Rethinking Product Sampling

What do eyeglasses and textiles have in common?

Online designer eyewear boutique Warby Parker has been getting lots of press lately, thanks mostly to their stylish frames. What we're even more excited about, however, is their rebellious business model.

Warby Parker has created a digital-to-physical sampling process where an entirely physical system had been the conventional wisdom. Other sites like Ditto and Lookmatic followed in the wake of Warby’s success, and today evaluating and purchasing eyewear online have become common practice.

If it can work for prescription eyeglasses, can it work for contract textiles?

A&D Libraries

A&D libraries are busy work areas

We've spoken about this possibility to the vast majority of providers in this space (upholstery, wall covering, and carpet), and are pretty certain most of them think we're crazy.

A few months ago, while explaining to me why our idea may be flawed, a VP from one of the industry’s most widely recognized upholstery brands cited a survey funded by the Association for Contract Textiles (ACT) and conducted by Interior Design. The intent of the survey was to explore how ready designers were to move away from physical samples. We haven’t seen the questions, but can only imagine… “Would your specification of a given textile company’s products decline if that company eliminated their physical samples?” Or, “On a scale from 1-10, how important are physical samples as a part of your specification process?”

Innovators from Henry Ford to Steve Jobs famously scoffed at this type of consumer research. As Ford is purported to have said of his Model T, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

A better question to pose to interior designers would have been, “If a system was created that allowed you to efficiently and accurately evaluate samples, continue to work in a timely, collaborative manner, and communicate your vision to your clients, how happy would you be?”

Framed this way, we'd find a lot more support for rethinking the textile sampling process. For this reason, we're convinced that at some time in the near future, the textile sampling process is going to make a fundamental shift from a mostly physical system to mostly digital system.

Shelf Presence Matters in A&D Libraries

Shelf presence matters

Not entirely, but definitely mostly.

A few industry players seem to sense this and consequently have begun experimenting. Designtex recently eliminated physical samples from their binders in favor of printed samples. Tandus has begun using gray scale imagery in conjunction with QR codes for color evaluation. Guilford of Maine’s new website offers significantly higher resolution digital swatches. Interface has begun offering SIMs (or simulated carpet tiles that are actually printed) in place of physical samples on select products.

These initiatives are all commendable. However, none of them seem to be taking hold. Across the A&D landscape, resource libraries are shrinking, but the space allocation for textiles is actually growing. We’ve even heard rumors of one of the biggest brands talking about eliminating the use of the traditional binders (also expensive to produce) and replacing them with a full set of memo samples. Imagine what the size of the resource library would need to be if every provider made a similar decision!

Can textile sampling be different? Should the industry keep experimenting?

Here are six oversights with these and other attempts to rethink the textile sampling process that have been made to date:

  1. Textile evaluation is a process, not an event. Only portions of this process are appropriate for digital evaluation. Focus on these portions and provide support with the entire process in mind.
  2. Transition points are important. Ideas are developed, put aside, and then picked back up a later date. Work is transitioned from designer to designer. Work is done in the resource library, at the designer’s desk, at home in the evening. The textile evaluation (and sampling) process has to support this reality.
  3. Relationships with reps matter. It’s no secret that reps use the opportunity to deliver samples and update resource libraries as a vehicle for finding sales opportunities. If sample volumes reduce without consideration to how reps are kept in the loop, the system will fail.
  4. Location matters. Much of the evaluation process happens in the resource library. If digital evaluation is going to take hold, it needs to be made accessible at the point where the work is occurring.
  5. Start small, learn, and expand. The technology world uses the idea of soft launches all the time. It’s a great way to learn from the actual behavior of a small number of core users who become actual participants in the system design. It's likely that each rep could find 2-3 loyal customers who would be willing to participate in such an experiment.
  6. Stop making the argument that the effort is based on sustainability. Maybe the idea is more sustainable, but the reason for doing it should be to provide better service for designers/specifiers.

So what does this mean at a brand level?

Brands are about meaning and differentiation. Breadth of line, aesthetics, iconic designers, sustainability, performance, price, and the ability to customize each provides a point of differentiation for one or more brands in the contract textiles categories (upholstery, wall covering, and carpet). But what about ease of specification? It seems that specification process support could provide an important point of differentiation, just as it has done for Warby Parker. In this industry, however, no one has truly focused on it… at least not yet.