Ergo Depot originally sold its lines of ergonomic furniture exclusively via an e-commerce platform. The challenge was optimizing sales of high-end products that customers fully appreciate only by physically experiencing them.
"People should be able to sit in furniture that encourages them to move and be efficient. And you know what? That kind of chair or that kind of desk is different from person to person," says founder and president David Kahl. "We can put videos up on YouTube, or we can explain to someone over the phone how a chair works and how it feels to be in the chair, but there's nothing like the customer coming in, feeling it for themselves, and sitting in it."
The solution? The company turned its Portland, Oregon offices into a working showroom. Employees set up their own workstations in an open space that encourages collaboration and allows customers to see the furniture in action. The space includes six spare desks where customers can work--Ergo Depot supplies WiFi access--and see which products best suit their bodies and work styles.
More than just a display space; a hangout
"We invite people to come in with their laptops and just hang out for a few hours," Kahl says. "I wanted to have the ability to really touch people's lives in a way that made it better after they had their experience with us. I feel like we've done it, and I’m really proud of what we're doing."
When the company was ready to expand, it introduced the same approach in the Bay Area, home to a large concentration of its sales. Four customer service and marketing employees now work in an office-showroom that opened last summer in San Francisco's Design District. The concept has resonated so strongly that Ergo Depot adopted a policy of shipping its products to customers nationwide for a 30-day trial; if they decide not to buy, they're responsible only for shipping costs. It's a risk that's paid off: Kahl projects sales of $8 million in 2014, up from $5.4 million in 2013.
The company's innovation represents more than an alternative take on the virtual versus bricks-and-mortar debate. It demonstrates best practice in developing a showcase for products and services that allows companies to connect more meaningfully--and more profitably--with customers and one another.
That supports the collaborative nature that Kahl wants in the workplace. "I don't make any important decisions without talking to at least two or three other people. There's nothing big that happens at our company unless everybody hears what's happening first," he says. "That dynamic is part of the art of building a company and encourages us to push the boundaries a little bit."
By being open to unconventional thinking about sales, presentation, and the human connections that bring them all together, Kahl and his team have unlocked Ergo Depot's potential to optimize productivity, profitability, and customer relationships.