What’s good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander. When Meinrad Fleischmann moved from a clothing company to Pfister, a venerable but somewhat plodding furniture chain, he had to retune his retail thinking. The company needed more than a fresh coat of paint. And the recession was just beginning.
At the customer service desk of the newly opened national branch of Pfister in Villeneuve, the atmosphere is bustling. Clients come by in groups, accompanied by busy-looking staff members, the air is crackling with something resembling excitement, not necessarily what Pfister was known for many years ago. But the company has been changing ever since Meinrad Fleischman took the helm in March 2007. Some people just have the knack to manage change.
Fleischmann, a father of two who lives on Zürichsee, was preceded by his reputation. He has the astuteness to see what needs to be done, the patience and industriousness to work through all the kinks, and the touch of derring-do necessary to be a good leader. All qualities he learned as a child on a farm and later in the rigorous atmosphere of a religious school. It may be at the latter that he developed the self-confidence that supports his notorious willingness to lock horns with executives and other higherups who might be reluctant to adopt new practices or new styles, preferring a single loaf to getting the bakery. Not surprisingly, he is an avid and skilled marathon runner, and a businessman with considerable sangfroid. For many years already, Fleischmann has been striding through the corridors of power at major Swiss clothing enterprises, charging them with modern touches and in some cases shaking them out of doldrums induced by success decades earlier. After taking on Herren Globus, he moved on to ABM department stores, where he ruffled a few feathers before being invited to the moribund Schild fashion firm. There, he joined in a management buyout which ultimately turned the business around and saved it from bankruptcy.
When Pfister CEO Heinz Fankhauser stepped down in September 2006, the company went on a long search for someone willing to devise a strategy for the 21st century, one that would a llow it to carve into the market share of arch-rival IKEA, perk up sales above industry average and freshen up the brand. The board decided to look outside the furniture segment and settled on Fleischmann, who took up his post in March 2007. “The timing was just right,” he says, referring to both the company and himself, or so it seems. He is just a few weeks past his 50th birthday, of slender build and with not a hint of silver. Suffice to say, the transition was a great leap into the unknown at first. “Fashion is all about speed, rapid changing cycles and short shelf lives – all this makes it difficult to invest in quality,” he states. “The furniture industry on the other hand is all about quality and delivering outstanding value to customers, it’s way more challenging.”
Pfister, which was founded by Johann Jakob Pfister in 1882, has survived for over a century mainly on staying at the forefront of solid Swiss middle-class values. The company was stable, but in the past decades threats began appearing on the market not only from rivals like IKEA, with their stunningly easy – some would say monotonous – corporate identity, but also from the fickleness of consumers. When Fleischmann joined the company, it had been drifting for some time already, possibly in search of an identity. Indeed, a modernisation process had begun in the mid-90s that spawned a new, more streamlined logo. The six orangish leaning rectangles gave way to a single, sober, standing one in reddish hue. The word “Möbel” disappeared. The message had become shorter and assumed that everyone in Switzerland knew what the name stood for.
The cover was now changed. It was up to Fleischmann to start rewriting the book. First, however, he had to learn about the business of furniture selling, which requires far more physical space. Fleischmann visited as many branches of the Pfister chain as he could, spoke to employees, discovered what and how the place functioned.
He organised brainstorming sessions and other meetings, essentially running a 400-metre race for once. Pfister had to change the public perception of a slightly old-fashioned company, and Fleischmann knew that there was little time with a consumer base used to fast change. “I realised that we had to keep the machine moving if we wanted to succeed. The branding strategy was losing effect and that was unacceptable. We had to act fast and on multiple fronts,” he says. His task was not made any easier by the recession of 2008, but Swiss consumers did actually maintain a semblance of economic stability even through the toughest months.
A place to stay
One of the flagships in the new flotilla is the store in Villeneuve, the 21st Pfister to open its doors in Switzerland. Like the logo, the floor space has been streamlined to make optimal use of every square inch. Acoustic and olfactory elements enhance the potential client’s experience and serve to differentiate one “world of living” from the other, as do the careful selection of colour schemes. These so-called “islands of inspiration” allow the passers-by to enjoy deeper communion with the products about them. A lot of effort was also put into revamping the whole aspect of service. Panels have been set up indicating clearly the variations of the available models. And well-groomed associates welcome visitors in each section of the store, eagerly offering their assistance. The atmosphere is relaxed, inviting, geared towards making the customer feel entirely at home. “
It’s all part of our customer-driven strategy,” says Fleischmann. “At first we analysed traffic throughout the store and then came up with the concept of guiding visitors through the shop and through what we call motivational settings in order to inspire and inform them.” Unlike IKEA, that has been criticised for being designed as a maddening labyrinth, forcing customers to spend lots of time in a huge, windowless container, Fleischmann says they took the conscious decision to lead visitors through the store to sections they might be interested in, thus reducing “customer confusion” that might arise when you have such large areas. “We decided that inspiring the customer with regards to a dining room or a kitchen has to be the focus of our selling strategy. Offering ideas not only nurtures the client’s imagination but brings it closer to what the Pfister brand stands for: quality, bespoke design, customer service and inspiration”, Fleischman says. And as an afterthought, he adds: “Fashion has manikins, we have inspirational settings.”
In retail, the sales team is a crucial factor in expressing company confidence in its products. Fleischmann has always understood this even in his previous life in the clothing business. When he took over Pfister, he launched a major campaign to instruct the company’s 1,400 employees – only 200 of whom are women – both in customer service and delivery. He himself spent time with employees selling or assembling furniture to get to know more about the company. He found out what best motivates these teams: “Positive customer feedback and satisfaction, customer loyalty and the good mood springing from it.” And although customer criticism is funnelled back to coach sales teams, undercover test buyers are also used to make sure the employees have their act together!
As soon as he took the position with Pfister, Fleischmann also started looking for ways to refresh the brand. Then he met the Zurich-based, internationally acclaimed designer Alfredo Häberli, and engineered a collaboration that was later named “Atelier Pfister”. The idea was to have a collection of “hip, fresh and ingenious furniture designed entirely by Swiss designers”. Häberli would not create anything himself but rather curate the project, choose 13 designers and supervise the production. Fleischman confesses that in the initial, briefing phase, Häberli asked him a surprising question, one that sounded suspiciously like a koan: “How many pillows does it take to feel good?” And like the sound of one hand clapping, there is no real answer. But the results were excellent and ever since 2010, the works from Atelier Pfister have been available in the chain’s stores across Switzerland. They feature amongst other futuristic wardrobes, unusually shaped sofas, lamps of painted aluminium slats, and “intelligent” wooden beds – a courageous attempt to redefine the way the conservative Swiss adorn their homes.
Nowadays, change has become a necessity. Traditional values are all fine and well, but consumers increasingly are seeking the new for new’s sake, sometimes without much in the way of thought. Companies across the board have to adapt and change. Meinrad Fleischmann h as h is work cut out for him. Steering the company through a period of change was one thing, and through the rough and tumble of a recession another. Pfister survived its share of the market apparently intact. In some ways, for Fleischmann, the future begins now, and if the economy remains stable and earnings remain high, it will be bright. That little word “if”…
article by Rodica Miron
Current trends in the furniture sector
- The biggest ten furniture companies have a total market share of about 75%.
- The consolidation process in the retail segment and in furniture production is progressing steadily
- The gap between the two market segments “discount” and “luxury” is widening, the neither/nor middle range segment is clearly shrinking. For both producers and retailers, market profiling has become more crucial than ever.
- Price sensitisation (bargain mentality) in the furniture market can be felt in many ways. On the one hand, companies that generally prioritise price over quality are faced with customers that make the price their sole criterion. On the other hand, those that focus on quality will be increasingly confronted by customers who demand discounts.
- Due to the weak euro, Swiss consumers living close to the border will increasingly shop for furniture in the euro zone.
- Reliability plays a vital role for Swiss consumers and determines their choice of product and location, even when purchasing furniture. People ready to pay more than a “discount” price request high quality and reliability of products and services.
- The interest in online shops and buying at eBay keeps growing. To the furniture industry, the internet offers the chance to promote their brands, whereas retail-outlets focus on the feel-factor of furniture.
- In November 2011, Suissehome, the only national living and ambience trade fair for the general public, will open its doors for the first time. Furniture and the future Swiss furniture companies have good international opportunities if they focus on their traditional strength: innovation, quality, flexibility, reliability and client-oriented service. At home, the Swiss furniture makers are considered the more “practical” partners in the trade thanks to these strengths. In addition to all the other positive factors, geographical proximity has proven to be an important variable when it comes to “customer proximity” and “speed.”
by Kurt Frischknecht, Director of the Association of the Swiss Furniture Industry, möbelschweiz.
Home, Swiss home
- Homes form a countertrend to the fast-paced lives of most people in Switzerland. Their work life is determined by external and ever-changing forces, so their homes must offer a sense of continuity. Furniture is expected to last longer than before.
- The living space is therefore constructed according to the owner’s wishes to reproduce his/her identity. People subconsciously think of their homes as real sanctuaries where they can express themselves without restraints.
- The living-room lost its representative/ diplomatic function. Visitors are mostly friends and family. People therefore decorate their homes according to their very own needs and wishes. They also expect their homes to be a real help in coping with their daily lives. So the spaces such as bathrooms or kitchens demand much more style and taste than before.
- People have an emotional relationship to their homes mainly via small objects: family photos, souvenirs and all sorts of accessories that set off one’s home as unique. People think much more about the small stuff.
- Consequently, the role of big pieces of furniture has changed, too. They are expected to form a neutral frame around the small objects and thereby multifunctionally enable different activities to happen within the space they create. They must last longer and stay with the person during various phases of his or her life and in various homes.
- When desired or necessary changes in the home occur, furniture is expected to be flexible and neutral enough not to be affected. Small objects are expected to indicate, lead and implement the changes. They should make people feel at home in a new flat or differentiate summer from the winter mood.
- Although many people make a point of knowing about matters of style, they do not follow a previously defined fashion or trend. Everyone wants to create their own style. No name should be given to the way that people live.
- Catalogues and furniture stores sell both big furniture and small objects, as well as target both the direct search for a specific item and the Saturday stroll aimed to provide inspiration. The lack of a concrete consumer mission compromises their effectiveness; often the personal relationship to the consumer’s situation is missing.
by Frerk Froböse, The Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute, www.gdi.ch