In Conversation with Sanjay Gupta
What will be the strategy for growth in Urban Ladder in the next two years? Has there been a change?
I think the change began last year when we became, from an e-commerce brand, a consumer brand. When you become a consumer brand, you manage distribution more efficiently. Our designs were available only on our portal but now we are retailing on marketplaces to boost our customer base further. We are now available on other marketplaces, in offline stores and also through shop-in-shop format. In the next two years our offline play will be our significant reason for growth. Our customers will be delighted when we offer them our products in person. The entire idea is that they get the brand experience that they have been getting only online so far. A very strong offline play is going to be our focus in the next two years.
Urban Ladder is known for its strong design and a wide number of products in furniture. How do these aspects help as strategies in the growth of the brand?
Our overall principle is ‘customer first’. In fact, this ‘customer first’ approach is seen through design, brand building, the way we deliver our products and the way we package our products. Let’s take design, for instance and how our ‘customer first’ strategy works. We actually go into the homes of people to get to know them better. It’s not about what they would buy, we actually see how design reflects their personality. We want to genuinely understand our customer and her preferences. How she likes spending time at home, does she binge watch movies while lounging on the sofa but can’t seem to stretch her legs comfortably? What sort of sofa, then, should we design for her? Our L-shaped sofa, which offers our customers multiple angles to settle in, is a result of that. Through our ‘customer first’ strategy, we get a lot of insights and then design our furniture. Our bookcases, for example, are modular in design, simply because book lovers cannot choose books based on the size of book shelves! At Urban Ladder, we spend time with our customers to understand how they live in their homes and basis that we start our furniture designs ground-up.We actually go into the homes of people to get to know them better. It’s not about what they would buy, we actually see how design reflects their personality. We want to genuinely understand our customer and her preferences.
Could you give us an example when this strategy worked?
A customer of ours, for example, got a sofa from Urban Ladder and she got back to us saying that her elderly parents found the cushions of the sofa too soft to sit on. We took the feedback seriously and now, customers have the option of selecting from hard or soft cushioned sofa sets from Urban Ladder. So it is about widening the range and the variety.
The brand's films, including The Itch and Homecoming, resonated well with the audiences. What has been the thought process in the advertising strategy (especially on digital platforms) so it communicates the brand's strength effectively with viewers? How critical is digital media for Urban Ladder?
The good thing about digital is that it makes you a national brand instantly. The second is that when you create a website, you can instantly give access to customers. The state investment required to set up furniture stores is one of the reasons why furniture as a category is not a national brand. It is, therefore, very difficult to have multiple stores in multiple cities and keep multiple inventories to make it successful. So, when you are digitally first, everybody in India knows you. Customers get to know your products well and as a brand you can scale very efficiently. What digital gave us first, therefore, was access. Second was that the same customer experience was delivered no matter where the customer interacted with us. The consistency of our brand experience is the big leverage that digital gave us.
In terms of advertising and communication, most offline brands are restricted by mass media – radio or print advertising. In our case, we do a lot of one-to-one marketing, so our newsletters, our home page, our app, social media platforms, we offer a whole gamut of communication that can interest customers. A customer will feel that the brand is talking my language. It is my kind of brand. Our communication, through our short films online, allows customers to experience and learn about the brand through a channel that they feel is most relevant to them. We have a range of customers because we are able to leverage so many of them through our communication in a manner that is relevant to them.We do a lot of one-to-one marketing, so our newsletters, our home page, our app, social media platforms, we offer a whole gamut of communication that can interest customers.
What was the challenge of selling online?
The biggest challenge we faced selling furniture online was, well, selling furniture online. As a consumer you want to see the furniture, you want to touch it, you want to see how it fits into the house, how it will even look in the house. That was a huge challenge for us. When we started, we thought we would only focus online. So when we made the decision to show offline, it was along the way, after we all agreed it was time to make the change.
When should brands tweak their strategies and / or pull them back?
You learn along the way. When Urban Ladder started, we started by expanding our offerings to more customers by adding other cities. However, we realised it wasn’t an apt strategy for us at that point. We actually rolled back a majority of cities, preferring to concentrate only on select metros. Gradually we added other cities – we scaled but instead of scaling super quick, we moved gradually. Quite surprisingly, online furniture is still a six-city game. Majority of our business, in fact, comes from the top ten cities. Real estate to expand in small cities in India is not easy. Branded furniture stores cannot seep through very easily in tier II and tier III cities. We will, however, witness a change soon in this aspect with some of the international players coming in and branded furniture stores like Urban Ladder going offline more aggressively.
What are the challenges in selling products online? When should companies take the brick and mortar route and bring a change in their respective brands' strategies?
The key is to step back, see, and ask, how you should allow customers to choose your brand. If you are able to articulate that answer, then it becomes easier. I’ll share an example – when we checked with our customers, a majority wanted to touch and feel, especially, big ticket purchases, including sofas, dining tables, beds... We thought, why not have a large, spacious flagship store that will allow people to engage with Urban Ladder in a very deep manner. Though the number of stores for us will be fairly less, we know it is what our customers would want for a great brand experience.
Companies or brands have to think of the customer first and what she wants, the rest will follow. Very often brands confuse business economics with customer thinking and that’s where it all goes wrong. So, a big store in a central place could be more expensive than having, say, three stores in different places where the rentals may be cheaper. But that shouldn’t decide where your stores should open. A brand needs to ask, ‘where, and what, would my customer prefer?’ If the answer is a large format store in a niche location, you should be able to offer the customer that. As long as the experience can get better for your customer, you’ll be assured of good business and good reputation.Companies or brands have to think of the customer first and what she wants, the rest will follow. Very often brands confuse business economics with customer thinking and that’s where it all goes wrong.