Guest Column | April 23, 2018

The Virtual Marketplace Is Changing The Age-Old Rules Of Commerce

By Blake Zalcberg, President of OFM

Blake Zalcberg, President of OFM

There is something almost quaint about the word “marketplace.” It conjures up images of people hawking spices and fruit from busy stalls as pedestrians stroll past in a leisurely manner.

Those days are almost entirely gone.

Today’s consumers typically aren’t at a bazaar. Nor are they headed to a row of small shops on Main Street or driving out to the large suburban mall to window shop. Instead, an ever-increasing amount of the time, they are online.

The numbers are conclusive. A 2016 Pew Center Research Center survey found 79 percent of U.S. adults shop online — and they aren’t necessarily looking at American businesses, either. A 2017 study by comScore found nearly half of avid U.S. shoppers bought items from international retailers.

This is a classic double-edged sword for retailers. On the one hand, the potential number of customers is theoretically unlimited, but, on the other hand, so is the potential number of competitors. The line at the bazaar now stretches around the world.

As president of OFM, a furniture manufacturer and distributor based on North Carolina, I don’t sell directly to consumers, but I work closely with dozens of businesses who do. I’ve seen first-hand how minor differences in how they approach the sale can make a dramatic difference in this hypercompetitive new environment. Following are a few things I’ve learned.

Search optimization is the new advertising.

In the old days, the formula was simple. You designed a great product, then spent money on advertising to get consumers to want it. These days, consumers already know what they want, and they go online to look for it.

If your product isn’t among the top results, they’re simply not going to buy it. Even if your advertising convinces consumers they want your product, they’ll forget all about you if they have to scroll past more than a page of your competitors to get to it.

In these times, if you want to find the answer to a question or a specific website, you go to Google. If you already know you want to purchase something you go to In fact, data shows over 50 percent of consumers start their shopping online on Amazon. In this instance, it is about being relevant to the product terms and long-tail keywords that a consumer might use to try and find a product in your category.

The extras aren’t extra any more. They are expected if you want results.

The biggest hindrance to online sales remains the lack of tangible experience. Think of the marketplace of the past, where a vendor might close the deal by offering to let you feel the high-thread count on the cotton.

Surveys show consumers are most comfortable buying online when the product is already intangible: Movies, books, and music do well. But when it comes to purchases like clothing or even more expensive ones like furniture, they need reassurance.

That’s why our team spends a lot of time building great descriptive content, from 360-degree photography to product/assembly videos, and even lifestyle shots to help the customer visualize the product in their space as well as scale.

And don’t forget to think about the customer’s first impression when they receive the box at their doorstep.

The final factor for the online shopper is shipping. As a manufacturer, the biggest way you can affect the cost is by designing a product that can fit in smaller and flatter boxes.

An increasing number of products are being shipped to homes and, in many cases, this means large 53’ trailers typically relegated to industrial parks are driving down residential streets to drop off home office furniture ordered online. Being able to find ways to meet parcel shipping rules with FedEx, UPS, etc. allow for a smoother and more timely delivery of the product.

There’s also a limit on the other side too. You can fit your product into ever-smaller boxes if you’re willing to ask the consumer to do more of the hard work of putting it together, but if you go too far you’re going to start losing business.

The key, then, is simplicity. Strip your product down to the essentials, while keeping it functional and stylish, and give your customer just a few additional steps to put it together.

The competition is only going to get stronger.

First, manufacturing moved overseas. In many cases, American businesses then sought out those factories to build products for sale domestically.

The biggest asset those companies now have is their knowledge of what Americans buy: the designs, the products, the branding, the marketing and, the distribution. Those are formidable advantages, but they are not insurmountable.

As overseas manufacturers grow, they are going to look next at getting into the other side of the business. They may not get it immediately, but eventually they’ll be competitive with American businesses in selling to your customers.

If you’re running one of those businesses, now is not the time to rest. The competition is only going to get fiercer in the years to come.

About The Author

Blake Zalcberg is president of OFM, a family-run furniture manufacturer and distributor headquartered in North Carolina with distribution centers there and in California, Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Washington state. For more than 20 years OFM has provided affordable and quality furniture through a nationwide dealer network, offering the latest concepts and designs for a variety of markets including home and hospitality, businesses and government, and healthcare and education. Working with manufacturers in Taiwan and China, OFM designs furniture to meet the highest industry standards which are sold through a variety of retailers, mail-order catalogs, and online dealers including Staples, Wayfair, Overstock, and National Business Furniture. To learn more about OFM, visit: