphasis on customer service. “Consumers have a more of an emotional attachment when buying compared with business customers, and it has to do with more than money. Buying furniture online is not something that everyone likes to do, and we know the customers will have questions.” While some Web marketers try to avoid calls from customers, “we encourage consumers to call us,” Mosher says.

So far National Business Furniture’s consumer business is performing “very nicely,” Mosher says, though he declines to give exact numbers. “We are very happy with it.”

He’s also happy to finally be doing something constructive with the Website. “We had the traffic and people were coming onto, and we felt that it was a waste not to market it properly,” Mosher says.