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Product Design in an Industry Sea Change: 5 Steps to Charting a Course for Success

I recently had the privilege of speaking at a national sales meeting on product development, at a furniture trade show where many manufacturers and suppliers were launching new collections for the 2019/20 retail season. It was already a ‘warm’ audience – many people in the room have been colleagues and friends for more than 20 years – but what was special about this crowd is that they made up a group of both corporate and independent sales professionals who intrinsically understand the vital importance of strategic product planning and design, not only when times are good, but particularly during seasons of market turmoil.

Whether we like it or not (and whether we say it out loud or not!), the Casual Furniture industry is going through a forced season of change and adaptation, thanks in large part to a trade dispute resulting in steep import tariffs. As we roll into a new buying season, there is a tangible atmosphere of caution as buyers and business owners examine what they will choose to showcase in their stores for the 2020 retail season.

Although we hear about how a sizeable amount of business will drift towards manufacturers whose products aren’t subject to tariffs – and of course, that’s true - there is also a heightened attention among retail buyers to a product’s design and its retail saleability, regardless of where the product is made. Although the current tariffs are bringing everything to a head sooner than we would have expected, a number of factors (category oversaturation, increased competition from online B2C suppliers and resellers, raised environmental and social awareness, and more) are converging at this moment in time to make it a season of survival of the fittest… and strategic product planning can make the difference in not only weathering a prolonged storm, but in emerging in a position of strength.

It’s really worth the investment to bring on a product designer with demonstrable experience designing products that sell through at retail. This is an investment that will pay rich dividends, especially in the current climate. However, if your team doesn't currently have a dedicated product designer, but you'd like to start building a stronger strategy in product development, I’d like to offer some practical suggestions to help up your design game:

1. Ask your team these questions:

a. In the eyes of our customers, what is our brand identity?

b. Why do we think our customers choose to do business with us?

c. What are our core strengths in manufacturing?

d. What 4-5 collections have sold in and sold through over the last 48 months? What do these collections have in common?

e. What collections have died at retail over the last 48 months? Is there an identifiable trend among them? Do they align with our core identity?

2. Design to your strengths, both in manufacturing and in brand identity. Is your brand known for rich, traditional stylings? Have contemporary designs died for you? Then return to what you know, and innovate within a smaller sphere until you feel you’re gaining traction again.

3. Solicit negative feedback. Get with your most trusted accounts, and be prepared to hear the truth about what you can do better. Sometimes we just don’t know what we don’t know, and we all have blind spots. Hearing from a client about what is and isn’t working is invariably helpful.

4. Go out on a limb and engage a product designer for a year. This is a small industry, and people talk; you’ll be able to find an excellent design professional sooner and more easily than you think. But if this is simply beyond the budget on a long-term basis, then bring in a reputable designer for intensive consulting at the beginning of your development year to jumpstart your product planning. I cannot overstate how beneficial this is to a company’s long-term sales growth.

5. Put a product plan together, and stick to it. Unfortunately, too often product development is treated like an afterthought, as management teams get consumed with putting out fires in sales, customer service and manufacturing throughout the year. Even if it’s only one new collection, put a pen to paper and identify your strategy for the group; figure out who is going to design it; and get prototyping and team reviews into your calendar. The year whizzes away in the blink of an eye, and successful launches follow successful planning.

I spoke with an industry CEO today who told me that their July was off the charts for special orders. In spite of the tariffs, in spite of a cold spring, and in spite of the 101 things one could blame for market uncertainties, retail shoppers are still out in force, and they are looking for attractive, innovative and well-made products for their outdoor spaces. Let’s make some beautiful furniture, and give them a comfortable place to rest and connect in the summers ahead.

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