Pirch’s 'try before you buy' customer experience gets a lift from technology

This article was published in the October 2016 issue of STORES Magazine.

Walking into the Pirch flagship store in New York’s SoHo neighborhood is a feast for the eyes and a playground for those immersed in home renovations. Designed to “ignite inspiration and fuel discovery,” more than 30 interactive kitchen and bath displays are spread over the three-level, 32,000-square-foot showroom; guests are invited to try out various cooktops, faucets, ovens and showerheads.

The concept for Pirch, a San Diego-based luxury home appliance retailer founded in 2010 by Jeffery R. Sears and Jim Stuart, began with “What if?” What if they could break the mold in the home and appliance industry? What if customers could actually try before they buy? What if the word “joy” could be spoken in the same sentence as “renovation?”

 

For Craig Hills, Pirch’s director of digital operations, the challenge centered around finding a way to make technology personal and useful in a way that enhances — rather than detracts from — the ultimate consumer shopping experience. Specifically, Hills wanted to marry the best of the retailer’s one-to-one customer interactions with the need for digital clarity.

“The interactions inside a Pirch store don’t necessarily involve a digital component,” he says. “There’s tremendous value in getting a guest a cup of coffee, talking with them about their dream kitchen and giving them the opportunity to explore the vignettes — opening cabinets, turning on faucets and comparing and contrasting slabs of stone and marble.”

What Pirch needed was “a way to digitize this interaction — keep track of the products guests loved, create orders, provide quotes and write invoices — without ever leaving the guests’ side. It really came down to joining the analog interactions with the digital components needed to run the business.”

Pirch found a solution in Microsoft Surface technology. Employees use the tablet computers to manage guest interactions as well as day-to-day business functions. The system brings technology to the forefront in a way that feels natural at Pirch and allows the retailer to keep its focus on the customer.

Partners in process

As with most tech transformations, Pirch went through some growing pains before arriving at its decision. The relationship between Pirch and Microsoft dates to 2011, shortly after the retailer opened its first store in Orange County, Calif., which operated on a Microsoft server. Hills says the path to Surface began when Pirch switched from its first pass at customer relationship management software.

“We had a business operating system that we weren’t happy with,” he says, “so we decided to jump with both feet into the Microsoft (server), adding (customer relationship management software). Initially we felt it provided process for the pipeline — we had leads, proposals, quotes, orders, invoices and fulfillment. We thought we were good to go. But what we started to find was that the interaction that was taking place — the face-to-face with the customer — wasn’t particularly friendly.”

While the solution provided necessary tools, it didn’t sync with the way the business was evolving and the emphasis that was being placed on experiential retail. “We quickly started to come up against the walls and the boundaries of a traditional, quasi order entry system,” Hills says, “and began looking for ways to improve it for our unique needs.”

A substantial amount of time was spent documenting what was and wasn’t working based on Pirch’s unique needs. Hills dabbled in makeshift projects with a couple of industrial design companies — and even considered a few homegrown iterations. The company seemed to be getting closer to the vision, but in every instance something just wasn’t right.

Eventually Hills realized that a system that would work with mobile devices, allow touch-screen use and work on any platform was imperative. He also recognized the need for a system that allowed users to be cross-functional in terms of customer interactions. “Most businesses would define a transaction with the customer by where it begins and ends,” Hills says. “For Pirch, it’s different. There’s a line that needs to be traversed."

“It was important for our guests to leave with something they could share socially.”

Craig Hills
Pirch

“We knew it was important for our guests to leave the store with some type of proposal or at the very least a document that collated their product ideas — something they could share socially.” Among the most pivotal outcomes was the resolution that the technology needed to be device-agnostic — in large part because sharing with customers is so imperative.

Pirch advisor

Microsoft debuted the first Surface around the same time. “I bought 20 of them and I went into a senior leadership meeting and handed them out like candy,” Hills says. “A year later 60 percent of the people were still using them and they were upgrading to the Surface 2 and then 3.”

Sears, who is Pirch’s CEO, made a connection with Microsoft’s retail team, and it didn’t take long to determine that that the Surface device and technology was the ideal way to create a seamless, personalized customer experience. “The Surface just nailed it,” Hills says. “It allowed us to consolidate multiple functions onto one device and to be able to have a tablet that is agnostic, HTML, touch-enabled — the list goes on.”

Pirch’s employees can access product information and customer preferences on the company’s platform without having to leave a customer’s side.

The Surface’s full PC power, mobile design and pen and touch capabilities help Pirch’s employees access product information and customer preferences on the company’s platform, called Pirch Advisor, without having to leave a customer’s side.

“We built Pirch Advisor with Microsoft Azure as an end-to-end platform for our business,” Hills says, noting that the platform utilizes Microsoft Office 365. Employees “can do everything from create a customer’s perfect kitchen to manage inventory and budgets.”

Empowered employees

Jill Larson, marketing director for Microsoft Devices, says that Hills’ goal of transforming the Pirch business with Surface devices to engage customers in new and different ways is a theme that’s taking root in retail. “Companies are looking to drive operational efficiencies and empower their employees,” she says. “Using Surface technology at Pirch provides that efficiency for the (employees) and it helps the customer to visualize what the items they’re looking at [in the store] might look like in their home.”

Ryan Day, Microsoft's senior communications manager for Surface, believes Pirch’s approach to work is indicative of the next-generation workplace. “Workplaces of the future will be far more mobile,” he says. “People will be working from meeting to meeting, and from workspace to workspace. We’ve seen the workplace evolve from cubicle spaces to office spaces to today’s open plans. Devices like Surface enable that mobility and digital transformation.”

For Hills it was never about being on the cutting edge of a new workplace trend — it was about getting the right system for Pirch.

“The Surface is a digital device that compliments the analog experience taking place between guests and (employees),” he says. “For us, the power of technology is not necessarily about bells and whistles. It’s about having a powerful back-end software solution delivered in a sleek, elegant package — under the surface.”