Vancouver Sun: P+A Furniture: Breaking new ground in providing decision-making sales support

June 20th, 2009
Shelley Penner's new shop is located in the 110-year-old Flack Building kitty-corner to Vancouver's Victory Square, "Sustainable," or green, shoppers are her target market. In the Flack Building, of course, her customers will enter an exemplar of the green experience in the city, a building reclaimed and recycled recently by the Salient Group.

Shelley Penner's new shop is located in the 110-year-old Flack Building kitty-corner to Vancouver's Victory Square, "Sustainable," or green, shoppers are her target market. In the Flack Building, of course, her customers will enter an exemplar of the green experience in the city, a building reclaimed and recycled recently by the Salient Group.

Living Green – Breaking new ground in providing decision-making sales support
Shelley Penner says merchants need to provide more in-store information and she is practising what she preaches in her new shop

Vancouver Sun
by Kim Davis
June 13, 2009

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a “savvy shopper” smartphone application: an app that allowed a person considering a purchase to type in a product name and return all the details needed to make a decision reflecting that person’s budget and values – ingredients or materials, durability and longevity assessments, cost comparisons.

While eco-labelling and the Internet are helping to qualify product claims and make product information more readily available, Shelley Penner of Penner & Associates Interior Design feels that merchants need to do more to communicate at point-of-sale.

“Retailers need to respond to the changing expectations of consumers,” she says, “Consumers are not automatons with credit cards, they are much more savvy than a lot of retailers give them credit for, people are thirsty for knowledge.”

When Penner decided to launch her own retail store, she made a calculated decision to provide customers with information that would help them make more thoughtful choices: “buy less, and buy better.”

All the prodults in the p + a furniture location in the Flack Block, at Hastings and Cambie, include descriptive cards that provide not only details such as materials and finishes, but a sustainability scorecard and care instructions to help people understand how they can extend the life of products through responsible cleaning and maintenance.

“It is really important to raise people’s level of understanding about the choices they’re making, it is kind of a subtle thing,” she says describing the store’s product tags, “they are there to give people as much information as they want to take in.”

For example, while many people would be content to learn that a product is made from sustainably harvested wood, let alone FSC certified, it was important to Penner to qualify such statements, “If we’re using FSC certified wood,” she says, “we indicate the chain-of-custody number, and if we’re using a product that is CRI Green Label Plus labelled then we indicate the product number.”

Looking through the p + a furniture catalogue, and hearing from Penner about the store’s website, due to launch later this month, it is obvious that the firm is committed to providing customers with key information in a clear and readily accessible format.
Penner admits, though, that while she is well-known for her sustainable design work, the product labels did not initially include a sustainability scorecard.

In the beginning, she says, they were created to respond to frequently asked questions from customers about product materials, options, and dimensions, which, surprisingly, are often absent from many product tags and cut sheets in the contract segment of the market, let alone the retail market.

“We realized very quickly, though,” she says, “that we needed the scorecard on the labels.”

In addition to putting all this information at customers’ fingertips, as well as providing a readily accessible product binder full of more details, Penner foresees having a laptop computer available for clients wanting to do more research.

Raising the bar on retail communications has not been without its challenges. While access to information has grown dramatically over the past several years, and more and more manufacturers are forthcoming with product details, Penner says it was interesting to see where there were holes in the information.

For example, verifying recycled content continues to be a challenge. While some companies have gone through certification systems and can qualify their products, she says there are also “countless numbers of manufacturers that make claims thatthey can’t actually validate.”

Trying to get consistency across the information being communicated proved quite difficult, she says, There is no doubt that our knowledge around product safety and sustain ability is a complex and constantly evolving process, “It is still a work in progress,” says Penner of the store’s product descriptions. “We are always trying to deepen the information, while at the same time retain its accessibility.”

She says that, while p+a endeavours to be as clear as possible about what a product is and isn’t, “we are very open to criticism and how we may be presenting things.”

“Every element in the store has a sustainability story,” says Penner. However, it would be inappropriate to imply that the scorecards are rigorous, she says.

“We are providing a little tidbit of information, in the total scheme of things, that is a starting point for consumers to do their own research. The tags, cut sheets and scorecards represent tools for creating dialogue with clients through education, outreach, and by responding to customers’ feedback. So far, they have been very well received,” A good sign, believes Penner, for the next evolution of green: becoming mainstream.

Special to the Sun