Heal’s furniture store is steeped in history. Opening in the 19th century – as a business that brought French-style feather-filled mattresses to the masses – John Harris Heal started what is now one of Britain’s most well-known furniture stores.

Heal’s moved from its original location on Rathbone Street to Tottenham Court Road in 1818, where it still stands more than 200 years later. Against an ever-changing retail backdrop, the famous store is moving with the digital times.

Its ecommerce platform now accounts for just under 40% of turnover, but the retailer plans to grow that further. In its bid to do so, Heal’s customer and ecommerce director David Kohn says product visualisation is the “most important area of development” for the business.

Heal’s is rolling out augmented reality on a limited number of its sofas – a tool that can be used both online and by shopfloor staff on in-store smartphones and tablets. 

The tech enables the retailer to produce a 360-degree image of a sofa in the customer’s chosen fabric and colour, down to what Kohn describes as “an incredible degree of magnification”.

Shoppers can also take a picture of the room they’re decorating, upload it to the site and pick a colour scheme. The augmented reality functionality will strip out the original colours, replace them and suggest other items that shoppers could purchase to complement the new-look room.

Using these new digital technologies, Kohn and his team aim to “present the customer with the most appropriate experience”, whether they are shopping online or in-store.

David Kohn Profile Picture (002)

Heal’s customer and ecommerce director David Kohn.

Behavioural marketing

The retailer has also been working on what Kohn hails as a “Rolls-Royce solution” to capturing and identifying customers that use its website.

“With a business like ours, the purchase cycle is long,” Kohn explains. “If you’re going to buy an item of furniture you’re on a journey and that might include visiting the website, phone calls, visiting stores.”

Kohn admits Heal’s online conversion is very low. He says more than 99% of visitors to its website leave without making a purchase, because “people don’t just turn up and say: ‘Ooh there’s a £5,000 sofa, I’ll buy it’”.

One of the main challenges the luxury furniture retailer faced was differentiating between customers who were just browsing the website and those who visited with an intention to buy.

Heal’s has drafted in behavioural marketing tech company BounceX to help it identify the shoppers who want to make a purchase and, more importantly, encourage and incentivise those customers to buy.

“If we know who you are, that gives us a much better chance to market to you,” Kohn suggests.

“If we’ve identified who you are and seen what you were looking at, we can send you a message 24 hours later asking if you’re still interested in those items.”

The technology enables the homewares retailer to “propel” the customer into the next step of their buying journey. This can come in the form of a personalised offer, an image reminding people of the items they had in their basket, or a message promoting free delivery to try and tempt the customer back. 

Since implementing such initiatives a year ago, the number of visitors Heal’s is able to accurately identify has increased fourfold. Some 53% more shoppers are entering their email addresses through pop-up windows to sign up for accounts with the retailer; 9.1% of its ecommerce revenues now come as a direct result of BounceX trigger emails. 

Actual intelligence

At a time when a number of retailers are utilising artificial intelligence to operate chatbots on their websites, Heal’s says it is “inverting the AI model” by using “actual intelligence” instead.

As customer queries come in through Heals.com, the retailer’s store staff answer questions in real-time using Hero – an app similar to the messaging service WhatsApp, which connects the shopper to their nearest store in less than 10 seconds. 

Heals staircase

The Heal’s store on Tottenham Court Road is over 200 years old

Since implementing Hero in 2017, customers using the app have purchased products 14-times quicker than those who shop online without utilising the service. Average order values are also boosted by 57% among shoppers who speak to staff through Hero.

“Our in-store staff are not always that busy, so they have the app on their phone and when there’s a customer online who’s got a question about a sofa, they can be connected with someone in the sofa department who will say: ‘I’m free’,” Kohn explains.

“The [staff member] can go around the store and take a photograph of something and if they ask ‘have you got any cushions that go with it?’ the team member can find some cushions, put them on the sofa and say: ‘What do you think of these?’

“They can even take a video and send it in real-time to the customer.”

As Heal’s attempts to bring “the shop floor to the tech, rather than tech to the shop floor”, Kohn says he isn’t “dismissing the field of AI completely” as the business continues to evolve in the digital age. 

But Heal’s offers an example of how to blend the best of technology and a human touch to enhance the shopping experience.