To visit Ireland in 2022 is to see the world turned upside down.
For so long a sort of red-headed stepchild to the rest of Europe — and I say this as a person proudly of Irish heritage — Ireland is now, in so many ways, leading the way. (I also say this because the stereotype of the Irish having red hair is wildly inaccurate.)
The United Kingdom Brexited; Ireland did not, so it is Ireland that has continued to benefit from membership in the European Union throughout Covid-19 in ways I’m sure most Brits wish they could have. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade; Ireland has largely unshackled its social policies from the Catholic Church to allow a progressivism unthinkable even a decade ago. And I could write an entire column on what recycling and environmental consciousness looks like here relative to the disposable culture that abounds back in the United States.
Ireland might be leading in home furnishings, as well.
EZ Living Furniture, a 16-store chain headquartered in Galway in the west of Ireland, is embracing leading-edge technology, particularly as it relates to customer touches, to better accommodate the ways in which the post-Covid era customer wants to shop and buy.
I visited the flagship store to see how the company is integrating its online presence, new augmented reality, interior design expertise and real-world store experience.
Augment your reality
The EZ Living website and app have all of the bells and whistles that leading hybrid retailers have these days, including live chat, a blog and multiple ways to subscribe to alerts and sale information.
The newest tech in the EZ Living arsenal is what is called “augmented reality,” a term I despise on semantic grounds, but that has caught on despite my protestations. (Reality can’t be “augmented” by anything virtual, which is a synonym for “unreal” or “simulated.” They are contradictions, making the term Orwellian doublespeak in much the same way “virtual reality” has always been utter nonsense as a term.)
I will explore in a future column how the metaverse and blockchain technology are coming to furniture retailing, but for now, a peek at how EZ Living is embracing the technology might make for a good introduction.
In its most basic terms, augmented reality delivered exclusively via EZ Living’s app enables consumers to combine photos of the interior of their homes, then to insert or place furniture and accessories from the EZ Living lineup into those images. Rather than using generic room shots or pre-fab backgrounds, EZ Living’s AR provides a preview of how a purchase might look specifically in the home of the customer.
The software, developed by Poland-based Intiaro, makes the integration of the images appear to be seamless, as if they were a single image all along.
Amazon rolled out its AR tool, Room Decorator, in August 2020. Like Amazon’s tool, EZ Living’s AR can place multiple products in a consumer’s room at the same time so customers can see how a set of new products might fit together in a space.
We know that online shoppers need confidence to make big-ticket purchases, and we know that AR can provide that confidence. It has been proven to increase customer conversion rates.
Consumers using its technology are two to four times more likely to make a purchase, according to Plop founder Allen Wixted, speaking with the Sunday Times of London in July.
Also new this summer on the EZ Living app is live video chat, a seeming inevitable addition after all the staying at home we’re doing since the pandemic began. Video chat is likely here to stay at retail, as well.
According to EZ Living, its live video chat, powered by Go Instore, works on any device. Chats with a sales associate can be spontaneous or by appointment. Once connected, a customer be taken anywhere in the store. For a country that had a 2-square-kilometer restriction on movement during the early days of Covid-19, this new feature likely will prove popular. The Irish have learned to do most things from home.
It’s also notable that while the customer can see the sales associate and anything at which the associate points the video camera, the associate cannot see the customer. Privacy is proactively protected in Europe. (Each and every website, including EZ Living’s, asks site visitors what sort of privacy settings they prefer.)
These video chat conversations can result in an immediate sale: Customers can order right then and there, with delivery scheduled on the spot. Or they can complete the transaction later online or in-store.
The live video chat is also a natural outgrowth of the pandemic-inspired practice of booking one-on-one appointments. “We were aware that some customers might be nervous about shopping with other people, so we had set aside time in the mornings and evenings when a customer could book a private shopping slot,” Liam Dilleen, one of EZ Living’s directors, told the Irish Herald newspaper.
Irish success story
The Dilleen family started EZ Living In Galway, Ireland’s third-largest city, in 1998. Since then, the chain has grown to 16 locations throughout Ireland and Northern Ireland. The family has more control over its financial future by also owning some of the shopping centers that its stores anchor, including the Terryland Shopping Centre in Galway.
Employing more than 300 people, according to the Galway Advertiser newspaper, it is the largest furniture retailer in Ireland. Privately held, with fragmentary financials only as recent as 2014, I couldn’t confirm that it is the largest, but judging by newspaper advertising pages, EZ Living is a major player. Interestingly, chain does not use manufacturer or factory names in its marketing and merchandising but sources product from all over, including China, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam.
EZ Living Furniture, not to be confused with EZ Living Interiors, also an Irish furniture retail chain, added its newest store last year in Derry, just across the border with Northern Ireland. According to the company, the “last mile” of delivery into the home is an emphasis coming out of Covid, and I saw EZ Living trucks all over Galway at a frequency akin to Ashley 18-wheelers in the United States.
Brian Carroll covered the international home furnishings industry for 15 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He chairs the Department of Communication at Berry College in northwest Georgia, where he has been a professor since 2003.