SPOTLIGHT ON BUSINESS MAGAZINE AUGUST 2016
Wicker Emporium captures millennial market with affordable, sustainable home décor and strategic marketing choices
By Charlene Boyce A recent post on a blog for restaurant franchises terms millennials the current tastemakers, and this sentiment is echoed in many industries beyond quick service restaurants. Capturing the attention and loyalty of the millen- nial generation has become the “white whale quest” of many a traditional brand manager. Wicker Emporium’s President, Raj Kapahi, is one Captain Ahab who seems to have figured out the way to catch the whale. Wicker Emporium was founded in 1972 by Raj’s father, Madan, who, as a recent immigrant, noticed an unserved gap in the furniture business for light, affordable wicker and rattan. Madan soon realized that more stores would be more profitable, as it would free him to do his own wholesale purchasing, so he quickly spread out, opening another store the next year in the neighboring city of Dartmouth, and a third soon after in Fredericton.
SPOTLIGHT ON BUSINESS • AUGUST 2016
AUGUST 2016 • SPOTLIGHT ON BUSINESS
Madan developed relationships with furniture manufacturers in Hong Kong and, in 1979, the year after Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s landmark trip to China, Madan followed, devel- oping new relationships. He was soon purchasing from India, Indonesia and the Phillippines as well. “I love retail. It’s always changing. You have to adapt and be flexible – there’s never a dull moment.” In the 80s, one of his mall landlords proposed that he expand his product line beyond wicker and rattan furni- ture to other items of home décor. Mirrors, window treatments, rugs and various other items of com- plementary home décor followed, with furniture remaining the prime offering. The 90s saw a surge of interest in wrought iron furniture, and in the 2000s, Wicker Emporium began sourcing increasingly popular solid wood items, made from exotic varieties like acacia, and reclaimed wood. Many of the wood items come with Forestry Stewardship Certifica-
tion, an environmental accreditation meaning they are guaranteed to not be depleting virgin forest. Currently solid wood furniture accounts for about 70% of Wicker Emporium sales. As the company’s product offerings have evolved to meet market demand, so too has the way the company has done business. Raj notes that one of the challenges of family business is the daily task of keeping business relation- ships and personal relationships separate. The last few years have been ones of change and transition for the company.
“We got through. We have the right management team in place now, and there is lots of harmony.”
Which is good, because the digital revolution that has shaken almost every industry has hit retailing as well. Customers today don’t only seek product and price comparison information online, they can indulge in almost every aspect of a retail experience from the comfort of their own home, with everything from painted room emulators enabling them to test colours, to virtual dressing rooms. Even products as generally tactile as home décor products have been affected.
Far from feeling threatened by these changes, Raj clearly embraces the excitement of an industry that is in flux.
“I love retail. It’s always changing. You have to adapt and be flexible – there’s never a dull moment.”
Throughout the 2000s,Wicker Emporiumfollowed a growth strategy that sawcon- tinued brick-and-mortar store expansions--they now have 23 locations. Adapting for the new environment has meant sharpening their strategy and embracing new marketing channels that didn’t exist when Madan brought his first shipment of wicker chairs and loveseats ashore.
“A large part of our market is really millennials,” says Raj. “They value fashion,
your brand experience then… a more elaborate channel of brand expression.”
affordability and a natural product. They are conscious of environmental choices. For instance, with our solid wood furniture, they want a product that is on trend and a good value, yet, they are concerned about sustainability and being environmentally conscious. Reclaimed wood is big. Live edge furniture, which still features the organic, unique wood feel, is big.” He notes that this environmental emphasis isn’t just a mar- keting tactic, it’s important to the company. “The sustain- ability of our products matters. We are looking at investing in a reforestation program in India and Indonesia to ensure the long term viability of wood products and our climate.” “We got through. We have the right management team in place now, and there is lots of harmony.” He also mentions, “More and more, millennials are grav- itating toward urban environments. Lofts with exposed brick and beam are a hot trend right now, and Wicker Emporium also stocks a number of products with the industrial design aesthetic to work with that look.” This move to urban areas coupled with the millennials tendency to use e-commerce more regularly than other market segments, is fuelling another aspect of Wicker Emporium’s business strategy. “Today we are not so much looking to build more stores. It’s not the growth in square footage that matters now, it’s more predominance in the digital space,” Raj explains. “It doesn’t mean there will be no brick-and- mortar stores in the future. Now it’s repositioning them to align with the demographics in our strategy. I can see a time when our primary sales channel is one store – the virtual. But the physical stores become an extension of
The company launched its e-commerce site, with in-store pick-up, in 2013, and added delivery to its services in late 2014. Raj is animated in describing the potentials of the digital marketing space.
“You’re no longer limited to a store’s area. Anyone can find and buy our products.”
The company has developed a comprehensive digital strategy employing tactics including SEO, affiliate market- ing, social media and remarketing. With no anchoring store presence, the challenge to develop the Wicker Emporium brand in a new geograph- ic area is steep. The internet is a big place, packed with distractions and competitors. Wicker Emporium employs search engine optimization techniques to ensure its market is finding its products at the right time in their awareness and purchase cycle. However, a brand is not built on SEO alone. Raj talks about the benefits of affiliate marketing. “We engage with affiliate websites like BargainMoose, StyleDemocracy and Shop.com. They publish relevant content for our potential customers and mention our brand in blog posts, reviews, things like that. If the mention results in a sale, which we track through analyt- ics, the site gets a commission. It opens a wider customer base for us.”
“We are also wooing celebrity designers, bloggers and columnists to mention or feature our products.”
The company, again in alignment with its strategy of tar- geting millennials, is active on social media like Insta- gram, YouTube and the more traditional Facebook, where
the company has 35,000 fans who provide reviews, engage in contests and enjoy previews of new products. Remarketing uses data from users’ searches to target advertising. Wicker Emporium works with companies to connect with users who are looking for a furniture or home décor. The model is more trackable in terms of success rates than traditional adver- tising, as the remarketing companies do not get paid unless there is a sale, or conversion. Raj understands that ultimately, no one understands millennials better than other millennials. Wicker Emporium has taken part in several innovative initiatives connecting them with students in recent years. They have done design contests with students at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and last year, they took part in a live case competition with the David Sobey Centre for Innovation in Retailing and Services, a retail research centre located at
the Sobey School of Business, Saint Mary’s University.
“The great thing about students is they don’t come with baggage, or precon- ceptions about what didn’t work before. Because of the quickly-changing con- ditions, sometimes a solution that didn’t work five years ago will now. Students come to a problem with fresh eyes and a total openness to possible solution. Sometimes when you recruit really experienced people, even though their judgement is beneficial, their prior experience can be an obstacle – some- times it becomes obsolete.” Raj will soon undertake another project with students via the David Sobey Centre, employing them to help with some market and segmentation research. If the quest for millennial customers is like searching for the fabled Moby Dick, Raj Kapahi is on the right path—with a physical and virtual presence, Wicker Emporium’s line of on-trend sustainable furnishings and décor items are exactly what this elusive market are seeking.
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