Communicate Through The Fog

Steelyard survey finds uncertain times drive need for greater transparency

If there is one word that summarizes how designers feel about their business given the state of the world in 2020, it is uncertain. But the design industry is full of resilient, creative people who insist on succeeding no matter what. And that resilience is evident in the results of the recent Steelyard survey: “Impact of COVID and How We Do Business Going Forward”.

In creating the survey, Steelyard did not want to assume anything about how design professionals were operating during lockdown. When crafting their questions they chose not to speculate about how designers would handle business afterward. Open-ended questions allowed respondents to speak for themselves.

This approach worked well. Seventy percent of respondents claimed that just half or less of their business shifted online during the height of the pandemic. For these designers, half or more of their business continued to operate as it did before, and they longed for in-person experiences like High Point Market.

No matter if it was 10% or 100% of their business that shifted to being done digitally, designers said they need more tools from vendors to do business together successfully. Here also, the open-ended approach paid dividends, as some of the needs cited as most critical were somewhat surprising.

It’s hard to buy what you can’t hold

For many manufacturers, managing samples is tedious and time consuming. But using a scale of 1-10 to rate what they need most from manufacturers in a digital environment, 70% of respondents rated “Finish/Color/Fabric Samples” as a 10. And the average score for this answer was 9.2.

Some of the comments designers shared stressed this even more. Said one designer, “Physical samples for finishes, fabrics, etc. will always be important to us regardless of how much we do online.” And another, “If we must shop online or by catalog, we need samples to touch and feel and romance to our client.”

But availability and speed were not all that mattered with samples. Many designers talked about the need to have two sets of samples available. “We are now having to order two of every sample for virtual presentations,” said one designer. And another added this, “[I need] one to come to me and one to the client/job site in one transaction. This allows for social distancing or, in my case, samples to another state while I remain in NY.”

Another surprising result from the survey was that virtual appointments with sales reps was ranked as the least important tool in the list. With an average rating of 6.0, only 16% of respondents rated this a 10. While some manufacturers are finding virtual appointments to be successful, survey respondents pointed to several other things that are filling the void to keep business moving forward.

And with 54% of respondents telling Steelyard they will continue to do more of their product research and sourcing online after restrictions are lifted, companies that respond to the need for better access to physical samples could gain enough of a competitive advantage to offset the cost of even a difficult implementation.

For instance, one designer brought up a very unique idea that could be a real challenge to produce. She said, “I would love to see someone offer a sit kit...[something] you could set out with tied springs that you could put different cushions on. Something compact that you could ship to clients or drop off for them to experiment with, or even have in our office for clients to try. We have no showrooms within an hour and a half from where we are located, so clients having a concept of the feel of upholstery is often an issue.”

This would be a radical change for most makers. However, the challenge of communicating depth, arm height, and feel digitally, or at least outside of a showroom, was something that came up often in the results.

When shipping, touch the product less, communicate more

Another topic that came up multiple times was shipping. First, offering varied shipping options and capabilities that address social distancing averaged a 7.3 on the sliding scale. One designer said she needs “...more drop ship/white glove shipping options. I tend to have an older clientele, and right now they are quite concerned about the virus. The less hands on an item (not going through the receiving warehouse/delivery), the more comfortable they feel.”

As for another side of shipping, respondents noted that transparency is key, especially during these uncertain times. One designer stressed the need for “honesty about supply chain disruptions and lead times.” Another said, “Let us know when ship dates change rather than making us call and ask about it. Hopefully, that can be automated.”

Did we mention communicate more?

The idea of transparency and communication extended to other areas as well. “Do not be silent”, said one designer who had 50% of her business shift online. “If there is a shift of reps due to COVID… let us know. We are still placing orders and there are lots of issues with back orders, what percentage of the company is working, what to expect with delays. We are still designing and servicing our clients and it can be frustrating with delays especially when companies are not letting us know.”

And one final intriguing idea was the desire for product reviews from other designers, such as the ones provided by High Point Market’s Style Spotters. These types of testimonials help to guide designers through their product selection process.

While there is still a lot of uncertainty for both designers and manufacturers, it is clear there is still a huge value to being together and experiencing products in person. Many of the respondents commented about their excitement for October Market. The digital environment has been, and will continue to be, important, but sometimes there is nothing like sitting on a sofa in a showroom with a glass of champagne to know it is exactly what belongs in your client’s living room!

About Steelyard

Developed to simplify the way designers source, Steelyard puts a panoply of furnishings resources at its members’ fingertips. One password-protected login provides access to trade pricing and the ability to send and track direct inquiries to the vendor with one click. As all Steelyard members are vetted professional architects or designers, suppliers respond quickly, confident that they are dealing with a qualified lead.